A student asked me the question last week. I gave a brief answer: “Reading’s a skill. There are ways of measuring any skill.”
The student wasn’t satisfied with this answer, so we had a long discussion about it in office hours. People should be allowed to read as they see fit, the student insisted. This defensive position always fascinates me. No one is keeping anyone from reading or not reading. Where’s the tyrant out there telling us to understand things one way but not another, or to have one brand of fun one way all the time?
Philosophy aside, what do we measure when we measure reading skills? And what do the skills we measure have to do with what writers like myself want, which is for more people to enjoy reading, to allow it to provoke them, to change their point of view? Aren’t we dumping shit on someone’s brain when we tell them, “If you become a better reader, you’ll get more out of reading.” Leave me alone, they’ll say; I’ve got one life to live.
I loathe reading tests, standardized or otherwise, although I’ll admit having both used and devised them. Generally, I think we teachers do our students the best service when we teach one thing when it comes to reading:
There are so many ways to approach a text, but for purposes of clarity, let’s divide them into two basic methods. The first approaches a text expecting it to be and do something. The second approaches a text to investigate what it’s doing and how. The second method will leave a reader open to a wider variety of texts; the reader will learn much more from them, no matter what they are, and practice flexing the mind. The first approach leaves a reader disappointed most of the time.
I’ll note that these methods, which are really states of mind, extend to much more than reading. If you go to a beach expecting sand and sun, you’ll be disappointed when you find rocks and wind. But if you go to the beach to see what it’s like, you’ll see the rocks and feel the wind. That’s to say, we don’t allow ourselves to experience what we dismiss. So often, we’re the tyrant in the way of our experience, but we’ll blame the beach for being rocky, or the person who hung a sign at the top of the pathway: “Beach, this way.”