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Reading With Purpose This School Year

by Spencer Salas |

Hello again from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! In July, I kicked off this teaching reading blog with some thoughts about the categories of “reading” and “literacy” and why they matter for a new school year. For this month’s entry, I’m writing about purpose.

Walk With Purpose

Not long ago, I was visiting a niece of mine in Blacksburg, Virginia, a rising fourth-year undergraduate with Virginia Tech’s Corps of Cadets. We were making our way across the campus (I guess too slowly for her), when she whispered to me, “Walk with purpose, Uncle Spencer!” I chuckled because I had heard this expression many times before from the military veterans in my extended family.

“Walk with purpose” in the language of the Corps of Cadets means to walk confidently with a specific destination in mind. Don’t dilly-dally! Don’t look lost! Walk with purpose!

This got me thinking about reading. The purpose or purposes we set when we take up a reading shapes how we read and the tools and strategies we employ. We don’t approach all reading equally, and for good reason.

Reading Purposes

Reading for Specifics
Sometimes we read to find a very specific but critical piece of information. Usually, but not always, this is a nonfiction informational text. For example, we might take up a jar of spaghetti sauce in a grocery store aisle simply to determine its salt content. We’re basically scanning for a single word, “sodium.” Then we look to see the number of corresponding milligrams or grams. The goal of reading the jar is precise. When we find “sodium,” we’re done.

Reading to Make a Choice
In the same grocery store, we might pick up a magazine. (I personally start first with the pictures.) Our goal initially is to decide if we want to buy the magazine and maybe read it more thoroughly. We’re reading, first, to make a choice.

Reading for Entertainment or News
If we do buy the magazine, we might slow down and read an article in its entirety. We might put the magazine down and then reread the article again in the morning when we’re having coffee or when we’re waiting for somebody. We might skip another article entirely. Here, the goal for reading might be entertainment, or maybe to keep updated with something or someone in the world.

Reading for Contemplation
We also read for contemplation—with the idea that deeply pondering a text will expand our understandings of ourselves and the world we live in. These are the sorts of texts that we read slowly and in smaller bits and pieces at a time. We enter them mindful of their complexity and without the expectation that we’ll ever understand the text completely.

Reading for Pleasure
We can read for pure pleasure. Here we surrender ourselves to the narrative with the goal of being transported into a story and the world the author has created for us.

Educational Reading

In schools, when teachers assign a text for us to read and announce that a test will follow, we approach the text with a highlighter and set of note cards. We break down the text into some sort of organizer. We check our comprehension as we’re reading and after we’re done reading—all in preparation for the test. If there’s no test, we read in a much less urgent way. Maybe we don’t even read whatever the teacher has assigned. It depends on the goals the teacher has (or has not) set for reading a text.

These are just a few examples of the purposes we set for reading. There are many more.

I’ll end with a couple of questions to ask ourselves and our students before reading:

  1. What’s the range of purposes we have when we read?
  2. Why are we reading this specific text? What’s the point? What do we hope to accomplish?
  3. Now that we’ve agreed on the goal, what strategies can we draw from to help us achieve that reading destination?

The final message here is that we need to move beyond framing K–12 reading as something learners do “because the teacher said so.” This school year, let’s read with purpose!

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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