Unfortunately, we are failing in the area of student engagement. Research indicates a continuous plummet in student engagement over the school years, especially in middle and high schools, and especially for boys, children from minority groups, and children from socioeconomic struggle. But we don’t need research to tell us this, do we? I can walk into classrooms all over the country and find children with their heads down, tuned out, on the way to dropping out.

I live in the world of literacy, and there, the status is staggering. We know that engagement is a tool for improving reading achievement. People like John Guthrie, who has been studying this phenomenon for decades now, have offered compelling evidence. But to little avail. Look at our rankings worldwide. We rank 38th out of 40 nations. The future looks bleak given that contemporary reform efforts pay no attention to engagement, focusing instead on skills, strategies, and a checklist of items that do not necessarily add up to productive reading, but that are easy to measure on something like a standardized test.
But we ought to be paying attention to engagement, particularly given what it is associated with. Let’s go down the list. I mentioned academic achievement and cognitive strategy use, which are no small issues, but what about these…..
When it comes to reading, we actually haven’t thought big enough. Here’s how most people think about the relationship between reading and engagement. When you read more, you get greater fluency, thus greater comprehension. Engagement itself is created through interest, self-efficacy, and cognitive strategy use. It’s about the individual experience, and it’s use is relatively simple---it’s a tool for improving reading achievement.


I want to offer you another way to think about reading and reading engagement. Another view of reading is that it is not simply a way to get meaning from a text. Instead, it is a dialogic, social/relational activity. It’s a tool for developing who you are as a person and your own sense of other people and your relationships with them and with society. That it’s not individual, but instead social. I want to convince you that literacy and literacy engagement is not just about becoming a better and more enthusiastic reader. It’s about becoming a more evolved and productive person.

These students were part of a study, ongoing research I have conducted with my colleague Peter Johnston from SUNY-Albany and four Virginia 8th grade teachers and all of the 8th grade students in a middle school over in the Shenandoah Valley. Four years ago those teachers joined us and agreed to make some seemingly simple shifts….No assigned reading. All self-selected….no strings attached.
This are stand-alone consequences. Students themselves explain that the engagement ripples into other happenings. I have included in your handouts this diagram from our study which represents a data-based network of linkages, at the heart of which is engagement. I’ll offer a few examples of how this works.
Even most of the currently existing reform efforts that include elements of the social, do so in the interest of furthering individual achievement. However, when we make social learning a goal, we advance the productivity of the community and of the individual. Our future as a society has problems too enormous not to pay attention to how we learn with and from each other and how we can teach kids to act on society together. Second, we are limiting ourselves when we focus singularly on cognitive achievement. If we have a scenario where a student scores low on achievement tests, but grows extraordinarily in the dimensions I have mentioned---intellectual stance, moral agency, self-regulation, etc., which would you choose?