Pop Culture and Reading Comprehension

Did you know that pop culture plays a role in how your students comprehend texts? And not necessarily in a good way. Not too long ago, I did a study where I examined how three classes of sixth-grade students made decisions about how to apply comprehension strategies when reading social studies text. I ended up with hours and hours of recorded small group conversations. Within those conversations I started noticing that students were talking about movies, video games, cartoons and such in ways that were intended to help further their discussions about social studies texts. It was fascinating. So I went back and looked at it closer and found something very surprising….

Students were drawing on pop culture texts to inform their understandings about academic texts in ways that were both helpful and not so helpful. They were using pop culture texts in ways that generated misunderstandings about historical content.

But before we get into what students were talking about and how it did/did not help them, I want to start by providing you with a little background info.

What Are Pop Culture Texts and What Role Do They Play in the Lives of Adolescents?

Pop culture texts encompass both print and non-print formats including film, television, music, and video games, as well as fiction and nonfiction books. Often they are mainstream texts that are mass produced and may be tied to a variety of other commercial products. In school, it is common to urge students to make text-to-text connections. When we ask students to make such connections, some of the most readily available images they have come from pop culture. Understanding how students integrate pop culture texts into discussions about academic ones can help you more effectively use them to deepen students’ reading comprehension and curriculum knowledge.

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In school and at home, youths often engage with an array of pop culture texts for pleasure or to gain information that addresses issues important to them. Their experiences with pop culture texts also support their development as literate individuals, help them better understand themselves, and give them the freedom to try on and enact various identities. Additionally, adolescents who may not be considered strong readers of academic texts may be able to comprehend and be experts on an array of pop culture topics that require them to use advanced literacy skills.

Related: Three Ways Students Use Pop Culture Texts in the Classroom

The positive experiences youths have with pop culture texts do not seem to transfer to the academic realm. When youths enter middle school, they experience in-depth study of subjects such as social studies for the first time. Although middle school students have experience with reading in school, they often do not understand there are differences between reading for pleasure and reading for academic purposes. Many are likely to take information from texts at face value without stopping to consider the source or point of view being promoted.

For adolescents, successfully comprehending social studies texts is no easy task. Doing so requires more than memorizing facts, defining vocabulary words, and answering a set of questions at the end of a chapter. Comprehending academic texts requires students to engage in a range of skills including:

(a) identifying main ideas

(b) evaluating evidence

(c) understanding and assessing the sources that historical arguments are based on

It also requires helping students learn how knowledge is created and communicated and how reading and writing within any discipline are both similar and different from the ways they read and write in other disciplines.

Many students will struggle with reading in the academic disciplines not because they lack the ability to succeed but because they lack experience in reading and communicating information in ways demanded by the discipline. Additionally, most youths find the curriculum they experience in school to be “boring.” In school, students are usually expected to engage with reading,writing, and discussing texts in a formalized manner, but they rarely understand why they must do so. In response, students have stated that the curriculum is disconnected from their lives, that teachers do not find ways to get them involved in their own learning, and they have little say in what they are required to do.

Although students may feel more connected to pop culture texts, teachers may see little value in incorporating them into the classroom. However, students do use pop culture texts on a regular basis in school to make meaning even when such spaces are not sanctioned.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we think about pop culture texts. They are a part of students’ lives, and students are going to use them to inform what they read about in school. Might as well accept it and work within it, right? But what are we working with and how do we do it?

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