Reading Skills for the Modern Workforce

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In previous postings we have looked at the various elements of what employers rank as the most valuable of workplace skills, those of verbal communication, including speaking, listening, and writing. In this posting we look at the skill of reading, which many see as the essence of the language arts. What reading skills does the modern workforce need? And are we teaching these in school?

Reading at Work

What kind of reading do people do at work? Unless they work as an editor for a publishing company, they seldom read novels or stories or histories. They are more likely to read correspondence, reference works, news articles, and technical manuals. They read these to find the information they need to get their jobs done.

Seldom do they read one of these in its entirety, from beginning to end. More often, they use the index, table of contents, or the keyword search feature, to find the ideas or facts they are looking for. Then they skim what they find, in an effort to quickly determine if they have found what they need. When they find something useful, be text or images, they copy and paste it, or bookmark it for later use. They read on their own, they seldom read the same things as their colleagues, and their reading is not closely supervised or directed.

You won't find readers using 3x5 cards or paper notebooks in most modern workplaces. More and more of their reading is done online, and on a growing array of digital devices, from computer to tablet to smartphone. If they read a book, it's most likely to be in the form of an ePub on one of these devices. As they read, they do lots of cross-referencing: clicking on words to look up their definitions, taking a phrase and tracing its origins online, following a series of like that take them into greater detail.

The result of all this workplace reading might be a summary of the state-of-the-art, or an analysis of the competition, or a recommendation for a new course of action, or discussion and agreement at a meeting of colleagues. It's seldom an essay, a reflection, an opinion piece, or a literary analysis.

Reading at School

At school, students read history and science textbooks, stories, novels, plays and poems. They spend little time reading reference works, news articles, or technical manuals. They read to confront the key ideas of literature, the sciences, the arts, and history.

Most of their reading is from books, which they read (or are supposed to read) all the way through. Every page in most cases. Most of their fellow students are reading the same book, in the same order, at the same rate. They discuss the reading with their teachers in class most every day, closely supervised in groups of about 25. They are discouraged from copying and pasting, which in any event is not easy to do from a paper book. Cross-referencing is next to impossible in most classroom situations.

They take information away from their reading on 3x5 cards or in paper notebooks. In many schools, if they are caught with a personal computer, tablet, or smartphone, it is confiscated, if it wasn't already detected by the screening system at the entrance.

The result of reading is school most often consists of a test, a reflection, an essay, a literary analysis, or an opinion piece.

Preparing Effective Readers

How can schools more effectively prepare for the kind of reading necessary in the workplace? What kinds of assignments can teachers give that mimic the kind of problem-based reading that is so common in todays businesses and laboratories?

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