I thought, at one time, that they were lazy, maybe stupid. They didn't know what was in the reading because they didn't read. They didn't know what was on the test because they didn't listen. It was simple, almost moral: they failed because they didn't do the work.
Today, though, I had them read an essay. In class. Aloud to me. After each paragraph, I stopped them and asked them to paraphrase.
Student: "He's arguing that gerbils are hamsters."
Me: "Where do you see that?"
Student: "'Although some people are inclined to the foolish and idiotic opinion that gerbils are hamsters, we know from overwhelming evidence that this is not the case.'"
Me: "Why does he call it foolish if he thinks that?"
Student: "I don't know. He just does."
Me: "Okay, what's he assuming in this passage?"
Student: "That black people can't raise gerbils effectively. He's racist."
Me: "Where does he say that?"
Student: "'Of course, there is no correlation between race and effective rodent cultivation.'"
Me: "That's kind of the opposite of what you just said he said."
Student: "I feel that he's racist."
Me: "I feel a headache. Moving on . . . "
Here's the thing I realized. They sound out words, sure, and read the sight-words with great ease. But they don't know what they mean. They don't know "rodentia," sure (and won't look it up, even if you stare at them and say "do you know what that word means? No. Look it up." They still won't look it up), but they also don't know "but" or "so" or "therefore," and that means they. cannot. read.
My students aren't lazy. They're illiterate.
Thank you, NCLB!