Assisting Students in Reading Difficult Texts Through Writing

It’s on the syllabus: Read Chapters 2 and 4 for next’s week’s discussion. Next week comes and less than half the class has read the assigned textAfter the sigh, there is the impromptu lecture filler. Besides the busy lives of college students, there may be another reason why students have not read the text—it may be too difficult for them. Even so, the goal is not to “lecture over the assigned text” (Bean, 2011, p. 163). There are ways to support students in becoming stronger readers and empower them to encounter difficult texts.

One of the basic principles of WAC is that writing promotes learning and develops critical thinking skills. Part of this is the ability to anchor one’s arguments in text, which necessitates an understanding of disciplinary text.

Many students approach reading in the same way and fail to adjust their reading strategies. They may not realize that there are various reading strategies available to them. Because of this, students need help determining when a deep, slow reading is required, when to chunk information and when they can skim a text (Bean, 2011).

The following suggestions will support students who are struggling through text and hopefully, encourage more students to complete assigned readings.

1. Be explicit with students about your own reading process and allow students to share their own. When do you skim texts? When do you read carefully? Do you write notes in the column? Do you use a color coding system? Do you use  post-its? What do you underline and why? How do you distinguish between what the author is saying and your own reflections? “The fifteen or twenty minutes it takes for such discussions can sometimes have a powerful on students’ reading strategies” (Bean, 2011, p. 169).

2. Help students get into the dictionary habit.  Encourage students to look up unfamiliar words. “One strategy is to make small ticks in the margins next to the words they are unsure of and to look them later when they come to an appropriate resting place in the text” (Bean, 2011, p. 170).

3. Attach a low-stakes assignment to the reading: “What it Says” and “What it Does.” To encourage a careful and deep reading of a scholarly article that you anticipate to be a difficult reading, you can teach and assign students the “what it says” and “what it does” strategy. For each paragraph, students can write a “what it says” and a “what it does” statement. A “what is says” statement is a summary of the paragraph’s content or the paragraph’s stated or implied topic sentence. A “what it does” statement describes the purpose or the function of the paragraph. An example can be “summarizes an opposing view” “uses an analogy to clarify the previous paragraph” (Bean, 2011).

4. Create text-based free-write prompts.  An example of a text-based free-write supports students in recognizing that many texts have a specific point of view. A closer read or even a re-read of the text can be promoted if you ask students to identify the ways the text attempted to change their point of view. Bean (2011) suggests the following prompts: 1) Before I read this text the author assumed I believed [fill in] 2) After I finished reading the text, the author wanted me to believe[fill in] 3) The author was/was not successful in chnging my point of view. How so? Why or Why Not?

5. Use Graphic Organizers. Some students may find it more powerful to “visually represent a text than through marginal notations, traditional outlining, or even summary writing” (Bean, 2011, p. 179). If students find this to be useful, the following PDF is filled with 36 pages of graphic organizers for reading strategies.

Remember, there is no need to lecture over the readings. Assign the reading with confidence and give the students the tools they need to decipher the text and embed low stakes writing assignments, then enjoy facilitating critical and deep class discussions.

One Reply to “Assisting Students in Reading Difficult Texts Through Writing”

  1. On April 28th 2023 I attended a WAC professional development seminar on two separate issues: scaffolded assignments and teaching note-taking to undergraduate students. The session was run by fellow graduate students from other WAC programs in the CUNY system. I love pedagogy seminars that break down how to do things that you feel you should already know, delivering concrete tools to try out in the classroom. In theory, I’ve known about scaffolding for years, and while I’ve tried a bunch of different things in my classroom, there have been hiccups. I’ve found that students will often not have mastered skills needed to excel in low-stakes assignments, and so when we subsequently build up to middle- and high-stakes assignments, the benefits of scaffolding can be lost. Another common problem is students not completing early stages of scaffolded work in time. This means that by the time the middle- and high-stakes assignments roll round, they end up doing multiple assignments at once or in the wrong order.

    Throughout my year as a WAC fellow at CITY Tech I’ve learned some techniques to strengthen my approach to scaffolding. For instance, I’ve learned how tying course objectives to assignments can help organize a semester’s worth of scaffolded assignments. I’ve learned about including a schedule in the syllabus outlining all the elements of the scaffolded project. I’ve also learned about the benefits of incorporating mixed media and student choice into assignments. Giving students more control over their learning can help students with their completion of assignments which can allowing them to cater to their strengths (e.g., assignment “menus” which allow students to choose media that best suit them). But the problems I outlined earlier remained.

    My peers at the scaffolding seminar on the 28th of April offered a useful strategy. They described how one might scaffold both in-class and out-of-class assignments so that they complement each other, and together work towards course objectives. This way in-class professor-supervised work can prepare students for out-of-class work. This tackles the first problem since it allows students to work on skills necessary to complete low-stakes assignments in a classroom environment, with peer and professor support. It tackles the second problem since it sets students up with a foundation to begin out-of-class assignments on time and in order.

    This seemingly simple idea was a eureka moment for me! Up to this point, my classroom time has usually been spent on activities helping students wrestle with the text or that week’s big questions and ideas. I hadn’t heretofore dedicated a lot of in-classroom time to explicitly helping students build skills for the scaffolded assignments. Looking back I now appreciate that when the students attempted the assignments, even if they were low stakes, and even if I gave them constructive feedback, they hadn’t had any supervised time with me and their peers to formally work on the skills necessitated by the assignment.

    This brings me to the subject of the second part of the seminar: reading and note-taking skills. As I noted earlier, and is familiar to most humanities teachers, I spend a lot of time in class breaking down the assigned reading with my students, aiming to cultivate critical reading skills. Up until the seminar on teaching note-taking I hadn’t dedicated much time to thinking about how I could teach reading through writing in class. Like many people in the pandemic I experimented with websites like Perusall which makes an assignment out of annotating a text: students may individually and collectively annotate the assigned readings. This met with varying levels of expertise in annotating, enthusiasm and effort, and I ended up deciding to discard the communal annotating from my pedagogy. Reflecting back now, I wonder if my mistake was assuming students already had the very skills I wanted them to work on. Maybe I needed to think more carefully about how I could teach reading through writing, rather than assuming students already knew how to annotate and read the difficult texts that make up the corpus belonging to my discipline (philosophy).

    In this recent seminar on note-taking we discussed how instructors can scaffold reading skills through consecutive reading assignments that incorporate writing.

    I want to bring these ideas (scaffolding in-class assignments so that they relate to out-of-class assignments, and working on reading through writing) in conversation with the strategies for teaching reading that Bisola discusses above. I want to design a scaffolded (in-class and out-of-class) reading assignment that incorporates (1) written reflection on students’ reading practices, (2) practicing skimming, (3) practicing deep, slow reading, (4) practicing annotating, and (5) practicing summarizing content vs. function of chunks of text. One idea I’ve been thinking of is having students keep a reading/note diary throughout the semester, for some texts–not all texts. Perhaps just one text a week. The students would be asked to record and analyze their reading experiences, and the content they’re learning from the text, in a processual way, using these reflections in class.

    Imagine two pages of a writing journal set out before you. You create a table with 4 rows and 2 columns: a simple graphic organizer. Down the left column side you write each element of the reading assignment: Skimming, Careful Reading, Summary, Reflection. For the first row, the student is instructed to skim the reading, and write their impression of what they’ve read (broad brush strokes impression of what the text is arguing). For the second row, they’d be instructed to re-read the text using deep, slow reading. This time they’d be asked to annotate the text, recording in the diary when they don’t understand words (and looking up their definitions in the dictionary), recording their questions and ideas. For the third row, they’d be asked to chunk the information contained in the text – recording both “what it says” and “what it does”. All of this would be done out-of-class, with the fourth row remaining empty. In-class students would pair up with each other and compare notes on their reading experiences, reflecting on what they got from skimming, deep reading, and summarizing the text. What was enjoyable about their reading experiences, what was difficult? Do their summaries converge or diverge? And then I’d ask students to share their reading reflections in class.

    What are the pros of this sort of assignment? Well, for one, I suspect that intentionally having students practice these skills will have a good impact on their writing of assignments and papers, since they’ll have something to flip through and start them writing when higher-stakes assignments approach. I also think this would really improve the quality of in-class discussions because it would prepare them for class. Finally, I suspect that over the course of the semester students would see their writing and reading improve, and also feel prepared to tackle challenging texts.


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