In this post I would like to discuss some strategies for turning students into better, more active readers. By teaching our students how to engage deeply and actively with the texts they read, we are preparing them to be critical thinkers and thoughtful writers. This process begins with the instructor taking on both reading and writing instruction as her responsibility. The list below draws from my own teaching experience and from chapter nine of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas (titled “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts”).
- Model your own reading process.
As a college-level instructor, you are an expert and experienced reader. Allow your students to benefit from your knowledge! On the first day of class, pass out a guide describing your own reading practices. You may describe where you read, what you read with (pen and paper? tablet? computer?), and where and how you take notes (do you prefer marginalia or a reading notebook?). Most importantly, explain what you do when you get stuck, confused, or frustrated in your reading. Your descriptions of how you overcome such stumbling blocks may be general or discipline-specific; either way, they will help prepare your students for the inevitable difficulties of reading complex texts. (See below for the reading guide I provide for my literature students. Feel free to alter it to reflect good reading practices in your discipline.)
- Explain the genres and writing conventions of your discipline.
Your students encounter varieties of texts in their studies and their lives. Prepare your students for your reading material by explaining what kinds of texts you will assign (i.e., scholarly articles and textbook chapters, essays and poems) and describing the best strategies for reading them, keeping in mind the distinct methods we use to read different texts.
Similarly, you should teach your students how to identify the writing conventions of your discipline. If you assign articles from a peer-reviewed science journal, you should explain how to identify an author’s hypothesis, methodology, results, etc.; if you assign fiction, you might devote class time to discussing narrative point of view and irony.
- Avoid lecturing over readings.
Though it is important to review difficult passages in class, the instructor should stifle her urge to “lecture over” or “explain” the text to her students. Over-explaining a text, argues Bean, teaches students that they do not need to read the assigned material (Bean 168). Instead of explaining the reading material to your students, encourage them to read actively and bring their own explanations, conclusions, and questions to class.
- Create active reading assignments.
You can goad your students into reading and participating actively by constructing low-stakes reading assignments. For example, you may require your students to submit reading logs or response notebooks that record the questions, comments, and insights that occur as they read. These assignments may also be tailored to address the specific reading troubles your students encounter. If your students have difficulty comprehending a writer’s diction and syntax, you may ask them to write “translations” of particular moments of the text or to produce a glossary of new vocabulary. If your students have trouble comprehending the structure of a writer’s argument, you may ask them to provide a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of what the text “says” versus what it “does” (Bean 170-1). Finally, a warning: reading quizzes are sometimes necessary, but recent studies suggest that they promote “surface” rather than “deep” reading (Bean 168). Keep in mind that our goal should be to produce students who have an active, critical relationship to the texts they read and who do not merely search for “right answers.”
Example: A Guide for Effective Reading (Literature)
Reading a work of literature is not like reading a text message, a menu, or a street sign. Whereas those forms of media merely communicate information (“I’m not home yet,” “All sandwiches come with fries or salad”), literary texts present a narrative. The word “narrative” refers not only to the events of a story but also to the various elements that make it up, including the narrator’s language, descriptions of setting and character, a diversity of moods and emotions, and a multiplicity of philosophical and psychological vantage-points. Such a complex work requires more patience, concentration, and participation from its readers than other forms of written language. Please consider the following recommendations in this spirit.
- Always read with a writing utensil and a piece of paper. Mark passages that are interesting, exciting, humorous, confusing, or which you would like to revisit later. You should draw from these notes during class discussions, while studying for tests, and while composing your final paper.
- If you prefer to read on a tablet, use an annotation feature to highlight important moments in the text. Do not read on your cell phone.
- Use a dictionary to look up any words that you do not understand. If you do not look up the meaning of a word, you will never know what you are missing.
- If you do not understand a sentence or a paragraph, re-read it. If you still do not understand it, read it aloud. This is especially helpful when reading plays or poetry.
- Sometimes you have to re-read whole stories, chapters, or books to grasp their meaning. You will be amazed how much clearer a difficult text can become when you know what to look for.
- Steer clear of reader’s guides such as SparkNotes, which are marketed to lazy high schoolers and are often oversimplified and inaccurate. More importantly, these summaries leave out of the most important part of any work of literature: its language. If you need help thinking through a text, I am happy to recommend useful essays by qualified writers.
- Lastly, please write down any questions that occur to you while reading and share them during class discussion. If you are confused about something, your classmates probably are, too.
Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.