Reading is a skill that instructors expect students to have mastered, but as Bean (2011) notes, students with difficulty in writing often have difficulty in reading.
“Many of today’s students are inexperienced readers, overwhelmed by the density of their college textbooks and baffled by the strangeness and complexity of primary sources and by their unfamiliarity with academic discourse. Armed with a yellow highlighter but with no apparent strategy for using it and hampered by lack of knowledge of how skilled readers actually go about reading, our students often feel overwhelmed by college reading assignments” (Bean, 2011, p. 161).
The points in this section are presented to devise strategies to build students’ understanding of texts and the myriad types of texts that exist. These strategies serve to develop students’ comprehension, thinking, knowledge, understanding, and help them to find their voices.
By developing useful strategies to read, Bean (2011) considers how students can learn to read “powerfully,” to “become ‘deep readers,’ who focus on meaning, as opposed to ‘surface readers,’ who focus on facts and information…Deep readers…interact with texts, devoting psychological energy to the task” (p. 162).
Deep reading takes time. Understanding may mean re-reading, and reading slowly. It may mean writing notes, having mental discussions with the author. Students may have to read the text a few times, interacting “by asking questions, expressing disagreements, linking the text with other readings or with personal experience” (Bean, 2011, p. 163). Students may believe that expert readers read quickly, not knowing that expert readers read slowly. Without obvious rewards, students are resistant to this kind of slow work.
Tip: Master Time Management*
Strategy: Completing a grid of the 168 hours in a week may help students have a better sense of their use of time and the need to schedule studying.
Materials: Grid of Monday through Sunday, midnight to midnight (24/7)
Time: Completion of the grid takes 30 minutes, including asking questions (below) as well as a discussion of how much time is needed for “deep learning.”
Process: After students have entered their class schedule, ask them about their time commitments:
- Household responsibilities
- Medical appointments
- Religious commitments
- Sports team, recreation, social events
- Entertainment, including shopping
- Other commitments of time
[see also Strategy #5]
Rule of thumb: for every hour of class time, there should be a minimum of two hours of study time. This includes finishing all homework problems and assignments, preparing for tests, writing papers, group study, and working on projects.
* Adapted from Aguirre, Dreyfuss, Liou-Mark, Sears (2013)
Avoid lecturing about the reading material. Why read if the instructor spends time reviewing the material? You can discuss how to read and encourage students to struggle with the material. Guide students to engage with the reading by posing questions, using the Socratic method. Consider questions that are challenging at various levels of the stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy.
Tip: Anticipate and Challenge – A Reading Technique
Strategy: Prior to a class session, students are assigned material to read. To encourage them to undertake this task, they will be asked to complete a one-page form that contains a series of statements pertaining to the material to be covered in the class session.
Materials: To the left of each statement are two columns: “Agree” and “Disagree” (accompanying the statement). On the right of each statement are two columns: “Agree” and “Disagree.” Sample forms: BIO & EMT.
- Prior to reading the material, students are asked to mark one option on the left for each statement.
- Students read the material.
- After reading the material, the students mark one option on the right for each statement.
Option: After reading, students write out a sentence to examine their initial understanding. If there is a discrepancy, this must be discussed, either in conversation or in writing.
Option: A discussion of each point is included in lecture.
Option: Group work focuses on statements that are not understood.
There are various purposes to reading
- Reading speeds vary: some texts can be skimmed, while others must be reviewed slowly. Instructors need to help students learn to adjust reading speeds depending on the material.
- Drawing out main ideas quickly is a different skill than being able to provide details.
Tip: Compare Reading Materials
Strategy: In the class session, the instructor introduces two types of reading material. For example, one is a paragraph of instructions, and the other is presented as a sequential list of steps.
Materials: One copy of each document for each student
Process: Each document is read aloud: Students are asked to read a sentence each, rotating around the classroom, so that everyone is heard.
Instructor asks for suggestions of the differences between the two documents. Additionally:
- Make note of any word over which the speakers stumbled; sound it out
- Ask for definitions of such words
After both documents are read, and everyone in the room has been heard from once,
- students are asked to write at least two sentences concerning a difference they found between the two documents,
- include evidence for their finding,
- make a suggestion on how one or both documents could be improved.
Connection to prior knowledge
What does the student already know? A connection with known material helps to ground the new material with the old. Accumulating knowledge should be understood as important for deep learning. Emphasizing facts to build knowledge and develop concepts and ideas contribute to deep reading and conceptual learning.
Walking in others’ shoes
Students need to make connections with their experience and expand their views by dealing with new ideas. To assimilate the unfamiliar, “learners must build new concepts upon neural structures already in their brains, and sometimes older structures need to be dismantled before new ones can be built” (Bean, 2011, p. 166).
Tip: Anticipate the next session’s topic
Strategy: At the end of a class session early in the semester, the instructor informs the students that they will be asked to write, at the beginning of the next session, responses to questions regarding understanding and agreement.
Process: At the beginning of a class session, students are asked to write two entries on index cards or sheets of paper:
- Question 1: Something they did not understand in the reading
- Question 2: Something they disagreed with in the reading
Option: Students, working in groups of four, share their responses to Question 1. If possible, someone in the group explains the matter that the student did not understand.
- If no one can explain it, the instructor may review the material, first asking questions to connect the topic to topics previously covered.
- The instructor can direct students to the pages where the matter is covered in the textbook and note that a question regarding the material will be on the next test or included in the next assignment.
Option: Selected points are reviewed in lecture.
Option: Discussion in groups on areas of disagreement (Question 2).
- Questions are to be formulated by the group to share with the whole class.
Learning new “language” Understanding vocabulary is often predicated on context. Developing an “ear for irony or humor,” becoming familiar with “technical terms, terms used in unusual ways, terms requiring extensive contextual knowledge, or terms that have undergone meaning changes over time” (Bean, 2011, p. 166) or even developing an eye for complex sentence structures, are all skills that instructors can help students develop.
Accessing “cultural literacy” Bean (2011) discusses “culture codes… the text-background information, allusions, common knowledge that the author assumed that the reading audience would know” (p. 173). Instructors can help ‘break the code’ to allow students to become familiar with the author’s cultural assumptions. As a description of this concept, Bean provides an example of a cartoon and why the context or cultural code must be understood, before the cartoon makes enough sense for a reader to understand the humor. Introducing the “community” of a topic or discipline requires an interpretation of the cultural codes of academia. Providing a gateway to “the background knowledge, cultural codes, and genre awareness needed for complete understanding” (p. 169) gives students a way to proceed.
Tip: Explode the Syllabus – Introduction to an academic community
Strategy: How the course is structured and why the sequence of topics helps to build understanding of a subject or topic. What prior knowledge is assumed and what students should know to do and in what context to build a conceptual understanding of the topic.
Process: At the first class session of the semester, the instructor distributes and reviews the syllabus, explaining each part:
- Contact information, instructor’s name, email address, office hours and office location
- Course title, description, number, section code, meeting times, meeting place
- Calendar: topic, readings, assignments
- Required textbook and reading materials; materials; equipment
- Assessment: tests and dates, homework assignments, project assignments, participation, attendance
- Statement regarding academic integrity
At each subsequent class session, students are expected to write the following, based on the assigned readings:
- The expected sequence of the topic based on the topics listed in the syllabus, including on which page(s) the topic was discussed in the reading
- Vocabulary that was new to them: write in the definition provided in the reading
Option: Student is given credit for completing the assignment each week, adding to a portion of the grade, possibly in lieu of a quiz.
Conversing with the author Students may not be aware that what they are reading is an argument that demands a critical stance. “No textbook or scholarly work can give readers the ‘whole truth’ about subject X, only the author’s version of the truth – a version necessarily framed by the author’s own selectivity, emphasis, and writing style” (Bean, 2011, p. 172).
Instructors need to provide the basis for viewing the argument in context as having merit and with which the students can agree or disagree, by providing other readings and comparing and contrasting them. “Two accounts of the same subject helps students better understand the concepts of point of view, frame or reference, and authorial bias” (p. 172).
Understanding a text’s rhetorical context What was the context that made the writer write? What argument was the writer countering? What audience did the writer wish to convince? Students “have difficulty perceiving a real author writing for a real reason out of a real historical moment” (Bean, 2011, p. 165). Instructors need to guide students’ understanding of political or theoretical biases of different publications.
Tip: Use goal-oriented small groups*
Strategy: To provide students with supervised practice in disciplinary thinking with the instructor as coach, to teach question-asking and argument (p. 184)
- The instructor presents a disciplinary problem requiring critical thinking, resulting in a claim with argument rather than a “right answer”
- Students work together in small groups to reach consensus on a “best solution” to the problem; a “scribe” records the solutions and arguments
- In a discussion with the whole class, each group’s representative presents their group’s solutions and arguments
- At the conclusion of each group’s presentation, the instructor provides coaching by pointing out strengths and weaknesses in the arguments, showing how the alternative claims emerging from groups often parallel on-going disciplinary debates and otherwise offering constructive criticism.
- At the conclusion of all presentations, the instructor may also explain how this problem would be (or has been) approached by experts (pp. 184-185)
- Students come up with reasonable, supported answers that they will be asked to defend later in front of the whole class
- Effective at helping students learn specific thinking strategies (p. 185)
* Adapted from Bean, 2011
Tip: Look for Evidence*
Strategy: By reading an article from the popular press and looking for arguments and supporting evidence for the point of view presented by the writer, students will begin to understand the use of arguments.
Material: Article is tied to topic on course syllabus; application to current events. Most chance of compliance if copies are made and distributed in class.
Time: As decided
Process: Class session Instructor assigns a reading from the popular press (e.g., daily newspaper, Time magazine) regarding a topic on or related to a class topic for homework for next class session.
- The instructor explains the context of the topic
- before handing out the reading and
- explaining the assignment
- The instructor may need to demonstrate “marginalia” as part of the explanation of the assignment [“Marginal notations on the borders of the text itself” (p. 177)].
- Read the article
- Write comments, thoughts, and questions on their copy of the document
- Write a paragraph summarizing the reading, to include evidence presented by the author
Subsequent class session Instructor reviews what is evidence by
- Asking for paragraphs to be read aloud (student to stand up)
- Presented evidence is written on the board (can be a student volunteer)
- Write a paragraph summarizing the reading, to include evidence presented by the author
Instructor leads a discussion on how that evidence supports the main thesis.
* Adapted from Bean, 2011
Perceiving the structure of an argument Not realizing that authors are making arguments, often through “hierarchical structures,” students weigh all text as equally important. Instructors need to show students how to take a “bird’s eye view,” to see the overall structure through devices like section headings and paragraph topic sentences.
Regarding marginalia, Bean (2011) advises that students be told: “Every time you feel the urge to highlight or underline something, write out in the margins why you wanted to underline it. Why is that passage important? Is it a major new point in the argument? A significant piece of support? A summary of the opposition? A particularly strong or particularly weak point?…Use the margins to summarize the text, ask questions, give assent, protest vehemently…the goal is to get students to carry on a lively dialogue with the author in the margins” (p. 177).
The genre of the reading matters Writing occurs “within a discourse system.” Peer-reviewed articles are part of larger conversations; “an empirical research study in the social or physical sciences requires a different reading strategy from that of a theoretical/ interpretive article in the humanities” (Bean, 2011, p. 164). Introducing students to various types of writings will help students distinguish the need for various types of reading.