The Reading Conundrum

The book for last week’s seminar meeting was Reading Rhetorically by John Bean, Virginia Chappell, and Alice Gillam.  As I noted in another post, this is designed as a freshman text, but I tend to use it as a teacher resource.  It is full of reading strategies for students approaching unfamiliar material.  Students are taught such things as pre-reading, descriptive outlining, reading with and against the grain, rhetorical questioning, and techniques for integrating and citing quoted and paraphrased material.  Fluent academic readers do nearly all of these things by habit and instinct.  However, these strategies are rarely taught overtly because freshman composition courses generally focus on writing, not reading.  Reading is a skill that is pretty much taken for granted after third grade.  If students struggle with reading after third grade, the most common solution is to review phonics and other “learning to read” techniques.

Something is not working because university faculty complain a lot about student reading behaviors.  When I do Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) workshops these days, I usually start out by asking the participants what sorts of problems students have doing the reading for their courses.  Here is a typical list (I posted this previously to the WPA-L discussion listserv):


  • Only read material directly connected to grading
  • Will not read before class
  • Skip difficult material
  • If they don’t see the relevance, they won’t read it
  • Form an incorrect hypothesis of the meaning and misread
  • Decoding problems
  • Unknown vocabulary
  • Expect to read only once
  • Take everything at face value
  • Highlight everything
  • Can’t understand written directions
  • Are egocentric, can’t see another point of view
  • Are unable to reserve judgment until an argument has been completed
  • Lack reading practice
  • Have a limited range of ability, can read textbooks, but not other books
  • Have no background schema to take in learning
  • Can’t understand irony or understatement
  • Believe everything they read

The “Will not read before class” complaint comes up every time.  I finally realized that students were telling us something with that behavior.  They do not like to read difficult material cold.  They don’t know what to attend to until after the discussion.  In my own classes I now give them reading questions and instructions, including things like, “What are the author’s three main points about x?” and “Pay special attention to the paragraph at the bottom of page 47.”  Given some guidance, my students usually read the material before class.

If students habitually practiced the strategies presented in Reading Rhetorically, most of these problems would be solved.  Most students have not had such training, however, so it is up to the instructor to provide guidance, most often in the form of guide questions and pre-reading activities.   In my experience, such measures significantly improve the quality of the discussion and student performance on quizzes and papers.  Instructor evaluations also improve.

However, the observation in the list above that students “can read textbooks, but not other books” is telling.  Textbook publishers are knowledgeable about reading theory and pedagogy.  Textbooks have illustrations, graphs and charts, sidebar guide questions, subheads, summaries, and even CD roms with animations and simulations.  A whole arsenal of reading pedagogies is deployed for every style of learning.  Have students become dependent on this reader-friendly, learner-friendly style of presentation?  And when instructors create similar scaffolding and support for an ordinary book, are we improving learning while also fostering that dependency?

This is the often unasked question at the heart of all “learning-centered” pedagogies.  When does the enabling of the learner become too much?  When does nurturing the student in a learning-centered environment end up disabling the student for learning in the real world?

I am not asking these questions with curmudgeonly intent.  I am not asking “What’s wrong with our students?”  The students are great.  I am also not trying to dodge the work involved in creating guide questions and thinking about why we are reading this and what students should take away from it.  I am asking how we can best serve them in the long run.  I think we have to be careful to design our reading assistance with an eye toward strategies that can be internalized over time, so that the student can begin to approach unfamiliar material with his or her own questions and purposes.  Reading Rhetorically does that well.   Like that book, we need to teach strategies, not do the work for the students.  It’s harder than it sounds.

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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6 Responses to The Reading Conundrum

  1. Victoria Bhavsar says:

    Heh. I’m remembering one textbook I used to have, that I dutifully tried to read. I fell asleep every. single. time. Granted, it was more of a reference book for an upper division soils class, but the teacher expected us to “read” it, so I tried. Do I still have that one…? [glance at bookshelf] No, looks like I got rid of it.

    I think your question is a super one: “When does the enabling of the learner become too much? When does nurturing the student in a learning-centered environment end up disabling the student for learning in the real world?”

    Possible answer: When we don’t ask them to think about their *learning itself* in addition to the skills or content. If you never know you can do something…you can’t. I’m remembering a classic pedagogical moment — Daniel-san waxing on/waxing off, and complaining that he didn’t know what it was *for* until Mr. Miagi tried to hit him. I must be tired today if I’m relying on Hollywood for my insight!!!

  2. guitarsophist says:

    I am teaching a book, Glen Stillar’s Analyzing Everyday Texts, for the second time. The first time, the students hated it. This time, I am analyzing why they hated it. The second chapter presents a system of discourse analysis using concepts from M.A.K. Halliday. The top level terms are ideational, interpersonal, textual, and contextual. Then he describes subcategories such as “Process Types and Participant Roles” and “Concept Taxonomies.” Each top-level category has several sub-categories and sub-sub-categories under it. Each individual section makes sense while you are reading it, and he illustrates most sections with a sample analysis of a text. While you are reading it, it seems like you should get it, but when you try to hold the whole thing in your mind, it makes your stomach hurt.

    The basic idea is easy: Texts use linguistic resources to represent a world, construct social relationships among the participants in the discourse, and to provide internal and external cohesion. The system Stillar designs is supposed to help us see how text does these things. It does. But getting a grasp of the whole is quite a task.

    I made an outline for them. We will see if that helps.

  3. Jim says:

    Seems to me that one big factor is the speed and facility with which one reads. If you read quickly and have a modicum of curiousity, someone hands you a book and you breeze through it. Read slowly and it likely stays unread. I would also guess that reading speed is correlated with IQ and SES. However, as one who views this generation with a raised eyebrow, I admire your refreshing willingness to meet their needs. I am sure you have the right approach.

  4. Jim says:

    P.S. It does make sense that it is not just the ability to read well that helps, but the use of appropriate strategies while reading, which can be taught.

  5. guitarsophist says:

    I was talking today to Doug Fisher, a reading specialist at San Diego State. He was making the point that nothing really substitutes for background knowledge, and that appropriate strategies are not very effective without it. I argued that there is really no substitute for voracious long term reading because that gives you the background, and the vocabulary. I know that in my case, 30 years of daily newspaper reading has given me a considerable background of general knowledge about a wide variety of things. Now newspapers are going bankrupt, and no one is going to develop that kind of background easily. Perhaps the web will evolve to meet this need, but at the moment, web searches result in information that is generally both superficial and narrow. I am sure all is not lost, but I am very sorry to see newspapers go away.

  6. Jim says:

    I too am sad to see the decline of the newspaper. Regarding background knowledge…good point. Frameworks in which to place new knowledge–exactly what we try to find in teaching. I encourage kids to read whatever they are most interested in, and parents of budding readers to help them find those books. It boggles my mind when people say they don’t enjoy reading, because it seems like a silly issue in the abstract. Similarly, I know older people who refused much contact with a computer until they were practically dragged in front of a screen that had a browser open to a web page about their favorite hobby, and you could practically see lightbulbs turning on overhead.

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