Information Sheet # 121

September 23, 1999


[On a Friday in August, 17 faculty and 3 students attended a six-hour workshop focusing on the role of reading in a college curriculum.  This information sheet is composed of excerpts from the group members’ notes on the day’s conversations, followed by two participants’ retrospective commentaries.  Although the blending of these annotations fails to capture everything we discussed, I do hope these fragments of thoughts and questions can help us reconsider some fundamental problems we encounter when we ask students to read pages 126-154 in the textbook for Monday.  --Bob Marrs]

The Workshop dealt with such questions as the following:

     • How do we teach college students to become active, engaged readers? 

     • Most of us give many reading assignments, but how can we help students analyze and comprehend what they encounter on the page--so they are not depending on us to translate and interpret their texts for them? 

     • Might our courses be more successful if we enabled students to become better readers-across-the-curriculum?

We spent about an hour sharing memories of positive and negative experiences of learning to read and giving reading assignments to our students.  Most faculty and staff are people who have enjoyed books and private reading since childhood.  Some feel that reading a particular book (e.g., Crime and Punishment) changed their lives.  Many came to love books because parents had large book collections and regularly read themselves or read aloud to their children.  Some people read rapidly and dislike reading the same text.  Others read with delight, but slowly, and often reread with pleasure and profit.

* * *

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

“You can write only as well as you can read.”

* * *

As each person talked about a positive reading experience, it was almost always when the reader was in control and could choose what to read.  Many positive experiences involved reading with other people.  Frequent references to the role of grandparents and parents reading aloud to them, unlimited bedtimes, the power of captivating authors, the powerful connection of mind/body responses to books (for example, the pleasurable fear of reading Poe at night in an empty farm house while parents were at a bowling alley).

* * *

One teacher expressed despair over getting students to do any reading, even when they pay good attention to lectures.  One very discouraging kind of experience which several in our group had experienced: having a teacher who insists that there is one and only one right way to read a text.  Students learn to play a game of trying to figure out what the teacher wants and then giving it to her or him to get a good grade.

* * *

To “read” a painting like “The Education of the Virgin” called for attention to form, structure, lighting, and content (I also discovered that  the painting’s title influences how we read the painting).  Questions raised about what is a “culturally informed reading” and a “culturally virgin reading.”  How should/can cultural awareness be taught?  Who should teach it?  Students as well as teacher?

* * *

Reading for understanding versus looking at words.

One time through won’t give you what you need.  Just like writing, we need reading revision.

* * *

Can we get our students to appreciate the “fun” of the struggle in reading a challenging text?  We looked at an essay by Sven Birkerts that was challenging for everyone in our group.  It was suggested that it’s sometimes valuable to give a reading assignment like this and let the students flounder.  In the classroom discussion, the students can discover some things in the assignment that make sense.  A Danielle Steele novel may be easy to read but low in value; a valuable reading may prompt confusion and many interpretations, no one understanding everything, but in the long run they will learn more.

* * *

A discussion of one of my reading assignments led me to wonder if it is a good strategy to spend time in class summarizing what I consider the main points of the reading--that may waste time or encourage students not to bother to read the text themselves. 

* * *

Through the third grade the emphasis in schools is on learning to read.  From the 4th grade on, the emphasis is on reading to learn.

* * *

“All we can do is have high expectations.”

* * *

A discussion of a reading assignment by Duane Olson (Trible on Genesis 2) led me to ponder how students may profitably be led to consider two or more alternative readings of an ancient text.  One woman in our group pointed out that a male teacher’s reading Trible only to dispute her interpretation “would immediately turn me off in a class devoted to feminist theology.”

* * *

The group’s list of negative reading experiences:

      • Mostly reading for classes and teachers, in situations where

      there is the sense that there is one right answer, one right way to read this text--and I’m doing it wrong.

      • Too much reading for assignments.

      • The shock of going from high school (where you had developed confidence and pleasure in your reading ability) to college (where you had to critique texts in certain ways).

      • Reading 3-4 chapters and then you had to write about it.

      • Plodding through Silas Marner sentence by sentence in a high school English class.

Perhaps the negative experiences made us scholars?  We had to learn how to read, learning to deal with uncomfortable situations.

* * *

Reading for pleasure (reading by choice): this is primarily a one-to-one relationship between the reader and the text.  In college, the reading assignments involve a third or fourth party.  Besides the student and the text, there is the instructor and often other students.  This three or four-cornered situation makes the reading tasks more threatening and less satisfying.

* * *


How does the medium affect the way we read?  Leather bound, hard cover, paperback or even computer screen?

What are the differences between reading for pleasure and reading for the content and information?

How do we, as faculty, read texts?  When reading a journal article, I have specific pieces of information/ideas I need; I look for these.  What about students?

* * *

Two Ideas

      • Reading is a kind of writing.

      • Reading elicits the same sense memory used in acting.

Goal of reading instruction: help students learn about building rafts / making connections.  Understanding part of something difficult is more worthy than knowing all of a piece with less meat.

* * *

One benefit of the workshop was getting comments from the three students who attended the workshop.  At lunch they commented that this was one of the most exciting activities they had participated in at Coe: getting to brainstorm with faculty as equals.

* * *

Meaning is constructed over time: the reader creates meaning.  It’s not “out there” somewhere waiting to be found. 

* * *

The ideal is a “conversation of mankind” that students can participate in.  Not all students feel a part of this academic community.  Students have their own expertise/specialties/knowledge--sometimes they know more about a subject than the professor.  They bring resources that should be used.

* * *

Maybe we can’t teach reading skills that will work across all the curriculum because reading differs from one discipline to another.  Disciplines need to teach their own reading strategies (like theater faculty teaching script analysis): various techniques that are specific to specific genres.

* * *

“Read the first time for pleasure because you won’t have that opportunity again.” 

* * *

Why students have difficulties with reading assignments.  Reflections and questions:

      • One problem is that we assume students have cultural context necessary to go beyond a superficial reading of a text.  It may be necessary to be familiar with the culture of science before you can effectively read scientific texts.

      • Unskilled readers often look for one or two key sentences in a reading assignment and rely on such sentences to serve as a summary for the entire text.  Skilled readers know not to assume such sentences exist, recognizing that they must often create “main points” not explicitly provided by the writer.

      • Assigning too much reading (reading that is too difficult, or involving too many pages) often discourages students.

      • Multiple readings may be necessary to develop the whole picture; hard for students to accept the fact that they may not “get it” on the first reading..

      • Is it necessary for students to have experiences which are relevant to the text in order to understand what they are reading?

* * *

“Since when did learning have to be fun?”

* * *

Possible Reading Assignments:

      • Go beyond the “book report” mode: summarize & give opinion vs. Grasping central idea.

      • An instructor may want times when there is no connection between lecture and textbook--so students must rely solely on their reading.

      • Need to teach students to use the entire textbook: the text, objectives, summaries.

      • Students can develop a commitment to each other and their reading assignments if the structure of the class focuses on participation as a way of understanding a text.  Students create “interpretive communities,” which are perhaps like an ant colony: it’s only when working together that they really accomplish something.

       • Students turn in questions about weekly reading assignments throughout the semester.  Or give students questions to ponder as they read.

       • Dictionaries: it’s good even on the college level to require that students have a good dictionary and use it.

       • Encourage students to write marginal notes; faculty can show students their own marginal notes and the frequent struggle to comprehend complex texts.

       • Use a bulletin board or web-page discussion group for students to discuss their reading assignments.

       • Have students read chapters from textbooks other than the one chosen for class; they can write papers analyzing how the text they purchased compares with other texts.  Perhaps they could write a memo to the instructor, recommending (with evidence) which text should be used in next term’s class.

       • Have students footnote an article, annotating passages they agree with by giving examples from their own experience; passages they disagree with can be annotated with questions, counter arguments, or relevant experiences.

* * *

At the End of the Day

by Bruce Nesmith

This session has given me a lot to think about; though I’m not sure I have any more clues on how to bring students and texts together than I did before, I may be less despairing.  I found it interesting—and perhaps reassuring—that virtually everyone who spoke had similar experiences with lack of reading. . . .

So where are we?  What keeps students from reading?  If it’s quality of writing, density, that can be negotiated.  We can find simpler writing, though . . . a textbook that fills the bill and covers the material we want and is reasonably priced may be quite difficult to find.  “You should have seen the forty texts I didn’t adopt,” quipped Can Van Niewaal.

It may be time pressures, as Christa Dickson suggested.  This too is negotiable, in that I can reduce the amount of reading in the course.  I would like students to work 7 hours a week outside of class but probably my reading and writing assignments require 3-4.  If I cut it to 1 ˝ or 2 hours, would I get better response?  I doubt it.

So here’s my theory, an economic theory of student behavior.  Students, like all of us, have a finite amount of time to spend on a variety of activities: sleep, athletic practice, TV, socializing, drinking, church, eating, work, studying, etc.  We spend our time in ways that maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  If studying is unpleasant, students will do the minimum amount they can get away with (i.e., won’t create the higher pain level of low GPA or failure).  So the instructor must make studying more pleasurable--which we can try to do but may lack academic integrity--or not studying more painful.  I’ve tried some methods but ultimately find them alienating and hence, self-defeating.  Being beloved works for me intermittently. 

This has given me much to cogitate on, though no immediate solutions.

Reflecting on the Reading Workshop

Terry Heller

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.  It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.  Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written. [Henry David Thoreau, from Walden, the chapter on “Reading.”]

I came away from the workshop impressed with our anguish, anguish being one of the themes of my teaching career.  It was comforting to learn that I am not alone, that most of us seem to want what I want, irrational as that desire may be.  At least, one major impression I gained was that we wish deeply that each and every one of our students would walk into our classrooms already able to read everything we want them to at a level close to (but not quite as good as?) our own.  It pains us that this is not the case, and often it makes us feel inadequate.  Always this situation places us in tension between those students who already read our materials well and with whom we can engage on what we find most exciting and those students who struggle to learn to read the kinds of texts we are presenting and who, therefore, require us to teach them “how to read.”

We wish our students already were the sorts of reading athletes Thoreau describes, the kind every track coach wants most to show up at track practice.

I think of track here because one of the best and most influential teachers in my undergraduate career was Al Carius, who began his track coaching career at North Central College when I was a sophomore.  Before Al came along, my physical education and athletic life was dominated by people who wanted to work with stars, with competitors who would win points for the team at meets.  Other people didn’t interest them.  Al came to us preaching that athletic activity was for everyone, that everyone who trained and developed skills for competition should compete.  And he transformed the athletic conference because he bargained and cajoled and made it possible for his bloated team to travel to all conference meets.  We couldn’t all earn points for the team, but we could compete, and he kept track of our progress, announcing new “personal bests” along with other achievements after each meet.  He made me into a lifetime athlete, though obviously not a star, and this has added immeasurably to the pleasures of my life.

I wonder if Al’s approach to coaching track can be applied successfully in our classes, in training our students to read better.  What I particularly like about this approach is that it is democratic.  Everyone is welcome.  The only requirement is serious effort – putting in training time and developing of skill.  Quality of performance is relatively unimportant to participating.  Democratic ideals are furthered also by demanding cooperation – that everyone’s practice and development are equally important.  The ordinary are coached and encouraged the same as the stars; every member of the team is expected to respect every other member.

The obstacles to adapting this to our classes seem formidable to me.  In most courses, we think we are teaching more than reading and writing.  We want students to remember some of the materials they study.  We want them to develop critical thinking skills that will make them superior independent learners.  Reading and writing may be just another name for a large group of those skills, but they aren’t in themselves the knowledge of bodies of information upon which further knowledge can be built, and as we observed in discussion, there are multiple components to what we mean by reading, and we’d rather our students already knew a lot of them – having to do with vocabulary, decoding complex sentences, reading metaphors, etc. – so we could concentrate on teaching them the specialized vocabularies of our fields and the skills and ideas for a more advanced sort of reading and writing.

Another obstacle is evaluation.  The longer I teach, the more I dislike giving grades – not because I am persuaded that my evaluation of students’ work in relation to each other lacks validity or usefulness, but because the process seems to me only to interfere with teaching in my field.  There is no way I have discovered to articulate standards of evaluation for reading and writing skill in literature to 18-22-year-olds.  To evaluate them at less than A is to tell many of them that they are impaired beyond hope of repair, that they don’t belong on the team.  In a good percentage of students it provokes anger and a profound sense of injustice: “Who are you to say that my interpretation of The Scarlet Letter is less good than Mary Jane’s?”  To these students grading proves what they already believed, that teachers are authoritarians who require them to think in the same pattern as the teacher or suffer for it.  Giving a grade ends teaching – struggling to improve skill – and begins a fight – the student’s struggle to figure out which answer will get the A out of the teacher.  Many students flail about a long time before they can see the grading teacher as their helper in a struggle to improve their own skills and the grade as some rough indication of where they are currently in that quest.  If only there were a finish line or a measuring tape that showed definitively the order of the finishers, so that I could confine my work to coaching and announcing personal bests!

I’ve been meditating here, and so there are lots of loose ends, statements of the too obvious, and unintended provocations.  I’d like to wrap this up somehow.  I think we want what we can’t have, students who already know a good deal of what we, in fact, need to teach them.  I think we should try to teach all of our students, which means struggling to provide classrooms in which both the already and the not-yet skilled can deal with appropriate challenges and advance their learning while working together.

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