Information Sheet #132

October 17, 2001


[In June 2001, 14 faculty and students spent a day discussing the ways in which reading gets done–or doesn’t get done–in college classes.  Much of our session focused on how to help students successfully complete their reading assignments.  We wanted students to do more than just look at their textbooks; we wanted them to gain new information and insights from those texts by thinking about what they had read.

Underlying this attention to reading is an assumption that the college’s Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Program depends on students improving their reading skills.  We are operating on a simple premise: writing facility is based on reading facility.  If we want students to improve as writers, they must improve as readers.  While the reading factor permeates all aspects of the composing process, it is perhaps most evident in revising, which depends on the students seeing and hearing their own texts.  If they can’t intelligently and critically read what they have written, they will have few ideas on how to revise what they have written.

What follows in this first Word Shop of the fall term is a condensed and revised version of a handout distributed at the June workshop.  The list offers a variety of reading assignments to accompany the usual “read from page blank to page blank in your textbook.”  These supplemental assignments should offer students additional guidance or motivation for ensuring that this encounter with a text is a fruitful experience.  I would certainly welcome additions or comments to this list as you think about your own experiences with assignments that involve reading–an activity at the core of a liberal arts education and yet an activity often ignored.  –Bob Marrs]

Instructor shares reading experiences/strategies.  Talk with class about your reading techniques/strategies and the joys and frustrations you have had reading academic texts.  

Students talk about themselves as readers.   Students discuss in class or in small groups how they handle their reading assignments.

Marginal comments in their texts.  Students engage in a dialogue with the author.  The white space in margins is for readers to summarize, outline, object, ask questions, talk back, identify connections, add personal experiences, express feelings, etc.

Reading response journal.  One version is the double-entry notebook.  On left side of page are important quotes, summaries, paraphrases, significant points from text; on right side of page are reader responses, commentary, etc.

Reading log.  Students keep a log recording the beginning and ending time for each reading session, their location, conditions of the reading environment, what was read (title of text and inclusive page numbers), and brief commentary on the reading process/ experience.  Log could include brief summary of content. Perhaps once a week, students reflect on their reading strategies, difficulties they are having with text, environmental influences affecting their comprehension, etc.

Comparison of textbooks.  Students compare chapter (or topic) from assigned textbook with comparable chapters or passages from other textbooks.  Written or oral comparison can examine not only similarities and differences in content but also consider how comparable material was presented by different publications.

Comparison of academic and popular press.  Students compare how the same topic is covered in academic text and a publication intended for mass audience.  Or comparison of printed text with internet sources.

Reading conference with instructor.   These can be conferences comparable to discussions on writing. In the conference the instructor and student discuss various techniques for comprehending the text and perhaps practice reading together.

Reading conference in the Writing Center.  Reader meets with consultant to tackle difficult passages through collaboration.  The Writing Center does hundreds of such conferences each year.

Web page forum.  Students in class work in small reading groups, perhaps 5 students per group, each student posting several times per week on the reading assignments.  Forum may be an open-ended discussion on issues raised by students or they may be responding to the instructor’s specific study questions.

Students read passages aloud.  Students experiment reading passages aloud, either alone or with partners.

Mix the Tough and the Easy.  Alternate difficult reading assignments with accessible texts that students can handle without too much difficulty.  Easier texts help restore confidence to readers who can become exhausted when constantly dealing with texts beyond their comprehension.  It helps morale and  understanding of the issues to tackle a few texts that are readable.

Assign “dueling texts.”  Assign two texts to be read “at the same time,” inviting students to move back and forth between the two texts, considering how these texts speak to each other.

Prereading exercise.  This assignment works best with a book that has a good table of contents or a detailed index.  Have the students go through the following steps before they begin reading the book:

Think about the title & subtitle.  What does the book promise? Ask what you need or want from the book.

Read the table of contents.  What do you learn from this overview of the book?

Read the index at the back of the book with some care.  What topics receive the most page number references?  On a sheet of paper write down the 10-15 topics most frequently mentioned.  Read the index again, looking for names or topics that you already know something about.  Check out the page references on 2 or 3 of these topics.  What do you discover?

Reread the table of contents.  Any connections between the table of contents and the index?

Summarize your sense of the book.  Is it going to deliver what you are seeking?  Does the book seem readable?  What are your gut feelings about this book?

Word List.  Students record unfamiliar words they encounter in the readings.  In a notebook or commonplace book, they write each word and the passage (sentence or part of a sentence) in which the word appears (plus page number in text).  Before looking up the word in a dictionary, the student writes out a conjectural definition based on the context.  The student can then look up the word and provide the following information:

* The dictionary definition that seems most applicable to this situation.

            * The word’s etymology.

            * Brief commentary on the word and its usage.

In-Class Reading Quizzes.  Begin each class period with a short, 2-5 minute quiz over the day’s reading assignments.  These exercises can be in any form:   multiple choice, short answer, fill-in-the blank, true/false, etc.  Can mix the big picture question with attention to significant or interesting details.  Perhaps these quizzes work best when they serve as the basis for the class lecture or discussion.  The quizzes also have the advantage of getting everyone’s attention and involvement in the issues of the class. 

Students Define Reading and Learning.  Research in reading theory and practices confirms that many students, particularly at the beginning of their college careers, view learning as a simple, straightforward process to be accomplished quickly.  Information is acquired primarily by passively receiving what is offered by the instructor or the text.   Students need to understand that reading, requires active construction of ideas and insights by the reader–work that must be done by the student, not the instructor.  It is difficult to convince students to become effective readers if they continue to view the learning as the task of a passive consumer.  One approach is to have students in a class write out–either individually or collaboratively–their definitions of reading, studying, and learning.  And then use later assignments during the term to help students clarify their definitions and learn to apply their definitions to the tasks at hand.  In a final assignment for the term students might revise or reflect on their earlier definitions and discuss how reading and learning can best be defined.

Quotes on Reading Worth Sharing with Students

Reading cannot be separated from thinking.  Reading is a thought-full activity.  There is no difference between reading and any other kind of thought, except that with reading, thought focuses on a written text.  Reading might be defined as thought that is stimulated and directed by written language.  –Frank Smith, Understanding Reading

I took a course in speed reading and was able to read War and Peace in twenty minutes.  It’s about Russia. --Woody Allen

Evenings I return home and enter my study; and at its entrance I take off my everyday clothes, full of mud and dust, and don royal and courtly garments; decorously attired, I enter into the ancient sessions of ancient men.  Received amicably by them, I partake of such food as is mine only and for which I was born.  There, without shame, I speak with them and ask them about the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity respond to me. 
--Machiavelli, letter to Francesco Vertori (December 1513)

As you read [a book] word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence, of the music.  And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul. 
--Ursula Leguin

The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. --Mark Twain

One reads in order to ask questions.  –Franz Kafka

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