Two years ago I was hired to teach dual enrollment classes at a high school. Since it's DE, and the same classes I've taught at NVCC for almost nine years (college composition) I didn't feel the need to drastically redesign my courses, but rather developed them more fully to account for the longer time I'd have with the high school students. I am a writing teacher, I teach writing. And while I gave reading assignments, I did not provide my students with any particular strategy to approach these assignments with.
Then this summer I attended the MLA Institute hosted at GMU, and one of the major focuses of the conference was reading, and how to approach reading in the composition classroom. I got really excited. I could see application for my DE classes, for my regular NVCC classes, and for my online GMU classes. And all this great reading, thinking, and planning I was doing happened to take place during this summer, while I'm taking Foundations of Secondary Education, a class required for the second masters I'm working on, a class that requires a major project to finish the semester with. A project I can pick the topic on.
Now, reading strategies are probably old news to regular high school English teachers, but for Composition teachers it's big news. And that got me thinking: Who else could use this information?
Students not doing the reading or not understanding the reading is an endemic problem, in high school and in college. In fact, a 2015 study showed that only 38% of high school seniors could read at a proficient level. These struggling students are in both high school and college, and their reading problem becomes all of our (teachers/professors) problem when it impairs these students' ability to learn course content.
There has been a big emphasis in recent years for writing across the curriculum, why not reading across the curriculum? It's a well-established fact, in both composition and creative writing, that reading helps improve writing. Clearly, if writing is important enough to include it in every course, reading instruction is as well.
Outside of elementary school, reading isn't a typical class subject for students, unless it's a remedial course in college. ELA classes in secondary education cover reading, but given the 38% proficient level of our high school seniors, clearly our ELA classes can't handle the burden alone. If we want students to read in our classes, really read and comprehend, we have to do something different.
So why don't students read?
Some of the things we do as teachers actively discourages students from doing the reading. Other factors, like lifestyle, can play a factor as well. Let's look at some of the common reasons students are reading and understanding less:
1. Google. As our lives become more and more digital, students are reading less in print and more online. And reading online is a very different experience. Typically when we read online we skim, we jump from webpage to webpage. We quickly look up the answer to a question, and then move on. All of these habits discourage deep, sustained reading of difficult or challenging texts.
2. Teacher's Lectures. Our students are smart. They know that if we cover the same material in our lectures and PowerPoints they can coast along without reading and still do well in class.
3. Quizzes. Okay, they don't actually discourage reading, but they promote a very specific kind of reading. When students know there will be a quiz, they read with that in mind, and look for "correct answers" in the reading. This is a very surface level approach, even though it leads to a good quiz grade. If we want our students to really engage with the text, we have to promote that kind of engagement.
4. Those busy schedules. Students (both in high school and college) are busier than ever. School, sports, jobs, family, extracurriculars, the demands on their time and attention is never ending. Reading for school takes time and energy, especially a deep reading. Without the proper encouragement, students just won't commit the time.
5. Lack of cultural knowledge. This is more an impairment to comprehension. If students don't understand the context of a reading, background information, allusions, and shared knowledge that the author and the intended audience have. If we wish our students to engage with difficult sources, especially specialized primary and secondary sources, we have to fill in some of these gaps in their knowledge.
6. Unfamiliar Vocabulary. Students won't keep reading if it's too difficult, and even though they google everything else they might not pause to google unfamiliar words. There's a few things that can help with this. Acknowledging that a text is difficult, so students don't feel dumb, can help. Going over vocabulary in class or providing a vocabulary guide can also be helpful.
7. Unfamiliar Genre. If we want to introduce a scholarly article to high school students or first year college students, we need to take the time to get them familiar with this genre. Most of them will have never encountered one before, and may not know how to approach it. This is true of many other genres as well. Going over the structure and genre expectations of an assigned reading can help alleviate a lot of confusion for students.
So we've addressed the challenges students face with unfamiliar readings, what are some approaches we can use to promote deep, mindful reading of texts and increase comprehension?
I have spent the last three weeks reading about every reading strategy I can come upon. I've read four books, three scholarly articles, and have interviewed three full time faculty members with Northern Virginia Community College who regularly use reading strategies in their college composition courses. I have compiled a list of reading strategies that will work in most if not all disciplines, and I am so excited to share them with you!
1. Use an Anticipation Guide. I really like this one, and there's lots of variations of it that you can do. Students are asked to respond to a series of questions and to make predictions prior to reading in order to activate prior knowledge and experiences, identify key points to look for in the reading, and use as a review after reading. Questions on an Anticipation guide can be fact or opinion based, with options "Agree," "Disagree," and "No Comment/Neutral." You can even add "Strongly Agree" and "Strongly Disagree." Provide space for students to explain the rationale behind their answer. This can lead into a four-square activity where the teacher reads each statement out loud and students stand in the corner or side of the room that coordinates with their answer. Then ask students about their answer. Now the stage has been set for introducing the reading.
2. Make it Problem Based. Showing students the real-world application of the material being learned will help students engage with a text on a whole new level. Create or find a problem (or problems) that can be solved using material from the reading. Let students work individually, and then in groups. When the groups come together and share the group solutions, then the class can vote on the most appropriate reading-based solution.
3. Experience-Text Relationship. First, during the Experience phase, ask questions about the students' background and prior knowledge of the topic. Then for the Text phase, have students read a particular passage or section of the reading. Resume the discussion by asking students to identify themes in the text, important points, or confusing areas that can be clarified. Finally, for the Relationship phase, ask questions that invite the students to draw connections between the themes and concepts from the texts and their own experience.
4. SQ3R. First you will want to explain the framework of the activity in the class and assign (or suggest) students use it on the readings for the homework. The following steps explain the process of the activity. This can also be done as an in class activity with the teacher guiding students through the different steps.
- Survey helps students gather the basic structure of the topic presented in the reading, including reading the title, headings, graphics, and any text called out such as definitions or objectives.
- Question involves turning headings and other main ideas identified in the survey state into questions. Students should then seek answers to the questions as they read.
- In the Read stage, students read the text to capture the main ideas as identified in the survey and question stages. The goal is to write down the answers to the questions raised by filling in the main ideas without getting too bogged down by the details.
- Next, students Recite material, which assists with concentration and recall. Students look at each of the questions of a section and attempt to answer the questions (while covering up their notes).
- The Review step allows the students to consolidate learning and comprehension by reviewing each of the questions and answers.
Modeling the steps will help students to successfully use this process. The most challenging part for many students is coming up with good questions. Spending some time practicing coming up with questions for a reading in class may be helpful.
5. What Counts as Fact? This activity focuses on teaching students to think critically and analyze arguments. Provide two or more sources of information regarding a topic. This material may be assigned as preclass assignments, or time may be given in class for students to review. Individually or in groups, ask the students to identify the facts in each of the treatments provided on the topic. Ask them to consider what is considered proof, the different types of facts presented, and how well the facts provided support the conclusions of the source. Through the discussion, ask about the different types of evidence, what is most convincing, the choices the author must make, and how to support arguments and conclusions related to the topic under examination. This activity works best when students learn to find and use evidence from reading to support their solution to the presented problem. Students may initially struggle with how to do this work effectively. At the beginning of the activity, walk around and ask whether anyone has questions to help facilitate the group discussions. By presenting problems with a one-sided approach or a controversial solution, you can help seed the group discussions. Asking students to find evidence in support of a historical policy position that seems counter to current day standards can encourage students to seek out evidence. For example, in a US History course, you could ask students to seek evidence of why the states should have voted against the ratification of the Constitution. Depending on the nature of the topic, students may hold strong personal feelings about the problem or proposed solutions. As you guide the ending discussion, help students focus on the evidence from the reading to help maintain the class emphasis on ideas from the text.
6. Three-Level Reading Guide. The Three Level Reading Guide is designed to help students identify significant information in a reading, interpret the meaning of the text, and apply this information to related material. This process is achieved by having students think about the three levels of comprehension of a text: literal, interpretive, and applied. First explain each level of comprehension of a text. Individually or in groups, have students identify approximately eight facts or ideas that are literally in the text. Next, ask the students to note four or five ideas that are interpreted for what the author might mean. Have students then write down two to three ideas that combine with other course materials to make generalizations or hypotheses about the topic. Debrief with the class about what points they identified and lead a discussion of the topic based on the ideas from the text raised by the students.
7. Social Annotations. There are many ways social annotation can be used. One way I like to do it is with the online program hypothes.is. Students can highlight and comment on the text, see what other students have commented, and react to those comments. One colleague I interview uses giant paper pads, tapes the article to be annotated to the sheet, and have groups work silenting highlighting and annotating the text. In the class I'm taking this summer, we have done social annotation using the large dry erase board in the classroom, and going from article to article leaving comments and reacting to other comments. It is a way to get students to go a little deeper in their readings.
8. Question Cloud. Assign a specific text you'd like students to work on. Have a brief whole class discussion about the text to see if students have questions about it. Then introduce the activity, the visual learning and inquiry mindset/research goals, and the materials required (paper, pen, provide colored pencils or pens if possible/desired). Read through (or watch) the text you'll be working with. Ask students to take notes by focusing on any questions that are raised by the text, and asking their own questions in no particular format while listening. On the whiteboard, start with the two central questions students identify and ask students to respond with questions connecting the ideas or diverging with questions related to their own experience. Demonstrate making a question cloud, and then have students use their notes to create their own while working in groups. Explain that they need to create a central question, draw a cloud around it, and then expand outward with related sub-questions based on the central question. The only rule is that you can only write questions. Students can get ideas from each other in conversation, can start with questions from the text or their own, and should have fun using colors to connect the ideas. Have students share their Question Clouds with the class, summarizing their main question and how they expanded outward in their thinking process. This can be used to scaffold into a larger project. Students can expand and/or use any of the questions in their Question Cloud to choose a research topic and to develop an open-ended Inquiry Question (with sub-questions) for their semester-long research project. Students can also begin a new Question Cloud if their classmates' brainstorming process sparked interest in a different research question.
9. Text Synthesis Venn Diagrams. Have students gather three sources they plan to use for a research paper. Give each student a blank three-circle Venn diagram (can be hard copy or a downloadable file online). Have students identify the areas of overlap in the three sources, and the material that is unique to each source. Then they can begin to fill in the Venn diagram. In the sections with no overlap, they will explain the central argument of the texts. In the sections where two articles overlap, they will explain how those two articles could be discussed together (or synthesized) based on common or contradictory arguments. In the center (where the three sections overlap), they will explain how all three articles could be synthesized. Perhaps practice completing one Venn diagram as a class before students set to work on their own, or demonstrate your own example before they begin. If time remains, ask students to share their diagrams/ideas with the class or in small groups.
10. Use a Monte Carlo quiz. Whereas conventional quizzes test for information, the Monte Carlo quiz asks students to apply to a reading a set of interpretative questions keyed to Bloom's taxonomy. These can be given either in pop quiz format or in a learning log format done outside of class. These questions focus more on meaning rather than information engage students in more deep thinking than traditional quiz questions.
Instructors can adapt the following to any reading:
- Describe the thesis, the central idea, or set of ideas in the reading.
- Identify two concepts or principles in the reading and show how these concepts connect to each other or to the other readings in the course.
- Select a concept or principle in the reading, clearly define or describe it, and indicate how it applies to you or someone else.
- Write a critical perspective on some aspect of the reading and cite evidence that prompts you to agree or disagree with the authors' perspective.
- Cite a specific passage in the reading that initiated for you an emotional response; then describe your emotional response and provide possible reasons for that response.
These questions promote deeper student engagement than conventional quizzes. There are also metacognitive benefits of applying the same set of questions to every reading encountered. Whereas a conventional quiz tests the recall of specific details of a reading, the Monte Carlo quiz questions promote a repeatable reading strategy that can be transferred across disciplines and genres.
11. "What It Does," "What It Says." A good way to teach students to discern the structure of a text is to have them write "what it does" and "what it says" statements for each paragraph. A "what it says" statement is a summary of the paragraph's content, the paragraph's state or implied topic sentence. A "what it does" statement describes the paragraph's purpose or function within the essay: for example, "provides evidence for the author's first main reason," "summarizes an opposing view," provides statistical data to support a point," or "uses an analogy to clarify the idea in the previous paragraph." Asking students to write out "what it does" and "what it says" statements for each paragraph in an assigned reading will ensure not only careful reading of the piece but also increased awareness of structure.
12. Help Students See That All Texts Are Trying to Change Their View of Something. This strategy helps students appreciate that texts aren't simply container of inert information, rather they are rhetorically purposeful messages aimed at effecting some change in the reader's view of the subject. If students become more aware that texts are trying to change their views (beliefs, values, behaviors) in some way, they can interrogate texts more actively, trying to decide what to accept and what to doubt. A useful exercise to reveal the persuasive intent of a text is to ask students to develop responses to the following questions:
1. Before I read this text, the author assumed that I believed....
2. After I finished reading this text, the author wanted me to believe...
3. The author was/was not successful in changing my view. How so? Why or why not?
13. Summary/Response or Double-Entry Notebooks. A summary/response notebook is a slightly more structured version of a reading log. It requires students to make dialogic responses to a text: first to represent the text's argument to themselves in their own words and then to respond to it. Students are typically asked to write one page that restates, summarizes, outlines, visually represents, or is simply a page of notes. The next page is the student's own personal reflections on or reactions to the article. They can analyze it, illustrate in through their own experience, refute it, get mad at it, question it, believe it, doubt it, go beyond it. A double-entry notebook promotes the rhetorical thinking needed to write the summary pate and the metacognitive thinking needed to write the reflection/response page.
This project has been amazing to work on. I would like to acknowledge the help of my colleagues at Northern Virginia Community College who were so good as to let me interview them: Jolene Houston, Chris Kervina, and Indigo Erickson. I now have lots of new strategies to try out this school year as I continue teaching College Composition and World Lit. I'm excited to see how these strategies help my students develop as writers, readers, and critical thinkers. I'm honestly not sure which strategy I'm most excited to try. I really like the Monte Carlo quiz and What is Fact? How about you? Which strategy are you most excited to try? Please leave a comment and let me know.
(Note on Citations: Hanging indent option not available)
Adler-Kassner, L. & Estrem, H. (2005). Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A View from the Field. In S. Harrington, K. Rhodes, R. O. Fischer, & R. Malenczyk, Outcomes Book: Debate and Consensus after the WPA Outcomes Statement. University Press of Colorado; Utah State University Press.
Bean, J. C., & Melzer, D. (2021). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Jossey-Bass.
Ihara, R. & Principe, A. D. (2018). What We Mean When We Talk about Reading: Rethinking the Purposes and Contexts of College Reading. Across the Disciplines: A Journal of Language, Learning, and Academic Writing, Vol. 15(2), pp. 1-14.
Kervina, C. (2023, June 27) Making Reading Social: Social Annotation and Interactive Reading Strategies. MLA Institute, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.
Major, C. H., Harris, M. S., & Zakrajsek, T. D. (2021). Teaching for Learning: 101 Intentionally Designed Educational Activities to Put Students on the Path to Success. Routledge.
Reznizki, M. & Coad, D. T. (Eds.). (2023). Dynamic Activities: For First-Year Composition. NCTE.
Smith, C. H. (2012). Interrogating Texts: From Deferent to Efferent and Aesthetic Reading Practices. Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 31(1), pp. 59-79.
Sullivan, P., Tinberg, H., & Blau, S. (Eds.). (2017). Deep Reading: Teaching Reading in the Writing Classroom. NCTE.
I started this project with two goals: to find reading
strategies that I can use in the classes I currently teach, which include
online asynchronous, online synchronous, and in person, advanced composition,
first year composition, and world lit, and includes a range of students from high
school seniors to college seniors. I definitely achieved this goal, and have
already begun using some of the strategies that I found in my summer classes.
My second goal was to create something I could use in a Professional
Development class I’ve been asked by my assistant principal to plan and run. I
feel that I’ve accomplished this goal as well.
This project has been very interesting to me personally. I
had no prior pedagogical training before I began teaching eight years ago, and
I feel I’m still trying to make up for that lack. I am constantly seeking more
knowledge and for opportunities to learn more and improve myself as a teacher.
Since I primarily teach writing, I have never given much thought to how I use
reading and how I teach reading until this summer. I am very grateful that this
course has given me the opportunity to explore pedagogical practices around
reading in depth, and to synthesize my learning through this project.
My online asynchronous class this summer is using social
annotation, and I intend to introduce the says/does assignment as well. For the
upcoming fall semester, I will be using social annotations. I will also be
using says/does in college composition courses, and I plan to use Question
Clouds in Eng 111 to start the semester. Will probably introduce it after the
literary narrative assignment. I will also use the Synthesis Venn Diagram as a
way to help ENG 111 students organize and understand their research better. I
plan to use anticipation guides in World Lit, especially with the more complex
stories we look at. I also like the Experience-Text-Relationship activity, and
can see using it in all of my classes. I can also see using What Counts as
Fact? in my 111 course right before teaching fact checking, or in my 112 course
before introducing opinion pieces. I think the Three-Level Reading Guide could
be used in all of my classes.
Reading is a small part of teaching, but at the same time it’s
a thread that connects all content areas in the public school system. We read
to learn, to understand, to teach. Being more mindful about the ways in which
we assign readings is something that can help teachers in students in all
disciplines. There’s a lot of talk about writing across the curriculum, I think
it’s time that we also focus on reading across the curriculum. Something that I’ve
noticed about all of these strategies is that they offer students scaffolding
and a way into harder more complicated texts that without these strategies
would be beyond the student’s comprehension.
From this project I will most certainly be more mindful in regards to
how I assign students to read.