Designing Reading Activities

I find the “Reading” section of a module the most difficult section to write. Some students are fluent readers. The prereading activities may have been enough to engage them and prepare then to read. Further activities during the reading of the text may actually impede their reading, or frustrate them. This is especially true with novels. Some students are fully capable of reading the novel for entertainment, and extra activities, such as reading journals and directives to search for figurative language, get in the way of reading for enjoyment. We don’t want that to happen.

However, other students need a focus and some questions to answer. A well-written text causes readers to ask questions and seek answers as they continue to read. If students don’t understand the text well enough to generate their own questions, the module can supply some. For the weakest readers, these questions become a sort of treasure hunt in which the purpose is not to read the text, but to find the answers. This is not an ideal state, but it can lead to more fluent reading over time.

It is up to the teacher to determine what approach is best for the students in his or her classroom. I would ask more fluent readers to skim over the questions and activities in this section before reading, read the text, and come back to the questions. Less fluent readers might use the questions and activities more actively to propel them through the text.

My overriding question in this section is “What do I want the students to attend to?”

Reading for Understanding

The cheat sheet question for this section is “What aspects of the text might contradict student expectations or otherwise cause difficulty? What might students do to better understand the meaning?”

The most difficult problem for students reading this text is the ironic tone. In fact, the irony is almost enough to make this text unsuitable for a module. Irony is an in-group, insider strategy. The author is having a little joke at the expense of outsiders. He is saying, “Ha, ha, I am saying the opposite of what I mean, but you get the joke because we are all part of the same group.”

It might help to discuss a scenario like this:

Gerald and Jane stepped out onto the porch. Rain poured down in sheets and a torrent of water pushed an overturned trash can down the street. As a wet cat darted toward the open door, lightening flashed followed by a peal of thunder. Gerald turned to Jane and said, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

Does Gerald really like stormy weather? Or is he being ironic?

Then we might give the students a direction to look for examples of the author saying the opposite of what he means as they read the article.

Considering the Structure of the Text

The cheat sheet question for this section is “What should students notice about the structure of the text? How can you help them analyze it?”

This article has an unusual structure for an op-ed piece. It is essentially an argument analysis. It begins with the phrase, “the basic case against . . .” followed by two paragraphs of support for the “against” position. Then paragraph four begins, “the basic case in favor . . .” but states an ironic case. Paragraph five continues the irony, but then begins to present real arguments on the “pro” side. The rest of the article weighs arguments on both sides. The initial question remains, “In a free country, do people have the right to do what they want, even if it’s bad for them?” The author waffles on this question.

One way to help students think about this structure is to ask them to state the issue and then list pro and con arguments. This kind of “T” chart often oversimplifies an issue, but in this case it matches the structure of the piece. We might start this process in this section by asking them to look for the phrases noted above, “the basic case against” and “the basic case in favor,” and ask them what kind of structure is implied by these phrases. Then in the “Annotating and Questioning the Text” section we can ask them to note “pro” or “con” in the margins.

The ironic subtext, however, addresses another issue. The author writes, “Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News’ parent, Bloomberg LP, and therefore my boss. In all likelihood, therefore, he is right about soft drinks and sugar, just as he is right about almost everything.” Michael Bloomberg promotes the law banning Big Gulp sodas in his role as Mayor of New York City. However, he also owns a news agency, and Michael Kinsey, the author of this piece, works for Bloomberg’s news agency. Bloomberg’s dual role creates a potential conflict of interest, both for Bloomberg and for Kinsey. Can Kinsey report objectively on his boss’s proposed law? Will he be fired if he goes against his boss’s position? Does he have credibility with the reader if he writes in favor of his boss’s position?

The ordinary way to deal with this kind of situation is for the author to include a parenthetical note: (Full disclosure: the writer works for Michael Bloomberg). The author instead chose to reveal the conflict of interest through making ironic statements. We will deal with these issues below.

Noticing Language

The cheat sheet questions for this section is: “Are there words, grammatical patterns, or turns of phrase that are potentially confusing or difficult to interpret? How can you help students notice and interpret them?”

In this piece, the irony is the most difficult problem. We could ask students, “Does the author make any statements that seem to mean the opposite of what he really means?” We could also be more direct: “Does the author really believe that Michael Bloomberg must be right just because he is his boss?”

Annotating and Questioning the Text

The cheat sheet question for this section is: “What can you do to help students begin a dialog with the ideas, assumptions, and arguments of the text?”

As discussed above, the most useful annotations would probably be to note “pro” and “con” in the margins. We could also add “Ironic?” to the mix. They will find that some arguments cut both ways.

Analyzing Stylistic Choices

The cheat sheet question for this section is, “What did the author intend or imply by making specific choices of words, sentence structures, organizational strategies, or use of other linguistic features? How can you help students notice these effects?”

Again, irony is our focus here. We could note for the students that the normal way to deal with a conflict of interest is for the author to include a parenthetical note: (Full disclosure: the writer works for Michael Bloomberg). Then we can ask, “Why did this writer choose to deal with this through ironic statements?”

Of course, different texts have different challenges and different learning opportunities. The module writer must make choices about what to focus on because it is not possible to cover everything. Questions such as “What will students find difficult?” “What do I want students to attend to?” and “What will students learn?” will help you make these decisions.

2 thoughts on “Designing Reading Activities

  1. I agree that the reading portion of a module is a tricky one to write, in part because it includes scaffolding that may not be needed for stronger readers. It is very interesting to me that the issue of irony can cut across so many cells of the template, and I can see now that an ironic tone can result from deliberate choices in structure, language, style, and argumentation. I wonder, though, whether focusing on irony in each area might diminish opportunities to see other things happening in the text, other choices the writer has made?

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