Re-Post: The Reading Conundrum

This was originally posted to my guitarsophist blog in January 2009 before I started this one. We used to hand out copies of Reading Rhetorically in ERWC professional development meetings. The “conundrum” is this: A professor observed that his students “have a limited range of ability, can read textbooks, but not other books.” The rest of the professors in the workshop agreed. Have students become dependent on the reader-friendly, learner-friendly style of presentation developed by textbook publishers?  When instructors create similar scaffolding and support for an ordinary book, are we improving learning while also fostering that dependency? Where do we strike the balance? I thought it might be valuable to revisit this post.


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):

Students

  • 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.

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