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):


  • 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.

Making a Reading Plan

At the end of an ERWC-style course, students should have internalized a set of reading strategies and habits of mind that will help them be more successful college students.  In an environment that often will not provide much scaffolding or assistance, students in effect will need to create their own modules.  Of course, there are also students entering college who have not had the advantage of an ERWC course in high school.  This handout is a distillation of some very basic ERWC reading strategies.  It is designed as a review for ERWC students and a quick strategy guide for students new to these concepts.  I will present it in three parts.  At the end is a link to the whole document.

Note: In this handout, the word “text” is used to mean any kind of writing—an article, a chapter, a book, a poem, an email, an advertisement—anything that can be read.


Probably the most important question in the list above is “Why are you reading this text?”  When I used to do faculty workshops at my university, one of the most common complaints was that students don’t do the reading until after the discussion.  I knew from working on ERWC that students were telling us something with that behavior: they don’t like to read difficult texts cold.  They need some hint about why they are reading it and what they are looking for.  Faculty can improve matters greatly by discussing how the reading fits into the course and what students should be looking for and thinking about as they read, but many professors don’t know to do that.  They just assume that students will figure it out.  If one student asks in class, “While we are reading this, what do you want us to look for?” the whole class will do better.


Reading with a pencil in hand is a first step to productive and efficient academic reading.  However, what you do with that pencil depends on your purpose for reading the text.  These stages and strategies are all interconnected.

The purpose of any system of annotation is to make returning to the text to find ideas, information, key phrases, and personal responses easier and more productive.  Students are often accustomed to using brightly colored highlighters to indicate key words and phrases. However, highlighting without a clear purpose can make rereading confusing.  Also, a highlighter is not useful for dialoguing with the text, asking questions, making observations and connections.

Dealing with difficulty is the other important consideration while reading.  Plowing ahead, re-reading, looking something up, or returning at a later time are all viable strategies.  The most negative strategy is to give up.  Students need to realize that everyone, even a professor, encounters difficult texts.


The fact is, texts don’t stay read.  Every time we read a text, it makes different connections to our experience.  Taking a moment to mentally reflect on a text after reading it helps solidify the first reading in our minds.  We come to the class discussion with something to say.  The annotations are a way of indicating how we read it the first time.  We can return to it with greater insight and efficiency.  We have a relationship with it.  We have a reading that is our own.

Download the complete handout, “Making a Reading Plan,” from this link.