Reading (and learning to read well) Matters

13 Sep

(Note: Links to original URLs included as a means of citation; may no longer be active.)

As week two of the semester begins, I’m hearing questions from colleagues – faculty, graduate assistants, course coordinators – about reading.  Specifically I hear questions about how to “get them to do the reading.”  An excellent question.  How do we make use of students’ early-term enthusiasm for long anticipated courses to foster the learning through reading that we’ve structured into the course plan?  How, as well, do we make use of reading assignments to help students overcome barriers and bad habits in those courses with topics new to them?

Does reading – and learning to read well and learning to read words as well as images – make a difference in student learning and academic success? 

It certainly does, according to Leah Christensen (once a Minnesota-based law scholar, now an Associate Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego), who conducts research investigating the correlation between the way in which law students read and learn the law, and their success in law school.  In these empirical studies, she notes the following factors as among those positively impacting student reading comprehension and success as learners in and beyond a particular classroom or discipline:

  • Gaining – through instruction and practice – an understanding of how particular a particular text or type of test is structured.
  • Developing – through practice and testing – a range of general reading strategies and strategic/disciplinary reading strategies.

So, having asked for suggestions from other learning and teaching colleagues, I’ve pulled the following five (one of the items is two parts) early-term reading nudges for students / strategies for teachers together for this blog post.  Where I’ve pulled in materials directly from other sources, you’ll find the headline is hyperlinked so you can go directly to a source to learn more about it.

1.  Explaining Reading Assignments’ Relevance
2.  Getting Students to Read
3.  Coaching Students in Discipline-Specific Reading Strategies
4.  Improving Student Skill in Critical Evaluation of Media

 More about each of the five items as you scroll the page – and two additional resources at the end.

1.  Explaining Reading Assignments’ Relevance

Explaining the reading assignment’s relevance to the course topic and to the way that the course is structured is an investment worth making…at strategic points within the term. This explanation is important to novices because they are not adept at making inferential connections between items that are seemingly dissimilar or only loosely related…. The more connective the web between course reading and course learning goals, the more likely students are to see the course’s reading assignments as relevant and worthwhile. Novices to higher education in general and to an academic discipline, specifically, need the scaffolding provided by explanations that relates reading to the course and the achievement of success in it…. The more frequently students encounter explanations of reading-to-learning connections, the better. 

2.  Getting Students to Read
* Preview the Reading
* Short Assignments

* Preview the Reading: Previewing course reading to increase student reading compliance can be accomplished in several ways. At the most basic level, the mention of specific readings during a class presentation will increase the likelihood that students will read that work. As Peter Marshall found, although “few students even bother to use most of the material at all…those items given preference in the lectures are well used.” John Bean and others also recommend allocating time during in-class lectures and discussions to tell students something about upcoming reading assignments in order to pique their interest. Because students often wonder why faculty consider reading assignments important, they will listen carefully to brief comments about why a reading assignment is interesting and connected to prior and future issues.

* Short Assignments that Can Be Used in Class: For example, create an assignment in which students write three reading questions/comments based on the text for each reading assignment.  The reading questions/comments are graded for content.
The quality of the reading questions/comments must provide evidence that:

  • the student has actually read the assignment.
  • the student has “thought critically” about the material.

Note: See earlier TILT blog post on asking questions for ideas and resources to build into the assignment, to model good questions/comments to students.

Before the semester begins, randomly select 12-15 days when you will collect the comments and note the date in your calendar.  This strategy encourages students to bring their questions every day and ensures that you collect comments with a reasonable frequency without being tempted to punish absent students by collecting comments on a day with low attendance.  Note: Some teachers require the questions to come in a day or two ahead of an inclass discussion focused on a particular set of readings, and use the students’ questions to shape reading readiness quizzes and/or the day’s discussion.

Inform students that the purpose of the assignment is to get them to read actively. Award up to 5 points each time students turn comments in during class; use the total score to determine about 10-15% of the final grade.

Grading need not be onerous. Award 5 points if students clearly put some thought into their comments.  Deduct a point or two and include a specific comment to suggest to students what they should have included to earn full points. Deducting a point or two for lower quality submissions encourages students to use the feedback and improve future submissions. Over the course of the term, student responses improve and show evidence of deep, critical thought. The questions often work well as the basis for a good class discussion. 

3.  Coaching Students in Discipline-Specific Reading Strategies

The cognitive skills associated with the discipline
Experts differ from less accomplished performers in terms of the amount of disciplinary content they know, the nature and fluency of specific disciplinary cognitive skills, and, for disciplines such as music, sport, and dance, physiological adaptations that emerge following extended periods of practice and training (Ericsson & Charness, 2004). Discipline-specific cognitive skills used by experts may be so deeply embedded in expertise that experts may not be fully aware of the speed and fluidity with which they deploy these skills. Expert skills include cognitive strategies such as approaches for analyzing a problem and strategies for reading the technical literature. Experts may have difficulty articulating how they acquired these skills or describing their decision processes when using these skills. Ericsson and Charness (2004) argue that novices require extensive practice and expert coaching to achieve expert levels of performance on these skills.

Discipline-specific reading strategies
Scholarly reading is a specialized skill that requires both instruction and practice. As novices in the discipline, students might not have acquired these cognitive skills. Additionally, they might not have engaged in enough practice with these skills to transform them into discipline-specific habits.

Coach your students in the use of discipline-specific reading skills by assigning a short reading from the scholarly literature. Students may be reluctant to mark printed text or make marginal notes after spending years in a school environment in which books are loaned and students are forbidden to mark up their books.

First, ask students to work with an assigned reading on their own. Then ask students to describe the notes they made to the group. After the group finishes its discussion of its reading and annotation strategies, show the students a page of the text that you marked and annotated. Describe how you approached the reading. Identify which sections of the text you decided were important and explain your decisions.

If students will read journal articles in your discipline, describe the process you use when reading a journal article. Do you preview parts of the article first? Describe the types of information you expect to find and the questions you want answered in each section of a journal article. Describe the types of notes you make when reading an article (highlighting, marginal notes, or separate reading notes).
Describe how your discipline defines close reading of text material. Describe the strategies students should use to identify main ideas. Discuss how you identify important ideas and key passages in the text. Describe the kinds of notations you created to help you locate important sections when you read the material at a later time.

 Useful Resources
Efficient Reading of Papers in Science and Technology
Becoming an Active [Humanities] Reader
Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (2004). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725-747.

4.  Improving Student Skill in Critical Reading of Media

Media literacy has been defined as a framework to guide the access, analysis, evaluation and creation of messages in a variety of forms, including print, video, images, and web-based media.  Media literacy entails articulating the role of media in society and developing the inquiry and communication skills necessary for functioning effectively as citizens of a democracy (Center for Media Literacy).

The core concepts of media literacy include the following:

  1. All media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.
  2. Different people experience the same media message differently.
  3. Media have embedded values and points of view.
  4. Most media messages are organized to gain profit, power, or exert influence over others.

The following activities can be assigned to help students develop media literacy skills:

Each student should select an example of a message delivered through visual media and answer each of the following questions:

  • Who created this message?
  • What creative techniques were used to attract attention to this message?
  • What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in (or omitted from) this message?
  • Why is this message being sent?  What is the purpose of this message?

Illustrate the way a complex message functions with discussion of a short film clip or short video.

  • Present the message to 1 group of students with access to the visual image only.
  • Present the message to a 2nd group of students with access to the dialogue only.
  • Create pairs of students (one person in each pair saw the image, one heard the dialog).  Ask students to react individually.
  • Have students in each pair compare their reactions to each piece and then to their reaction to the full message (audio and visual).  How does the complex media message differ from each component in isolation?
  • Share the comments of student pairs with the class in a report-out discussion.

Based on a teaching tip submitted by Taimi Olsen, Ph.D., Assistant Director, Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


An excellent one-pager on Active Reading roots of poor reading skills, strategies for helping students improve reading, and assignments that provoke engaged practice of the skills. 

An excellent short article on Passage Based Reading – a approach to writing about reading that “in its focus on the process of reading actually makes reading visible, thus having the potential to help students in all fields become not only better writers, but better readers.”  What teacher doesn’t want that combination?


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