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What is “Reading for Learning”?

20 Oct

“How do you get students to do the reading?” is a question I hear frequently. An excellent question.  First of all, I distinguish between reading “for a course” and “reading for learning” – and from there we can address various reading myths as we go about the work of learning. 

Reading as “obedient purposelessness”

This summary of a study conducted by the Harvard Reading-Study Center is a good reminder of student (and sometimes teacher) presumptions about “how to do” course-related reading:

As an experiment, Dr. Perry (psychologist), Director of the Harvard Reading-Study Center gave 1500 first year students a thirty-page chapter from a history book to read, with the explanation that in about twenty minutes they would be stopped and asked to identify the important details and to write an essay on what they had read.

The class scored well on a multiple-choice test on detail, but only fifteen students of 1500 were able to write a short statement on what the chapter was all about in terms of its basic theme. Only fifteen of 1500 top first year college students had thought of reading the paragraph marked “Summary”, or of skimming down the descriptive flags in the margin.

This demonstration of “obedient purposelessness” is evidence of “an enormous amount of wasted effort” in the study skills of first year students. Some regard it almost as cheating to look ahead or skip around. To most students, the way they study expresses “their relationship to the pressures and conventional rituals of safe passage to the next grade”.

Students must be jarred out of this approach. The exercise of judgment in reading requires self-confidence, even courage, on the part of the student who must decide for himself what to read or skip. Dr. Perry suggested that students ask themselves what it is they want to get out of a reading assignment, then look around for those points. Instructors can help them see the major forms in which expository material is cast. Students should also “talk to themselves” while reading, asking “is this the point I’m looking for?”

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

And the core myths blocking inexperienced readers from acquiring expert-oriented skills:

  1. I have to read every word
  2. Reading once is enough
  3. It is sinful to skip passages in reading
  4. Machines are necessary to improve my reading speed
  5. If i skim or read too rapidly my comprehension will drop
  6. There is something about my eyes that keeps me from reading fast

– are addressed in the document 6 Reading Myths.

Learning to Read – Reading with a Purpose

Does learning to read well 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 text is structured.
  • Developing – through practice and testing – a range of general reading strategies and strategic/disciplinary reading strategies.

I’ve pulled together below a variety of resources / strategies, and gathered them into four categories, each of which appears in its own section below:

1.  Explain Relevance of Reading Assignments
2.  Develop “Learning to Read” Practices
3.  Coach Students in Discipline-Specific Reading Strategies
4.  Improve Student Skill in Critical Evaluation of Media

1. Explain Relevance of Reading Assignments

“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.”  The IDEA paper “Getting Students to Read” provides a framework for “Reviewing Courses to Guide Strategies for
Increasing the Value of Reading” and outlines 14 related course design and delivery tips.

2. Develop “Learning to Read” Practices

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 3 – 2 – 1 classroom assessment strategy, for example, can nicely turn into a short writing assignment: For a key reading, the student will write out

  • 3 – ideas/issues/key points or principles presented.
  • 2 – examples or uses for some or all item listed above.
  • 1 – unresolved/remaining question about the ideas cited, or about an area of possible confusion or difficulty in reading the assigned text.
  • As an additional prompt, some instructors have students complete a 1-3 minute writing at the close of a class session, asking students to link together ideas from the reading and the class session just completed.

Other low-stakes, high-engagement Active Learning strategies that can be adapted to reading-readiness assignment can be found alongside the 3 – 2 – 1 strategy.

The excellent short article on Passage Based Reading – an 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” – requires students to:

  1. Transcribe a passage they have selected onto the top of the page (with page citation).
  2. Then “unpack” the passage in a close analysis of that passage, with attention to language choices, overall tone, and idea construction.
  3. Finally, readers move from examining the passage closely to conclude their paper by connecting the passage to the rest of the work.

A brief overview of the process is include in Passage Based Writing.

Finally, the SQR3 process – Survey Questions Read Review Recall – engages learning readers in practices to preview, engage, and recall/retrieve ideas from, especially, high-stakes readings. Again, a brief overview of the process is included via the following document: SQR3 Strategy.

The reading questions/comments can be graded, with assessment based on quality of the reading questions/comments in providing evidence that:

  • the student has actually read the assignment.
  • the student has “thought critically” about the material.
  • the student can transfer/retrieve the information to apply it in ways you specify.

Grading need not be onerous. Award 5 points if students clearly put some thought into their comments.  In deducting points, include one short specific comment to point out to students what could have been included to earn full points. This combination encourages students to use the feedback to improve future submissions.

3.  Coach 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 Discipline-Oriented Resources

4. Improve 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.

This section based on a teaching tip originally created by Taimi Olsen, Ph.D., Assistant Director, Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. That page is no longer maintained; similar versions of the material can be found via a presentation Olsen made at Vanderbilt (http://vanderbilt.edu/clas/curriculum-resources/media/Visual%20Literacy%20Workbook.ppt) and via a synthesizing post created by Robert Sweetland (http://www.homeofbob.com/literature/la/multiMedia.html).




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