Learning to Teach Reading

There is widescale belief on college campuses nowadays that the culture of reading is on the decline. Even though more people are reading more than every before, in multiple forms, reading “extended narratives” in a focused way is harder to do and largely on the downswing. There is so much extant information that confirms that professionals are processing so much information daily that reading abstract narratives in detail and slowly has become even harder to do. To put it dramatically, even the most educated amongst us are losing humanistic literacies. Furthermore, if this problem of reading is bad enough for professors and experts, one can only imagine what it means for the generation of students coming into college, for whom staring at the screen and infinite abyss of information is the only thing they’ve ever known. To push more reading in my writing classrooms, I am trying two particular strategies this semester.

Show, Don’t Tell:

It seems almost too simple to consider, but sometimes the reason students do not do the reading for class is because they don’t know how to do it. This is not to say that they do not possess the actual ability to read texts at the college level, more so that they are unable to read skillfully – effectively and efficiently for college purposes. There are various methods of reading effectively in academic contexts (S3QR anyone?), all of which come with detailed lessons plans one can use. I personally rely a lot on the OWL Excelsior Reading and Writing Lab for most of the literacy skills I aim for in the classroom and focus on Active Reading pedagogy. This means I spend the first few weeks showings students how to make annotations (i.e. systematic note-taking) and responses (i.e. retaining the information by internalizing it). The open source and multimodal resources at OWL Excelsior are really useful to teach reading in that framework and students can access them anywhere and in multiple formats.

At the same time, I also use a lot of screencasts on me doing the reading the way I want them to do it. As any socialization scholar would espouse, we have to model the methods we want our students to reproduce. So I tend to make screencasts of me annotating short readings and responses based on those annotation. In these videos, I try to follow the same questions and threads I do in my class-lectures. I also provide these videos as a source on which they will be quizzed on later. I try to incorporate these quizzes into participation points because I have found it pushes students to actually watch and rewatch the lessons I’m making for them. If nothing else, the videos provides all of us the common vocabulary we need so that we can more to the actual work of reading for writing.

Make it Applicable to Them:

I may be getting old as the examples I provide or can ask my students to draw comparisons from for their readings seem less resonant than they used to be. In some ways, making the case for students that they should read something because it is important to them seems too condescending to me. On one level, it is true that we should be selecting and teaching texts that resonate with them and they will find interesting, but it is also true that most students are too young to know what their interests are. Furthermore, they need to actually explore as much as possible on topics old and new to find out what they think for themselves. This is not to say, I would chose only things I’m interested in, and hope to bring my students along for the ride with my passion emoting to them. Rather, it is also true that I should also pick things that I would be interested in and not just pick things that might engage the students. The curriculum should engage the teacher as much as students because we think about it much more than they do.

Born a Crime: Stories from an Apartheid Childhood is a memoir of growing up mixed race, or colored in South Africa. The story is well told and extremely engaging. It is writting in short, crisp chapters that one can start and finish in one sitting. The topic and the other materials online really made for good reading for students in the class. There were also all these extra materials available online that could keep the students engaged on the figure and thereby engaged in the book. I found that students get so distracted with so many things that they forget to read. So keeping them reminded on the topic is half the battle.

That being said, I have found memoirs or first-person accounts work with first-year students well. As researcher as old as Perry (1968) have shown, students just starting out in academic communities tend to lack the “subject matter knowledge” needed to understand abstract representations, and so are able to grasp concrete examples better than general ones. So a novel or a more abstract essay simply does not provide them the ground to grasp onto ideas. Whereas short, snappy pieces really work well and there are more and more novels and narratives that are coming out in this format. Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, I found, really worked well with my students because it was a series of expositions of a particular topic, each 4-6 pages. Not only could they find themselves reflected in the reading and the concerns, they were also able to get through the reading because they could read a chapter in one sitting.

Let’s See How It Goes:

I hope that the time I’m spending in the beginnings of this semester teaching reading skills pay off down the line. I think the medium of digital instruction certainly will force a different way of orienting and engaging with texts this semester. At the same time, it does provide a way to focus in on particular activities and practices in our students, because the tools they are using to engage with the class online are the same tools they would be using to read the texts and write.

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