Monthly Archives: April 2011

teaching reading and teaching literature, take two

As with my group-work post, I was surprised by the persistence and vehemence of this thread about teaching reading skills, though I suppose I shouldn’t be.

What I learned immediately after posting on this topic was that for many higher ed literature instructors, the distinction between teaching “skills” and teaching literary content was not clear at all.  For many of us, students commonly arrive in our classrooms unable to retain any formal features of the works they read, unable to distinguish between genres, styles, or literary periods, and lacking any significant independent reading previous to their arrival in college.

I don’t have any ready answers to these problems, but in this follow-up I’ll mention some texts that have helped me deal with this issue at UH, which I think has a student body that is fairly typical for a large, urban public university.  Here are the works that have influenced my thinking about teaching disciplinary reading in our English major:

First of all, the absolutely invaluable McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, now in its thirteenth edition, has a few choice pages in its chapter, “Reading as Active Learning,” The best insight is right up front: “The main reason why students come to class unprepared is that they don’t see what difference it makes” (31).  So how can we make the reading make a difference in our students’ experience of the class?  For one thing, this means that much of the summary we do in class, however well-intended, can have the effect of reinforcing the notion that students can come in unprepared and hear the professor’s own summaries instead.

One alternative strategy, according to McKeachie, is to open class by asking students to produce a one-minute paper explaining one or two major ideas from the assigned reading; if you feel that that task would be too challenging, ask them to produce one or two discussion questions then and there to lead in to your discussion, and see if other students are able to answer those questions (32).  Or sequence it so that students are first asked to produce questions, then later the one-minute writings, as they grow more familiar with the course and the readings.

Another source I’ve used is a still-useful review of reading research, “Instruction for Self-Regulated Reading,” by Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Ann L. Brown, in a collection called Toward the Thinking Curriculum (1989).

The key insight here is that “reading” in an academic setting is not simply running one’s eyes over the page, but an active, self-regulated process of learning.  As the authors indicate, “self-regulated learning” means the ability to draw reliably upon three kinds of knowledge in the course of, say, reading: knowledge of learning strategies (what is the most efficient way to learn this?), metacognitive knowledge (how well am I learning this?), and real-world knowledge (how does this connect to what I already know about the subject matter and the world?) (20).

Palincsar and Brown’s essay is designed for K-12 researchers and teachers, but many of the insights work fine for higher ed teachers, especially in their summary of the major reading strategies necessary for students to both “monitor and foster comprehension.” Here’s their list:

  1. clarifying the purposes of reading to determine the appropriate approach to the reading activity (e.g., skimming, studying);
  2. activating background knowledge to create links between what is known and the new information presented in the text;
  3. allocating attention so that the major content, not trivia, becomes the focus;
  4. evaluating content critically for internal consistency and compatibility with prior knowledge and common sense;
  5. using monitoring activities (e.g., paraphrasing, self-questioning) to determine if comprehension is occurring;
  6. drawing various kinds of inferences (e.g. interpretations, predictions and testing them (20)

In other words, are students clear about the purpose of their reading assignment?  Do they know how the assignment connects to the course’s previous readings or their own background knowledge?  Do they know how to identify the most crucial parts of the reading?  Can they read critically enough to recognize its internal inconsistencies or violations of common sense?  Can they monitor themselves to evaluate whether they comprehend the material?  Are they able to draw good, workable inferences from their reading, and then test them against the reading and their prior knowledge?

It is unlikely, as the authors admit, that any teacher could emphasize more than a few strategies in a teaching, but it would be interesting to know what kinds of strategies worked with which kinds of reading assignments.

Finally, Maryellen Weimer, editor of the Teaching Professor blog, has another useful set of tips in a report hosted by the Faculty Focus newsletter, 11 Strategies for getting students to read what’s Assigned (free, but reg. req’d).

There’s lots of different ideas in this report, but the one observation I’d make is that, while reading skills generally, and textbook reading especially, are common problems throughout the college curriculum, literature classes need to focus in very specific ways on student reading.

To wit, a literature curriculum needs to introduce and reiterate to students the difference between reading literary works (which demand the retention of formal features like diction, style, genre, character-types, setting, description, narrative and argumentative organization, point of view, etc.) and reading other kinds of works, genres, or disciplines, which may very well have their own complexities.  Even in a cultural studies course, this only means using literary-style reading techniques for texts and genres that usually don’t receive such treatment.  So what does it mean to read, think, and write like a literature scholar (for they are all intimately connected with one another)?  That is what we should be trying to convey to our students, from the major on upwards.


ben pauley does it again

For those of you interested in getting better 18c resources up on the web for scholarly and student use, Ben Pauley (of C18 Booktracker) has just devised a very useful wiki to collect and discuss the standard editions for our authors. Here’s the link, which I’m also putting on the Long 18th blogroll.

Ben’s wiki emerged from a C18L discussion where the question was raised about where such information could be found, and the answer was, well, no one has done it yet. So here’s a screenshot of Ben’s sample edition of Fielding’s Wesleyan edition:

This is the kind of low-tech, high-value project that could yield a lot of benefit to scholars who used it, and encouraged their students to use it too.  Please consider visiting Ben’s wiki, signing up to become a member (for editing privileges), and using it for your own teaching or research.


today’s thought . . . .

What would universities, departments, classes look like if they were organized, as Daniel H. Pink suggests, around the principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose?  What would our research or our teaching look like in such a setting, and what kind of work would we invite our students to produce?


PS: As I write this, I am thoroughly aware that much of the chatter about education, whether neoliberal or conservative, seems completely unaware of the complexities of motivation, either from the students’ or the teachers’ perspective.  But it’s high time for this problem of motivation to be brought into the discussion of learning and incentives.

teaching reading and teaching literature?

[image from BritLitWikispaces]

As a follow-up to Laura’s latest post on students’ responses to assigned fictional texts, I began thinking about the problem of student reading in literature classes, and how it affects our teaching.  This is an issue that I regularly discuss with my colleagues both in- and outside the English department, because we generally feel at a loss about how to contend with our students’ struggles with reading.

The dilemma is as follows: the English major is supposed to be the place where disciplinary instruction in literature begins, but students’ reading skills, like their writing and research skills, are not strong, widespread, or consistent enough throughout the program for us to assume that they are working at a college or major level. Yet we often feel that our professional identities are threatened by the amount of non-disciplinary, skill-building instruction we must engage in, if we wish to reach our classes in a comprehensive way.

The reading problem seems to underlie many of the unpleasant interactions we have in the classroom: students not doing the assigned reading, or complaining face to face or in evaluations about the heavy workload of a particular course.  At the same time, faculty grow impatient with the sludgy pacing of the course, the students’ slow uptake, the necessity of devoting greater and greater amounts of classtime to quizzes, even while assigning ever-briefer and simpler texts to students.  Compounding the problem is the fact that the only solution we have for students’ spotty prior knowledge or lack of reading skills is yet more supplementary reading, a time-consuming add-on whose impact may be minimal because of the poor skills in the first place.

This generally results in two faculty responses: a resentful decision to let students “sink or swim,” teaching to the upper 30% who already possess the skills, while letting the rest work up to their level (tacitly accepting the idea that most of these fail or withdraw); or anxiously working back and forth between skill-building and disciplinary work, accompanied always with the guilty feeling that one part of the course is always stealing time from the other, equally necessary part (though only the disciplinary part of our teaching gets recognized).

For all these reasons, I mentioned Fred Hamel’s article, “Teacher Understanding of Student Understanding,” in the last thread, which talks about secondary school lit teachers’ difficulties conceptualizing their students’ reading.  I think in many ways lit professors either don’t want to know about our students’ struggles reading, or have trouble responding productively to what they tell or show us in their work.

So here are a few takeaways from Hamel’s piece of ethnographic research about teachers’ attitudes toward student reading:

  • Secondary school teachers, and the literature professors who train them, often conceptually detach student reading from literary instruction, treating it as a generic and predisciplinary “skill” to be take care of at some earlier stage of the curriculum by nameless others.  This decision makes it more difficult for lit teachers to confront the problems that do arise in students’ reading.  (I would also add that this disciplinarily-enforced curricular problem resembles the ongoing tension between writing instruction and literary instruction in many English departments, as Richard Haswell, for example, has discussed).  My suspicion is that it would be more productive, and certainly more realistic, to see these efforts as mutually reinforcing throughout the curriculum; students and experts are continually working to improve their reading at every level, whether at beginning or advanced levels of the curriculum.
  • While students’ first experience of texts often represent what Hamel and other experts term as “configurational” efforts (54), entailing a sense of exploration, dislocation and confusion regarding what they are reading, more advanced literature professors instruct through “memory-based readings” that direct students towards more integrated, coherent interpretations of the various elements of the text.
  • The movement of the student from novice to experienced reader of literature involves a transition from the fragmented first-time reading experience to the fluent rereading and reconstruction of a (cumulative?) memory-based reading.  However, the teacher’s immersion in the remembered coherence of an earlier reading experience may make it that much harder for her to communicate with the still-struggling novice.
  • The real value of strategies like “talk alouds” (recording or observing students saying out loud what they’re thinking while they read or discuss a work of literature), as well as low-stakes writing, is that they give teachers access to students in mid-process, so that they can help students construct a more coherent understanding of what they are reading.  However, because teachers have already arrived at coherent readings, their notions of what Hamel calls “reading-as-reproduction” (69) may cause them to dismiss the students’ attempts as inaccurate decodings rather than as “healthy strategic configurations” that could eventually produce their own coherence (72).
  • Ultimately, Hamel is advocating that teachers work toward a Gadamerian “fusion of horizons” between their own expert practices and the more inchoate strivings of their students, but this approach necessitates maintaining some degree of curiosity about students as learners, and some engagement with their learning-process as they struggle to read and understand what they find.  In essence, this gesture means that whatever content knowledge we might have, we remain  “partially knowledgeable” about how our students are receiving and processing what we teach.  In Gadamer’s terms, we must position ourselves as those “knowing that we do not know” (79).

And here are a few of my own observations, tacked on to Hamel’s discussion:

  • Though Hamel doesn’t mention this, I suspect that simply showing a student a single coherent literary reading is much less effective than breaking down the complex process by which we make our readings coherent.  This process includes not just reading a primary text in a coherent manner, but reading and integrating into one’s understanding a variety of secondary and now theoretical texts as well.  It also involves knowing a variety of historical and methodological frameworks, all of which could produce a coherent reading, and choosing one from an open set of alternatives.  The pedagogical question then becomes: how best to reveal this complex process to students, and how best to break it down so that they may practice and master it themselves?
  • I would also note that because this process of making-readings-coherent involves reading not just primary texts, but secondary and other kinds of texts, literature professors should also be teaching students how to read a variety of texts, including scholarly monographs, articles, along with the searching skills necessary to locate emerging scholarship.  As an example of this kind of instruction, an annotated bibliography assignment teaches students how to produce coherence among a self-selected group of secondary texts.
  • The crucial pedagogical question that remains for me is what kinds of practice in reading reliably yield the most useful insights for novices.  What I have learned is that we all have limited time, so I still need to figure out the most effective ways to make their reading strategies both more efficient and more comprehensive, both faster and more capacious.  There are times when they need to select only the most critical pieces of information, and other times when they need to retain a more holistic and rich sense of what a literary text is “about.”  Having outlined this, I’m still unsure about what kinds of teaching help to produce or extend this more dynamic sense of reading.

Any thoughts?


UPDATE: Here’s the full cite:

Teacher Understanding of Student Understanding: Revising the Gap between Teacher Conceptions and Students’ Ways with Literature
Fred L. Hamel
Research in the Teaching of English
Vol. 38, No. 1 (Aug., 2003), pp. 49-84
NOTE: For some reason, even when I post a link to an google result that takes you to a JSTOR page “outside” JSTOR, these links now seem to be taking everyone to my UH library page.  Any ideas how I can post a link directly to JSTOR or other databases that won’t take others to my library proxy page?  This seems to be a new issue for issue JSTOR links.  Thanks, DM
UPDATE #2: After I read this, I found a similar sentiment at Blogenspiel, this time coming from the perspective of outcomes assessment:
But I ask you — how can assessment be meaningful if we spend as much time teaching students to be students as we do our subject? and how can the teaching in our subject not suffer if we are taking so much time away from it to give students the skills they need to succeed (to a point — if students really are clueless and hopeless, I will ask them to drop). I have colleagues who simply fail such students, but there has to be a better resolution.
I agree, but I have yet to see much agreement about what that better resolution would look like.