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.

19 responses to “teaching reading and teaching literature?

  1. This post and Laura’s earlier post speak to me. I don’t have anything particularly helpful to say in response, but I did want to do whatever the academic-blog-equivalent of holding up a lighter at a concert, or the close-eyes-raised-hand at an evangelical church.

    Like many of us, I was educated by the “sink-or-swim” model, and that was what I used when I first started teaching. The more innovative and “student-centered” I become in my teaching strategies, the more effectively I shake loose evidence of how ill-prepared students are for the tasks our disciplinary framework demands of them.

    I’d like to look at the Hamel article Dave mentions. Could you supply a full citation? The links both go straight to a UHouston Library login page.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hey Kirstin, you now have the full cite and links that should work for you. Thanks for the shout out. A lot of these posts come from my own struggles with my classes and students, and I feel that sharing the information helps me and potentially helps others struggling with similar issues.

  3. Thanks for this, Dave! I am going to have to link to it!

  4. Dave Mazella

    No problem, ADM. Let us know if you get any good suggestions about this, or if you have any thoughts about the Hamel article.

  5. Thanks for posting the link! Since asking, I’ve had some further thoughts.

    I wonder if No Child Left Behind has further complicated the reading situation. The students I’m encountering now seem even more stymied than they used to be by situations that require them to produce an answer that they don’t already know. They get quickly frustrated, even angry, about exercises that don’t present them with information first, then a prompt that will elicit precisely that information. The knee-jerk readings that Laura discussed in her earlier post could stem from students’ efforts to shoehorn a literary text into a pedagogical model that is comfortable to them.

    In my gen. ed. lit. classes, it’s not so much the instruction in remedial reading that is the time-suck, as trying to figure out ways to reverse their intuitions about what getting educated feels like. The more I teach, the more time I find myself spending trying to convey that (a) the goal is to be able to ask a question you don’t already know the answer to; (b) such questions will inevitably produce wrong answers; (c) you can’t be meaningfully right without exploring answers that will turn out to be wrong, and (d) for all those reasons, if it feels difficult and uncomfortable, that’s a sign that you’re doing it right.

    Unfortunately, at my behemoth state institution, a lot of instruction outside of LAS, particularly in the first two years, takes the form of large Powerpoint lectures and multiple-choice tests—a format that seems designed to preserve inviolate the assumptions that students bring with them from high school, that the only available goal is to arrive at the answer that has already been judged correct.

    And then there’s the issue Dave raises (that I hear almost nothing about in any other professional context), of how we’re teaching the students who will go on to be teachers. At my institution (like many), secondary-ed majors in English actually get LESS instruction in literature than the students who will be using their English degrees to go to law school or entry-level office jobs. And they have less opportunity to pick up a minor in history or philosophy (which would expose them other disciplinary frameworks for reading and writing) because the secondary ed. requirements are so notoriously onerous and time-consuming.

  6. Dave Mazella

    Hi Kirstin,

    I think that the combination of high-stakes testing and teaching to the test have really hurt literature instruction, and specifically at the high school level. My daughter is now in high school, and I’m amazed at what passes for “literary” instruction at this level: mostly tests demanding that they memorize or define the parts of speech or rhetorical devices in an otherwise undiscussed literary work. Meanwhile, the format for the writing portion consists entirely of non-academic forms like the personal essay, based again on non-literary prompts. So nothing that promotes independent reading seems to be going on in these classes (though, interestingly, creative writing classes do seem to have this effect). Obviously, class size and the fear of stirring up the parents are big factors here.

    Pat Michaelson at UT/Dallas has been doing this kind of work for some time, and has been heavily involved with the humanities portion of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. If you’re interested in that work, you can look at their website here:


    If you look at most pedagogy scholarship, you’ll see over and over again that the active learning techniques advocated by this kind of scholarship encounter resistance from both faculty and students, because they demand more interaction and less passivity from students.

  7. Hi Dave – this post hit the nail on the head for me. But, I always thought that the difficulties I faced were unique to my experience as a teacher of deaf students, who generally have literacy issues rooted in their hearing loss. I’m encouraged (I think) to hear that many others struggle with the need to teach reading strategies as well as literature ‘per se.’ This is just one more way in which graduate education in our discipline fails to prepare us for the actual experience of teaching. After almost 10 years in the trenches, here are some things that I have found helpful, in addition to the strategies you mention:
    1) Taking advantage of wired classrooms to model and encourage students to find information that will help them “decode” texts. I’m a big fan of Google and Wiki for ‘quick ref’, though always careful to stress for my students the appropriate use of these tools!
    2) Talking about the different kinds of reading and the process of reading literary texts in lower level lit courses. Also assigning readings about the reading process (one favorite is Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry”).
    3) Reading poems together and examing through different interpretative strategies.
    4) Keeping a reading journal (this works well in upper division courses).
    I use the reading journal (collected weekly) in place of quizzes. Emphasis is on the process of interpreting and on questions or responses to the text.
    5) Assigning students to present different kinds of readings to classes. Some might be summaries (i.e., the critical pieces of information); others, overall interpretations. These can serve as springboards for class discussions.
    6) Assigning students to generate reading questions and lead class discussions. This involves a lot of out of class work with students in order to make class time productive.

  8. Dave Mazella

    Hey Jill,

    Glad that there was stuff here that you could corroborate. And no, I don’t think these issues are in any way restricted to a particular group of students nowadays. I am beginning to think that grad programs really should offer some kind of fundamentals of pedagogy course to their offerings, so people don’t feel completely gobsmacked by the teaching they’ll do.

    I really like your strategies 1-6, and regularly use 1 and 6; I use reading questions and a courseblog instead of a reading journal, but I see how that might feel less intrusive to them.

    One of the questions that always comes up is how to grade the low-stakes items like reading journals and reading summaries. And what do you do with students who, predictably, lag behind in these kinds of small assignments?

  9. Dave – my experience with using reading journals is primarily from our major level courses. We have a very small program (about 20-30 students total with 6-12 in each class) and most students do keep up with the assignments because they know they’ll be called on to contribute to the class discussion. I can see how this would be different for larger courses, though. I mainly have problems getting students to complete ‘small assignments’ if they are online – I’ve never had much success with electronic discussion forums, for example. But, I have colleagues who also use course blogs effectively, so I should ask what they do. What has been your experience in this?

    As for grading, I typically do not grade ‘low stakes’ items and just stick a standard statement in the syllabus along the lines of “Not contributing to discussion, preparing questions, or keeping the reading journal will negatively affect your final grade; conversely, doing an especially good job on these will have a positive influence if it is borderline between a lower and higher grade.” The exception is #6 when assigned in my upper division classes. Because of the time commitment on my (and their part), I’ll make presenting on a reading or generating questions and leading discussion a part of their grade (10-20%).

    At some level, we have to take our students as they are and work from there. I used to see ‘skill work’ as Blogenspiel does, as taking time away from teaching in our subject. But our subject is not static and we must adapt it (and ourselves) to the classroom environments we face. The disconnect between what we do in graduate school and professional research and what we do in the classroom is, I think, a symptom of our discipline’s ongoing transformation. Fewer and fewer students continue on to graduate education in English (or even major in English) and there are fewer and fewer teaching positions in specialized fields of literary study. As much as we may love the eighteenth century, scholarly research, and ‘pure’ literary analysis, “the times, they are a’changin.”

  10. Dave Mazella

    Jill, when I do course-blogs and reading questions, etc., these occur in the context of both group and individual work that goes into portfolios; I’m using these now in all my courses because I find them so useful. This means that these items get graded as part of the work done over a semester, and students are asked to reflect upon them in a self-assessment done at the end of the semester and handed in with the portfolio. I’m assuming that journals could be used the same way. The links for my earlier discussion will be found here and here.

    I wonder whether the changes we see are a not a movement away from the discipline, but a sign that the discipline itself is getting redefined, at least in the majority of jobs out there, as something that includes the problem of student processing of and response to the material. The one thing I fixed on in the Hamel was his idea that we–whatever our content knowledge expertise–retain curiosity in how students learn: that seems key to me doing my job well. But I am very conscious of the fact that this is not how the profession values my work activity.

  11. Yes and amen to this, Dave: “we–whatever our content knowledge expertise–retain curiosity in how students learn: that seems key to me doing my job well. But I am very conscious of the fact that this is not how the profession values my work activity.” There’s something very discouraging about talking to colleagues about pedagogical strategies and hearing in response, “Well, that sounds great, but how can you do all that and get any work done?” Which is why I am so very glad these issues get raised here on the Long Eighteenth.

  12. Dave Mazella

    That’s right: I thought I was already “doing work.” It’s strange when thinking about–or even researching–something you spend so much of your time doing is considered an idiosyncratic preference, a form of volunteerism. I consider it part of my professional identity, but I know others don’t. I don’t want to hijack the thread away from the question of reading, but it does seem like the visibility/invisibility of faculty work around teaching deserves a post in its own right.

  13. I just did an online survey of student engagement for my uni. Among other things it wanted me to account for my time in various ways, including how many hours a week I spend thinking about how to improve my teaching. I was glad to see the question but had no idea how to answer it. Sometimes in multi-hour blocks of focused reading; sometimes in quick dangerous reveries when I’m driving; sometimes in the hallway between classes; sometimes in dreams; sometimes when the faces of incomprehension turn to me and I ransack my repertoire for a tune that will play; sometimes when colleagues write great blog posts and discussion threads. It doesn’t add up neatly but as you say, Dave, it’s part of my professional identity.

    As to reading, it was late last night and I was showing the evening section how to see what Joshua Goldstein is up to in his book War and Gender. He positions himself in the Preface by contrasting his anti-war, pro-feminist biases with his learning trajectory and research ethics. We talked about his credibility, Laura! Then in the intro he sets up the book as a puzzle: why do human societies do gender in lots of different ways and war in lots of different ways, but war is always gendered in similar ways? Each chapter tests a series of feminism-derived hypotheses against the available evidence.

    So we were talking about how he set this up and the guy to my left kept wanting to say what his opinion about it was. (Testosterone.) It was really late and I was really tired, so I did a little lecture about the general value of opinions and their contrast with robust investigation. It was awful, just a dreadful teaching moment by me. This student was trying to engage with a difficult, baffling text and leveraging what small intellectual capital he had to get in the game. It would have taken much longer, but walking through the sources of his own intuitions and then bringing them into alignment with Goldstein’s project would have done so much more to show the students what’s being done and what’s at stake in a book like this. Fortunately I get another crack at it tomorrow night.

  14. Dave Mazella

    Well, as a wise colleague of mine is fond of saying, “in teaching there’s always a do-over.” If you have a miserable moment with students, chances are, it’ll repeat itself, and then maybe you’ll know the right thing to say. Or at least the thing NOT to say.

    I think we both know that time and the imperative toward coverage are the great enemies of reflection, especially in classes with students who are struggling to process difficult concepts and arguments for the first time. And no matter how much time you budget, there will always be people who will take slower than the others, and who will (infuriatingly) talk aloud their resistance while you attempt to drag them towards your own argumentative destination. So maybe this was a discussion to take offline, or to raise to some meta-level, but who knows what alternative strategy could have made that moment of high frustration more productive?

    I think the key insight here is that we tend to lecture when we are exhausted, and impatient, and are tired of listening to our students as they piddle around in circles trying to master something. Of course, that’s exactly how learning happens sometimes, if we have the energy to follow their process.

  15. Laura Rosenthal

    Good luck with it! We’ve all had such moment, and at least you got “credibility” in.

    Re the low-stakes writing assignments: I have my students write blog posts about the material BEFORE we talk about it in class. So I am not overwhelmed with these posts, I set students up in groups at the beginning of the class (I call them “coffee houses”) and assign specific dates to specific coffee houses. Each student ends up contributing 5 posts over the course of the semester and I grade them, and often the posts become a jumping-off point for discussion. In some classes (the sophomore/junior level), I also require them to respond to a post if they are not blogging that week. These I just grade for completion. In the “introduction to the major” course I give them questions to consider in their blog posts, but in the more advanced classes I don’t do this. I find this works pretty well and gives me a sense of what they are thinking about the material and what they might be misunderstanding before class begins.

  16. Michael Rotenberg-Schwartz

    This resonates with me too, Dave.

    I’ve tried at times to recover the distance between me and my students by assigning a text as new to me as to them, figuring, “well, if they see how I struggle with putting things together, they might see how to struggle and join with me.” But a distance remains. I suppose since I already know how much memory matters and because I have had so much practice doing “memory-based reading,” I simultaneously configure and memorize the moment I turn to the first page. I can never truly go back to the reader I once was–and I suspect that person struggled differently than most of my students do anyway.

    I find diction and sentence structure impede my students before they even get to imagery, character development, or narrative complexity. When at the developmental level (and at least 80% of them enter at that level), my students have difficulty with a 700 word article from the NY Times; two or even three years later, they can’t have improved enough for me to expect them to tackle Pope or Swift, right? But I throw anything at them anyway. I tell them, “if you can make meaning of this, everything else will be simple.” A lie, but still…

    So this is a fascinating and frustrating challenge. I wish I’d had some pedagogical training in grad school. And I do hope others share some more about their practices. Even down to the nitty gritty, like: how many pages can the eighteenth century be boiled down to?

  17. Dave Mazella

    Well, many of the self-taught 18c readers of Richardson or Defoe or Franklin or Haywood would have been classified as “developmental” if there had been such a thing as testing. Franklin talks about his own struggles to develop a more fluent form of literacy in the Autobiography, which focused on imitating the Spectator. Remember that a more typical reader/writer of the 18c would be James Ralph rather than Pope or Franklin.

    I’ll put up a few more links to the pedagogical research I’ve used, to see if it helps. What I have seen is that active pedagogy, including student research, with very focused assignments, helps even struggling students move ahead in developing more fluency in their reading and writing. But take a look at the Hamel and especially the Haswell referenced above, and see if there’s anything there for you.

  18. Hi Dave,
    I’m a late comer to this conversation so please forgive me. I’m motivated to contribute in part by an editorial from yesterday’s CHE that reported on a study presented at CCCC. In this study the investigators suggested that student difficulties with writing actually stem not from generic struggles but with difficulties they have in understanding the “content” of the material they’re encountering. In a lot of ways their conclusions are self-evident, but in other ways those conclusions are not. I agree with Dave that too much lit. instruction at the secondary level is about rote memorizationd, and that in part this stems from the fact that students who go into secondary ed. don’t get the content material they need. Every semester I have a lot of elementary ed. students in my classes and one or two secondary ed. students.
    So here’s my basic point, a good many of us recognize that our struggles in the classroom are the result of problematic training of secondary and elementary teachers. But it’s too easy to pass the buck and I find myself wondering why (I’m guilty of this too) we don’t do more active intervention with our local schools and with the schools of ed. at our own institutions. Why we don’t, for instance, design some pilot studies for elementary and scondary schools to revamp curricula so that students from an early age are learning not just what a metaphor is or a simile or what plot and theme are, but also the understanding that knowledge of those things is discursively and thus relationally constructed.

  19. Dave Mazella

    Hi Melissa, I think that Chron article you mention is worth a follow-up post of its own. If I have the time (when I’m not grading or going to meetings), maybe I’ll post on it.

    The “content knowledge” appropriate for secondary school teachers is another interesting question that we should take up for our English majors. A large percentage of our majors at UH end up teaching secondary school through alternative certification in Texas, and I am now seeing their students in my classes. (which is a little strange in itself) For me, because of all the rote memorization that secondary schools routinely demand, I stress inquiry, the research process, information literacy, analysis of sources, etc., as we work through our literary materials and their writing. In other words, I stress active learning rather than coverage. Nowadays, with my other obligations, my undergrad teaching is focused primarily on an Intro to the Major course devoted to Swift, along with a research-intensive capstone course. Neither one is a survey-style course.

    I agree that these kinds of extra-institutional collaborations would help, but they are very time-and labor-intensive, and tend not to get recognition at most institutions. There is also the issue of the very distinct politics of colleges of ed and public schools, both of which operate on a scale we can barely imagine. I’ve seen FIPSE grants for these kinds of proposals about students transitioning into college, but that would entail a major investment of energies.

    On a smaller scale, it’s very illuminating to talk to high school teachers and incoming students about their classroom experiences. That’s part of the prior knowledge students are coming in with, and we have to engage with it explicitly to make any headway at a college level. But something as simple as offering to talk to a local high school class about a literary text can be an eye-opener. But all these ideas require relationships with local schools, teachers, principals, etc. This is something I’ve done a few times because of my ties to former students.