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.



2 responses to “teaching reading and teaching literature, take two

  1. Dave, useful post. Thanks for the summaries. I’ve been trying to recall what I was told about reading when I took my first pedagogy seminar (for teaching writing), and I can’t remember much. Not to say that it wasn’t there, but my sense is that I was fixated on giving the writing assignments (as the “new thing” I was learning to do) and tended to take the reading assignments for granted, as something that the students themselves were responsible for starting, with testing, questioning, and discussion reserved for the classroom. In hindsight, that was assuming a lot, and yet it took time to realize that “the students aren’t doing the reading” might be addressed by thinking in terms like those you’ve provided here. I especially appreciate the reflexive question, “what does it mean to read, think, and write like a literature scholar?”, for, in theory at least, that’s the very thing I’ve just been educated to do: now I need to (re)think how this education influences my syllabi, and how my assumptions can be made visible.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Shayda. I don’t know if anyone ever discussed reading in the TA training I had long ago, and it hasn’t been discussed since in any context of mine except as a problem we all face in literature and history classes. Weirdly enough, grad courses have even bigger problems with students doing the reading, because faculty are encouraged to load up students with reading (I know I’ve done this) without giving them any idea of how to sort it out. There’s this assumption that you as an instructor simply state an expectation, and then students will magically know how to perform up to that expectation, but as we all know it doesn’t work that way. But the alternatives to the magical thinking approach are time-consuming, and often unpalatable to students. So I’m always open to suggestions.