How can we get students to read the texts we assign? We know that students often skip reading, particularly if they do not value it or do not value our course or if they face greater pressure to meet other or more important obligations. But even as we may understand skipping, we cannot settle for it. Often, college courses rely heavily on reading. In my courses and many others, reading is not just a means for consuming information but an integral part of the work of the discipline. Skipping reading severely undermines learning. So it is important for me to find ways to get my students to read.
But that’s not enough. On the heels of the pressure to skip readings is the equally dangerous pressure to skim readings. When reading is about doing intellectual work, skimming doesn’t cut it. So the question becomes: How can we get students to read well?
In an essay in Reader, I argue that we need to attend not just to that students read but also to how they read. I begin this by trying to imagine students in the act of reading. What is it that students actually do while they read? Consider the following scenes:
Maybe our students read like this. They sit alone at a familiar desk, midmorning sunlight coming in the window. They sip water and snack on almonds. They mark the pages of the text with a pen as they read, underlining select passages, jotting comments, exclamation points, question marks in the margins. Dictionary and notepad lay open. Cell phone set on silent. They work through the text slowly, rereading passages, making connections, asking questions, having ideas, being inspired . . .
Or like this. They sit in the library, under harsh florescent lights, in middle of the afternoon, well after lunch. Grogginess settles in. Coffee would be nice. They turn the pages, look at all the words, understand many of them. They pass through page after page, dutifully, without engaging. They do not write on the text or reread anything. Now and again, they catch themselves zoning out, rub their eyes, and keep going . . .
Or this. They sit on a sofa in their dorm room late at night, music blaring, social media buzzing, friends coming and going, pizza boxes and soda bottles everywhere. They skim the text while waiting their turn in a video game tournament. They think they’ve got the gist. It is about the economy and stuff . . .
I think that it is worth pondering these and other possible scenarios. That imaginative exercise might lead to a few realizations. The first might be that most of us simply do not know how (or even whether) our students read. The second might be that we could look into that and could guide students on how they can improve their reading.
But isn’t that something students should already know? Wouldn’t that be stooping too low in a college course? I don’t think so, both because we have to meet our students where they are and because more the sophisticated reading skills we want students to develop depend upon an active approach to reading as a foundation. In the Reader essay, I follow my possible scenarios of student reading with the following proposal:
How students read influences how they learn. In particular, in order for students to learn to read more deeply or on a higher level, they need to learn to read actively. While many scholars and teachers appear to take active reading for granted, possibly assuming students will come into such “study skills” on their own, I propose that we should make concerted efforts to help students understand and adopt such habits as underlining, writing comments in the margins, asking questions, rereading, and so forth.
This can be tricky to do, since student reading happens (or does not happen) “out of sight” and often “out of mind” for us. But my experience has been that it pays off to find ways to bring our attention and our students’ attention to the act of reading.
To see the full text of the article quoted, download the following PDF: Paul T. Corrigan, “Attending to the Act of Reading: Critical Reading, Contemplative Reading, and Active Reading.” Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy 65-66 (Fall 2103/Spring 2104): 146-173. In this article, I survey recent scholarship on various aspects of college-level reading and offer a set of teaching practices for helping students read more deeply.