09/28/2012 01:14 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Developing the Right Reading System

One challenging adjustment that students face when they enter college is how to approach reading assignments. In many cases, students are required to have mastered lengthy and challenging reading materials prior to arriving in class. To adjust to these new responsibilities, I encourage students to think intentionally about developing a specific reading system for each of their classes based on expectations, the nature of the subject material, and how texts are used in the course. Here are the active reading guidelines from my summer Reading Political Philosophy course, a residential and time-intensive class designed to help students transitioning from high school to college. In this context, the focus is to build previously weak muscles by approaching relatively short, but challenging texts with precision, an active process, and accountability.

Step #1: Review notes from the last few classes and readings. This technique aims to get students in the habit of assuming a good frame of mind before reading, accessing tips about the text, and reviewing notes regularly. Course activities tend to scaffold, and this activity encourages students to begin making connections sooner rather than later.

Step #2: Preview today's text. I ask students to glance through the reading next -- with a particular focus on introductions, conclusions, chapter summaries, topic sentences, headings, graphical supplements, and other notable features -- and then jot down a few predictions, questions, or objectives. Early in the course, I introduce them to Anthony Manzo's pre-reading suggestions, which include looking for organizing principles and areas of interest while planning one's approach based on the text's length, purpose, and perceived difficulty. I also show them how to do background research to provide crucial context. My goal in previewing is not to make the reading process cumbersome, but to provide a few quick steps to help them engage in a mental warm-up, orient themselves within the course, get organized, and become invested.

Step #3: Read. Go Slowly and Carefully. Some of the usual rules apply here. Find a quiet spot. Don't multi-task. Take breaks. Plan ahead. After years of returning textbooks each June, part of my job is to get students to mark up texts thoughtfully. I encourage them to paraphrase, underline, jot down questions and summaries in the margins, diagram a text's arguments, and record their personal reactions and connections at the bottom of the page. Sometimes I will review these annotations instead of a quiz, to build accountability and feedback in the process, an exercise I learned from my St. Lawrence colleague Kara McLuckie.

I model my own annotation techniques early in the course and share Canadian scholar Mark Busser's elegant system of symbols for such features as counterarguments, rebuttals, thesis statements, author's definitions, quotations, and rhetorical tension. Students must keep a good dictionary, and I ask them to circle new words to look up when they reach a good stopping point. They read Ibrahim Abu Shihab's helpful piece "Reading as Critical Thinking," which discusses useful memory-development strategies including "creating mental images, chunking, semantic mapping, and word associations." We use these exercises in class to relate materials to personal experience, build links between texts, and compare language choices. We do a small portion of our reading in class to ensure the correct use of these strategies, and summer students get help at night from trained mentors. Students who have special learning needs may use the extremely helpful text-to-speech program Kurzweil.

Step #4: Revisit. I regularly ask my students to give texts a second read. This is a valuable opportunity to process new concepts and vocabulary, make connections, read a particularly challenging or important section out loud, write a response, or flesh out a complicated line of reasoning. It is also a good chance to engage with classmates, as they quiz one another, and compare reactions, understandings, and areas of difficulty. I think of it as revision for reading.

Step #5: Address Key Questions. One major part of working in a new discipline is mastering course-specific vocabulary. Another key is learning to ask the right questions. In my course, I introduce my students to a number of discipline-specific questions that they will regularly encounter in political theory and revisit them regularly. These questions often relate to on-going scholarly conversations, the identification of unifying arguments, competing assumptions about human nature and the purpose of politics, what is to be considered sound public policy, and how a text defines a key term or develops a set of claims.

In our class, such areas of exploration have led to outstanding student-generated questions like:

1) In what ways is Paul Starr's conception of liberalism an extension of John Locke's ideas? How does he differ?

2) How do Milton Friedman and Garrett Hardin differ on the role of coercion in government?

3) According to Federalist Paper #10, what is the central government's reason to exist?

Later, I talk about other questions that they will need to be aware of in the fall, including an understanding of primary sources in history, transformative moments in English, critical assumptions in comparative literature, or research methodologies in the sciences. The sooner a student gets in the habit of asking -- and answering -- the right questions in a course, the faster she is likely to be successful. We also talk about situations where close reading may not be required.

Step #6: Class Day. Make the most of your hard work leading up to class. Prepare for the day's evaluation. Review your notes, questions, and discussion points. During class:

Get involved. Ask questions. Listen. Make an argument or connection. Take notes. After class: Adjust your notes and annotations. Test your knowledge. Discuss.

Step #7: Start again.... We wrestle with longer and more challenging texts as the summer proceeds, so students must use the new skills and stronger muscles they've developed along the way.

Why Do This?

My own reader might be thinking, "This sounds great, but do I want to invest my scarce time in making reading an accountable and process-based part of my course? I know that most students nationwide don't do the reading before class, that when they do they often skim, and many simply aren't used to demanding texts." This can be true. Nevertheless, I believe that introducing our students early to a system that requires accountability, thoroughness, and an engagement of active strategies is absolutely crucial to future success and fulfillment. It also isn't all that hard to develop -- though, admittedly, there may be a few shockingly low quizzes, reading checks, note development exercises, and writing prompts to start with -- major changes away from habits of constant skimming and worse can take time. Developing good reading habits means being able to satisfy one's curiosities for life, compete at higher levels of education and the workplace, develop stronger arguments, and share in others' stories and conversations. I am hopeful that this reading system can nudge a few students towards the beginning of such a path.