10/24/2012 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

The Instructor's Side of the Reading Covenant

A few weeks ago I visited a class to talk about reading. Most of the talk revolved around student skill development, but an unexpected highlight was the question a colleague asked: "What should instructors do to help our students read well?" or, as I've come to think of it, "What is the instructor's side of the reading covenant?" I like my colleague's question because I believe that instructors do bring reading-oriented responsibilities to the classroom, accompanying the high standards they set for students. It also got me thinking about my efforts, successful and not, to help students in this area. When we make sound pedagogical choices on reading, we can dramatically enhance students' abilities to work with all kinds of challenging texts. When we struggle, classrooms can become frustrating, unchallenging, or disorienting places. After conversations with colleagues and students, another look at research on this topic, and much reflection upon my experiences in the classroom, here are a few thoughts on how we might guide students on the reading journey.

Help Students Navigate New Structures.

It's easy to forget that students often enter college without knowledge of such textual features as abstracts, research designs, literature reviews, or citations. They may know little about the practices, critical assumptions, aesthetical sensibilities, problem-solving techniques, or research methods unique to different disciplines. We can address these gaps by previewing pieces together, making them aware of such features, and explaining a text's position and purpose within a course. We can also assist by providing guiding questions, definitions, and context that will help students engage with pieces more successfully.

Model Your Own Active Strategies.

Teachers are often very diligent about active reading themselves. We mark up passages, record responses and questions, note important terminology, develop strategies to deal with challenging passages, and apply texts to our own research. Nevertheless, this process often remains hidden from students. That's a shame because they need good active reading models, something I hope to demonstrate more often in class.

Use the Assigned Text. Now.

I struggle with this one. Sometimes I get so excited about a content area that I want students to read everything about it. Yet I realize that there is nothing more frustrating to a student than frequently assigning multiple lengthy texts, enforcing rigorous comprehension standards, and then never discussing them in class. Too much text can also make close reading impossible. If it is permissible for students to skim a piece, use it for background purposes, or employ it as an optional resource for research, I try to let them know in advance. Otherwise, close reading and discussion time remain the default assumptions.

Embrace Continual Assessment.

If I was teaching a graduate seminar, my approach on assessment would likely be very different. Nevertheless, with first-year students I have used quizzes, required questions, annotation checks, reflection pieces, and exploratory essays as frequent diagnostic and reflective tools. Among other things, they serve as a hedge against John Sappington and Colin Burchfield's findings that less than a third of college students typically complete readings before class. Frequent assessment and timely feedback allows folks to get help early and prevents nasty late-semester surprises. As a course proceeds, I may reduce formal assessments, as students become more familiar with class expectations, engage in their own comprehension strategies, and apply the ones they've learned in class independently. In the future, I hope to add more blogging activities and on-line assessment tools to this list.

Take Students' Questions and Responses Seriously.

On hectic days when we're impatient to move forward, it's worth slowing down, taking a deep breath, and responding to students' questions as patiently as possible. Such an approach will pay off in the form of trust while a single snappy answer can discourage students from seeking help later or engaging with difficult texts. In recent years, I have tried to turn good questions over to the class instead of answering them immediately, giving students a chance to explore, find evidence, and make connections as a community. Learning from previous mistakes that likely caused some student frustration and hurt my learning goals, I now try to open up more space for personal responses to texts. I am persuaded by Steven Graham and Michael Hebert's research that demonstrates completing short, personal written responses to texts can improve long-term reading comprehension. I am also moved by Paul Loeb's contention that personal expression and conviction rightfully belong alongside empirical analysis and formal argumentation, something I may not have fully recognized earlier in my career.

Jump on Chances for Engaged Learning.

Sometimes course goals will coincide nicely with the kinds of engaged opportunities that are readily available in your community and have been proven by George Kuh to lead to better learning outcomes. For me, that's meant having students work on local farms while reading about agricultural issues or breaking down urban planning challenges on GIS as they analyzed land use controversies. In other courses, one might find the opportunity to link readings to research or study abroad opportunities, internships, intentional learning communities, ethical debates, local advocacy, or global questions.

Provide Options for Further Exploration.

Adding the right supplements can enliven a class and improve students' reading performance. My suburbs seminar has lent itself particularly well to this endeavor, as each year I've included more photographs, short documentaries, audio clips, maps, letters, and legal documents that provide depth and context to our discussion of primary texts, but do not replace them. My political theory class poses more of a challenge on supplements although I am already looking forward to including a TED video next summer that references Thomas Hobbes as a counterpoint in its discussion of empathy and a peaceful society. Teachers can also make students aware of each text's bibliography, how the piece fits into on-going scholarly conversations, and opportunities for further exploration, practice, and research.

Now, I return to my syllabus revisions for the spring. I hope I can keep making improvements and help my students excel at reading and enjoy it.