How Underprepared Students Read

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Today I read an article in the November 2003 Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy by Dr. Cynthia Fischer about reading comprehension strategies, and although her examples were taken from a secondary school class, they struck a chord for me.  Student Tammy, reading a set of instructions aloud, says:  "Sit at your disk with feet firmly on the floor."  She doesn't notice that she's misread "desk" as "disk" because she didn't expect the text to make sense.  She reads on, reciting most words correctly but not paying attention to their meaning.

I suspect that a number of my college students read difficult texts this same way.  When I assign Plutarch's "Consolation to His Wife," students encounter this sentence:  "Peculiar poignancy attaches to tenderness for children when their presence is altogether welcome and completely untainted by ill will and reproach."  As an instructor and experienced reader, I'm plunging ahead: asking students to discuss the oddly detached tone with which Plutarch writes to his wife about the death of their beloved daughter, eager to move into a discussion of stoicism.  But some of my students (judging from their low quiz grades) have pronounced each word in their heads without doing the things skilled readers do naturally:

  • noticing that "peculiar" in this context doesn't mean "strange," but rather the older meaning of "especially intense";
  • defining the word "poignancy," a word more often seen in print than occuring in speech or popular culture;
  • realizing that Plutarch has switched from the particular (his own dead child) to the general (children who are wanted);
  • thinking about the issue of wanted vs. unwanted children, how children are not always a Hallmark-card blessing to a family, something they may have experienced in their own lives or communities.

The question is, how do we teach students to read carefully enough to pick up on the nuances, define the terms, and ask the questions . . . without making reading into a joyless trudge through texts?   Fischer teaches her secondary students sentence by sentence, first modelling how to ask questions like those above, then transferring question-asking responsibility to the students.  Would that work with postsecondary students, or would they resent the slow pace?  And if you're tackling a few sentences per session, what's a college freshman to do about the sixty pages of a psych text to be read by tomorrow morning? 

The other issue Fischer raises, which strikes me as relevant to college students, is that they don't always know they don't know.  "But I read the essay," moans Student A, frowning at the "F" on her reading quiz.  In fact, what she may have done is to sit in front of the book, running her eyes along lines of text, but not taking them inside.  Maybe she didn't expect them to make much sense.  That's certainly how I read a detailed article about, say, lacrosse.  I don't know much about it, and I don't want to know much about it.  If pressed to read it, I'll run my eyes over the words . . . but the connection with my brain isn't made. 

I do notice that certain essays provoke student interest, and are thus better understood.  So maybe I need to (a) assign essays more immediately relevant to students; or (b) do enough pre-reading during the class beforehand so that students can connect the essay to their own interests and lives.  Even stoical old Plutarch.   




Once when I assigned the short story "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" to some freshmen at my old job, and then a few weeks later asked students to write a paper about it, I walked them through the process of underlining words that they're not sure about, and writing notes to themselves in the margins. After I described this process, a student blurted out, "I wish you'd told us about this technique before, because if I had marked it up the first time I read it, I wouldn't have to read it again."

Students are so used to being able to Google for study guides and discussion questions that they often don't have much experience to draw on when they find themselves confronting a text all alone.

Perhaps we can take students a step towards independent collegiate reading by asking them to use Google to *construct* a study guide -- quoting from good online sources.

Brad Hart said:

I think the biggest problem new college students face when it comes to reading comprehension is for four to six years before they got to college they were stuffed full of crap that bored them to tears. Not only do most high school graduates find what they were given to read throughout high school and junior high to be irrelevant, but think reading in general should be avoided because supposed good literature made them feel stupid!

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