Thursday, September 07, 2006

Teaching Reading

No, I'm not planning on making a sudden switch to teaching grade-schoolers; I'm trying to figure out how to get (some of) my college students to read better.

Because the thing is, most of my students just aren't very careful readers. This isn't to say that they aren't experienced readers--most are English majors because they genuinely love reading, and they can read closely enough to remember a wealth of plot details, the names of major and minor characters, and that kind of thing. But when I ask them to look closely at a single passage in a reading response, or when they go to write papers, it often seems as if they're incapable of taking a chunk of text and analyzing it carefully; at best, they summarize, but more typically they talk about something else entirely--the work's Timeless Themes and Universal Ideas being popular options.

BUT! When I work with my students in class, and we pause to look at a passage or short poem, they can do amazing things. With only a little prompting, they'll start talking about interesting word choices and rhyme schemes and image patterns and all that good stuff. Afterwards, I'll often even break down exactly what we did and tell them how this should translate into the analysis that they do alone in their rooms. . . but it just doesn't seem to sink in with very many of them.

So, short of assigning a million response papers or full-on essays in order to give my students ample practice (and, sorry, with 80 students that ain't happening), what else could I be doing?

So far, these are my strategies:
  • Tell my students, repeatedly, that they need to be reading slowly, looking up words they don't understand, and taking approximately a page of notes every night.
  • Give reading quizzes that not only cover content, but that also contain a passage or two that I ask them to identify, paraphrase, and then answer a question or two about (this is intended to cut down on the SparkNotes problem--students who are reading study guides or "modern English" translations instead of the original).
  • Spend time every class modeling exactly what I expect my students to be able to do in their papers, and setting up in-class group work to that same end.
  • Assign reading responses approximately every two weeks, in which I give them feedback on the nature and quality of their analyses.
I know that the lack of careful-reading skills is a greater problem at the kind of institution that I'm at now--but I saw versions of the same thing at Big Urban, as well as among the English majors at Instant Name Recognition U. Textual analysis just isn't an innate skill, and I'm sure that most teachers have encountered this problem.

So, help me out, teachers. How do you think students learn how to read more carefully? (I'm not even talking about formal close-reading, by the way--just getting kids to be more sensitive and responsive to nuances in a text.) How did you learn? And how do you teach it?

I'm beginning to feel that my best hope is to catch as many students as possible when they're freshmen, work them over big time, and hope that maybe, by the time they're juniors and seniors, they're up to snuff.

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StyleyGeek said...

Spend time every class modeling exactly what I expect my students to be able to do in their papers, and setting up in-class group work to that same end.

Are you explicitly telling them every time you do this: "This is what I want you to do in your papers and exams"?

Because I think some students think that these sorts of exercises are just preliminary work (or worse -- busy-work) that they have to get through in order to then be able to write "real responses" (which are, of course, a plot summary + a discussion of "timeless themes" and "universal ideas"!)

Anonymous said...

Your stratagems all look like they have potential. And since you’re dealing with majors, they shouldn’t balk at the idea of taking nightly notes or at the appearance of a reading quiz. Though I too reliably receive papers that attempt to answer the BIG QUESTIONS, I’ve found that helping students to know what questions to ask about a text, what questions aside from the Universal Themes are available to them, guides some of them away from overly ambitious paper topics. Typically, I ask them to locate enigmas in the text and from there to list out questions that might plausibly (and interestingly) be answered in a short paper. These kinds of preparatory activities also translate well into classroom and group work.

It takes some time to convince them that detailed readings are worthwhile and some students still end up at 30,000 ft in their essays despite a well-crafted question, but I have had some decent results. At the very least, summary seems to disappear from their writing. And that’s something, isn’t it?

Dr. Crazy said...

This was a huge problem for me when I first began at my university, but the way that I found to address it (and which has worked, as it's not a problem for me any more) was to change HOW I tell them what I expect. One thing I learned was that when I said "response paper" they did not hear "careful analysis of the text in relation to a specific moment in the text." They heard, "talk about this as Literature and why it's Timeless and Very Unique and Great in a very general way." When I said, "close reading," they heard, "summary." Now, I ask for exactly what I want. If I want a paper that takes a moment in the text, analyzes it carefully in relation to the text as a whole and to the broader concerns of the unit that we're covering, that is what I ask for. And I get it. If I want a paper that gives a "close reading," I ask for them to choose a passage (or to look at the passage I've assigned), to describe the literary devices in the passage, to talk about the content of the passage, and to connect the use of literary devices to how that content comes across.

It's not that they only know how to read for plot or that they don't spend the time that they need to spend - although of course those are factors. It's that they don't know the language of the discipline, and so every time I translate what I want into their language, I also tell them "this is what people in literary studies mean by close reading," or "this is what people mean by a reading response."

From what you've said about your new institution, this is the sort of place with a lot of first generation college students. It only makes sense that they will need to be acculturated into the discipline in ways that most students at INRU did not. One thing I realize over and over again in my current job is that as much as I'm here to teach literature I'm also here to teach people how to enter into the discourse of "college educated people." And I realize over and over again that unless I do the teaching the discourse stuff first, I can't teach literature in the way that I want to.

(Sorry for going on and on, and I hope I don't sound to know-it-all-y - It's been a long week and I can't make my brain think about tone :) )

Flavia said...

Thanks so much for your thoughts, everyone. I have to admit that it's a little unfair of me to be posting these questions now, at the very beginning of my time at this institution, since I'm actually conflating my experience here with my experience at the school I lectured at last year. (Which is to say, I'm just beginning to use the strategies that I noted, here, but I'm at least partly remembering the long-term results of those strategies, there.)

I think you're all right-on, however, about needing to be specific. I DO tell my students to find a single passage in their reading responses, and to answer a specific question or series of questions about it--but perhaps I need to be yet more specific about the kinds of TASKS that this involves (thinking about word choice, metaphors, etc.). And I have, at my past school, very explicitly broken down a close reading that we've just done together and told them how to replicate those steps on their own--and some students did get it. Others got it, but then produced crazy-ass, purely fantastical readings. Others didn't get it at all. But I suppose that's still progress, overall.

But in the end, Dogma's probably right: it just takes a long time for these habits to become natural. It's frustrating, though, to have juniors and seniors for whom this is still obviously fairly unfamiliar ground.

(And Crazy: you don't sound know-it-all-y at all! I've always admired the way that you think about your pedagogy and translating your expectations into teaching strategies that can get those results, and I'm glad to be on the receiving end of some of your wisdom.)

RageyOne said...

Flavia - be specific! That, to me, is the key. I am a former elementary school teacher of reading (3rd grade). I would approach university aged students the same way I approach 3rd graders. Tell them exactly what I want so there is no ambiguity, no question about what I am seeking. I think the other commenters have all hit on that with their comments as well.

I think the items you listed are right on point. Modeling is key as well. If you demonstrate what you want in class they are better able to mimic that in their own work.

Tiruncula said...

This is such a useful discussion! In the past I've put on my syllabi: "Your job is to demonstrate something about the TEXT, not about the human condition, or even the sophomore condition." But terse sarcasm never quite did the trick. I especially like Dr. Crazy's advice, and I'm glad she laid it out at length for us. I'm going to try to put that into effect next semester when I'm teaching undergrads again - freshmen who've expressed an interest in majoring in English will be the main clientele, I think. (Speaking of which, I have a query for y'all over at Practica.)

Anonymous said...

At least part of the problem comes from previous classes in which summarizing and talking about Timeless Themes and the Universality of Literature is the expected content for a paper. But to teach close-reading, to attend to every nuance of the text, the best method I can think would be an essay assignment I got in college that basically changed my life. Take Shakespeare's sonnet, "Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing," and look up every single word, every noun, every verb, every adjective, and adverb, in the OED. Then, write an analysis of the poem using the various meanings of the words. My professor suggested that we begin by retyping the poem triple-spaced, and then trace the different levels of wordplay using different colors of ink. As I said, it worked for me.

Anonymous said...

Although I teach the freshman U.S. history survey, and not upper-level English courses, I have one technique that may help. When we are going through a document in class, say Columbus's letter announcing his "discovery" of the Americas, I point out to my students certain visual clues that help them see the main points in Columbus's argument. I draw their attention to key transition phrases, such as "first, second, third, etc..." so they can easily outline these. Or, if we are reading an article by a historian, I point out the ways that this author segues into his/her conclusion. I'm not sure how well they grasp this, but I think I get through to at least some of them. Hopefully when they are reading at home, these visual clues will pop out. Pch in SD also hit the nail on the head--most of my students have no idea how to analyze, only how to summarize. They are getting ready to turn in their first paper this week and even though I've gone over the assignment in detail, I've still gotten tons of emails to the effect of: "What am I supposed to write in this paper? You've said that its not supposed to be just summary, but I don't know what else to talk about." I've told them to use our handout called "Interpreting Primary Sources" as a guide to both the reading and writing processes. It has a series of questions such as "Does the author have a bias? What is this source supposed to accomplish? How does the evidence presented in this source match with other evidence from lecture, discussion, etc...?" While this list is geared toward reading history, I would be happy to send it to you via email.

Texter said...

This is something all professors of English must deal with. Most professors in the humanities should deal with this! Your tactics sound great. Modeling close reading and nuanced reading is key. I'm still learning how to teach this skill. I have adapted a few close reading handouts developed by a colleague and have had great success with them (using them to frame an exercise that extends over several class periods). This time in my writing class, I've devoted an entire unit to close analysis in one of two book-length texts. We'll see how it goes...

Anonymous said...

One thing my HS English teacher made us do every single night was to take home a very short poem (sometimes a Shakespearean sonnet) with a short question we had to write a paragraph on. Most often the question/prompt was "what is the most important word in this poem, according to you, and why is it important to the meaning of the poem?"

It took me years but I realized one day that he was forcing us to quote and analyze quotes. I mighta picked up on this earlier and had even better results if he had explicitly spelled it out for us in class or given us a handout explaining why we had these homework assignments. Telling people the rationale for assignments really helps. Modeling also helps --- do you have a really good close reading to show the students? _And_ a _really_ bad essay? Take a class day, even two, to read and critique or "peer review" the two essays, then tell them the grades you'd give them. I've had great luck with this --- but I had to "doctor" a bad essay; when people aren't really good writers they also have trouble recognizing a moderately bad essay as bad; you have to exaggerate the problems.

Leslie M-B said...

1. Provide a reading guide for course readings.

2. Teach students how to ask *good* questions about a reading--that is, ones that could lead to a thesis.

These two tactics have helped me.