What are we asking students to do when we “assign” a text? Told to read Heart of Darkness, a lot of freshmen and sophomores will read it the same way they read a novel for pleasure, to follow the plot. A student who feels confused might resort to an Internet search to see what others say about it, or rely on you as the instructor to make sense of it. Reading in this way is largely a receptive process.
But what are you hoping your students will do as they read? What intellectual and affective processes are you anticipating? And do you want them to do the same thing with an Ishmael Reed poem as with an ethnography? It’s essential to think through the kinds of goals, procedures, and strategies involved, and how these differ among different kinds of text. As scholars we all internalize some reading procedures, and we occasionally forget that our students may not yet have developed procedural knowledge. It helps them greatly when we make the procedures explicit to them.
When introducing a new text or genre, many GSIs provide a brief sample for students to analyze together in class. Instructors use these to demonstrate the kinds of questions they themselves ask when they analyze such a text or object. They direct questions to help students begin to articulate what’s curious to them in the passage or object; they guide this discussion in the direction of some important tips that they have thought through beforehand. These tips the instructors compose as a handout, which they give to students to refer to in their first independent reading or analysis assignment.
It’s helpful to return to these tips in class and expand on them throughout the semester. Keep the students focused on performing the procedures until they’re second nature to them. You might give a workshop a bit later in the semester to consolidate the practices students have learned up to that point and link these practices to larger and more complex concerns and questioning patterns that interest well-informed people in your field.
For more on reading tips and making tip sheets for students see:
Developing a Reading Heuristic or Guide for Students
What kinds of activities teach students to interpret independently and to think of arguments about texts? We have several vague ways of describing what students need to do with a piece of writing. Read actively, take a questioning stance, probe for underlying assumptions, engage its complexity. While these work as guiding lights for some students, others need more concrete direction. Suggest activities such as the following:
- Mark the text: Use pencils and pens (highlighters tend to lead to purposeless and inarticulate recollections).
- Make notes: Use post-its, notebooks, or computers to record questions and thoughts as you read.
- Look up unfamiliar words and write synonyms for them in your text.
- Write down key words, metaphors, and concepts.
- Write a paragraph summary of the contents after you read a piece.
- Write down what the text seems to want to achieve, and list strategies used in the text to achieve its goals.
- Step back: How well does the text succeed, in the reader’s opinion? Locate evidence and explain your rationale.
Guided activities of reading can be posed as a set of processes in steps, with the understanding that readers may jump back to previous steps at any time: noticing, posing questions, looking up unknowns, making inferences, making connections, challenging assumptions, constructing interpretations, negotiating among interpretations, and revising interpretations. For an example of a sequence of class activities for a specific text, please see the slide show What Does “Reading” Mean? (pdf).
Teaching Critical Reading