Reading Difficult Texts

One of the prerequisites for achieving a greater quality of writing in the classroom is heightening the students’ ability to read, understand, and engage critically with scholarly texts. When our students arrive in college, they are suddenly confronted with reading assignments on a higher level of reading than most of them have ever encountered before. This might be particularly true for the many students for whom English is not their native language. Though we might assume that our students read their assignments efficiently and critically, it can prove beneficial to offer students some guidance in how to read scholarly texts. Below we offer some ideas for how to work with critical reading in the classroom.

  • It can prove helpful to prepare the students by giving them pointers for reading the text; let the students know what they are expected to read for.
  • Since there will be different levels of English proficiency in the classroom, it can be helpful to suggest that students work together when reading difficult texts. Students can for example keep lists of difficult words, discipline-specific terminology, and central arguments. If teaching with technology, this can easily be done on Blackboard or as a Wiki.
  • Some students will find it helpful to be directed to book reviews or shorter articles engaging with the longer readings assigned in class. There are ways to make sure that the students read the reading itself and not “just” the review. One can ask the students to write their own review, for example, arguing whether or not the assessment of the reading is fair and point to three elements of the reading are not mentioned in the review. This is also a way of asking students to engage critically with the reading.
  • It can be helpful to offer students general guidelines for reading scholarly material. Many students do not understand the importance of taking notes and will highlight. While we need to accept that different students read in different ways and that some work efficiently with highlighting, it might improve the quality of student reading if we encourage our students to take notes and work with a system of paraphrasing. Doing this will encourage students to gain factual knowledge while engaging critically with their knowledge.
  • Often incoming students do not understand exactly how they are supposed to read; they may not know that they are expected to read for argument and not solely for factual content. This is often true for multilingual students as well, particularly international students who come from academic environments that stress fact learning over critical analysis of readings and ideas. It can be fruitful to stress to students that you are looking for both their critical engagement with the material and the facts contained within it.
  • Many professors assign different material, some of which some needs to be read more carefully than other readings. You may want to point out to the students which readings need to be read most carefully. Of course, this does not mean that other readings shouldn’t also be read attentively, but it points to the necessary ability to discern and to prioritize different kinds of information.
  • Many professors have found that the quality of student reading improves when they are required to respond to the reading in writing. By requiring that students write responses, or paragraph length questions in relation to the reading, you achieve two major goals: 1) you facilitate and encourage reading the material carefully; and 2) since your students will have read the material more carefully, their class participation will be of a higher quality.
  • Having students prepare written statements, paraphrases, or questions can also be facilitated in class by letting students work together in pairs or smaller groups.
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