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teaching reading - comprehension

Many new college students have difficulty reading and understanding academic literature – or even “quality” journalistic writing (NYT, Harpers, New Yorker etc).  They may have a limited vocabulary, lack the context they need to make sense of an argument or be unaware of the conventions of argumentation.  Reading comprehension problems (click link for example) make discussion a non-starter or wildly off-track, increase students dependence on the instructor or professor for explanatory summaries (which do have a role) and block access to ideas. 

  • Prepare students to read
  • Help the students focus their reading

Preparing Students to Read

All the following strategies help prepare the students to read.  It's more teaching preparation, but usually worth it in time saved trying to correct misunderstandings later.



Provide a Context

Studies have shown that student comprehension dramatically improves when they have some idea of the subject being covered before they start reading.  Consider the example of a professional scholar.  Professional scholars generally have wealth of knowledge of the background issues and debates informing the author's argument before they start reading.  This context informs their reading: it allows them to read faster with more meaning and more pleasure.  Teachers can provide students with some of this background knowledge.  They can fill in some of the context before the students tackle the article - why and when the article was published, the issues and debates informing the argument, the positions other scholars have taken.



Provide the class with a verbal summary of the reading before they actually tackle it themselves. Professional scholars often have a pretty good idea of what an author is going to say before they start reading.  This makes the reading easier and helps them focus on the key point the author is trying to make.  While summarizing the reading draw the students attention to the structure of the argument as well as the content.  See here for an example of how to do this.


Define unfamiliar words

Very often students don’t know, or have only a vague understanding of, the meaning of words and concepts that end in -ology, -archy or –ism.  For example, patriarchy, ideology, globalization, liberalism, individualism, neoliberal, dichotomy, institution, binary, these are all words that require an explanation.  And many of the articles and books assigned to undergraduates are written with academic peers in mind, not an undergraduate audience, and they assume a background theoretical understanding of, for example, Marxist critiques of capitalism.  Before the students do the reading briefly explain the key terms, write the definitions on the board and make sure they write them down.  Then work them into a SUMMARY of the article (see pre-reading summary above). The best way for students to become familiar with a word or concept is to experience it in a meaningful context. 



Model it

Show the students how you read.  Read a (short) text out loud, pull out the main point, rephrase what the author is saying, make a connection to something else, evaluate the evidence, and dissect and critique the language, the metaphors, and the implicit and explicit values and assumptions.
Show the students how to make notes on a text.  Students don't learn to mark their textbooks at school and even when they do they often mark examples or statistics or anecdotes, rather than the thesis and important points.  Bring your text to class and share it with the students in all its highlighted, underlined, arrowed and noted glory.  (If you are a prolific over-marker skip this step, or use a specially prepared text that doesn't intimidate the student.


Sensitize them

Sensitize students to ideas or issues in upcoming reading.  Introduce them to the ideas before they read them.  You can do this by taking a quick survey of student opinion on an issue, or by playing a news-clip, video-clip, or piece of music that deals with the same ideas.


Focused Reading




Hand out a list of questions for the students to answer while reading the article.  Aim to draw their attention to the most important points - usually the thesis and supporting evidence.  Very often students have a perfect recall of all the anecdotes in the piece but are oblivious to, or misread the author’s argument.  Note: It's a good idea to have the same reading questions show up in your pre-reading summary – see the example.  This is a way to make sure that

  • you aren't asking too many questions
  • you’re asking questions you really care about. If the questions can't fit into a five-minute pre-reading summary, they are probably not important enough – not close enough to the central concerns of the reading task



Write a Brief

Have students write a brief of the article, a one to two paragraph summary, or a bulleted list of the main arguments (studies show students recall is much better when prose is abbreviated and rearranged in list form).  This will encourage them to look for the thesis and will teach them to distill a lot of waffle to the important points. Note: 

  1. It is enough to have the students pull out three or four important ideas. 
  2. The brief should lay out the structure of the essay.  The students should be encouraged to figure out how the author is structuring the argument. 

The briefs should also be critiqued.   The work done in class with the briefs should help the students learn to do better briefs. 

"Sarah, look over your brief and find for me the one sentence that summarizes the key idea of this article.  Because if it's not there, that's a problem."

"Julie, you've certainly got the main point down – and you do a good job summarizing two key points.  But as I listen to your summary, it seems to me that you've left out an entire major point of the piece.  In fact, looking over the essay, it's like you ignored four pages in the middle.  Do you have any sense of where you jumped?  Or why?"

Eventually, you'd hope to turn this over to the students:

"What do you guys think of this brief?  Anything missing?"



Make it Matter

Students are often assigned reading at the beginning of the semester which is never again mentioned until it crops up on an exam.  The more students are made aware of the relevance of assigned material to what they are learning or trying to understand, the more likely they are to read it.  The relevance of each piece to the course objectives, and to other readings, needs to be made EXPLICIT by the teacher, not assumed to be obvious.  This can be done in a couple of ways.

  • Just say it.  "The reason this book / article is important is because it tells us ______ about the problem of gender/race/class."  Make connections between readings for students, help them see how they work together to help us better understand an issue or problem.  "The  article you'll read for tomorrow makes a similar point to the argument in Sinha's book but focuses more specifically on ...."
  • Talk about it.  Nothing causes a faster drop in student compliance with reading assignments than not mentioning them.  The reading should come up in lecture, it should be a starting point or reference for discussions.


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The Handbook for Teachers further elaborates the course goals as helping students develop the ability to:

  1. Use flexible appropriate processes for writing, speaking and reading
  2. To understand and use basic rhetorical concepts
  3. To write and speak analytically about controversies


(For a more detailed description of these three related objectives see the Handbook, p3-4)