Reading Difficulties

Last week when teaching my students about the proper way to communicate, I gave them scenarios of common problem situations between professors and students.  Their task was to create a solution to the problem and create a skit to act out the conversation between the professor and student while utilizing the proper ways to communicate techniques.  Needless to say, the results were hilarious, but they also highlighted a common theme for the week – students reading, and understanding, what it means to read.

Over the last two years, I’ve collected various articles on the topic of how to get students to read in class.  A few of them are listed here:

As you can see, there are a variety of methods that instructors have used to try to get their students to read the material that is assigned.  However, there may be other issues to the problem.  What if the students are reading, but they aren’t comprehending what they’ve read, or they just don’t understand how to read the texts that we are expecting them to read?

This issue first came to my attention as I was reading Creating Self-Regulated Learners:  Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills by Linda B. Nilson.  She posits that

“[text] in particular is a more difficult medium to learn from than graphics, one demanding greater mental effort than watching videos or listening to podcasts.  While highly skilled readers like academics (emphasis mine) do not notice it, reading text requires recognizing and translating complex patterns of black lines and curves into words, then grouping these words to make meaning.  This process takes longer and involves greater effort for students, especially those with little background in the discipline or who are reading in their nonnative language…text offers more detail and specificity, but to retain abstract material on a deep level, the mind has to simplify it, strip out unnecessary detail, and organize it into a quasi-visual structure anyway” (p. 33).

While I knew that academic texts were more difficult to read, I didn’t realize exactly what my students had to go through to read and comprehend the text that I was giving them to read.  After all, I learned to read academic text, so why shouldn’t they?  And then I remembered Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and it became much clearer to me.  I’ve become used to reading articles and stories online, as I’m sure most of my students have.  While I still love to read a book, I often lose patience with complex material that I wouldn’t have thought twice about ten years ago.  Therefore, now I question whether my students didn’t read or whether they just didn’t understand what they read.

Either way, I’ve concluded that there is no easy answer to how to get students to read the texts that we assign.  However, I’m going to keep assigning material for them to read, and I’ll try to scaffold the information for those that need some assistance with it.  And, in the meantime, I’m going to continue reading and learning more about how to help my students become better readers of academic texts.  One step will be to participate in a PDIG (Professional Development Interest Group) that CAPE will be hosting in the spring semester.  The book will be Carr’s The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.  If you are interested in facilitating this PDIG, let us know.  And, if you are interested in participating, look for the sign up link in the spring.



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