Do We Still Expect Students to Read?

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A few weeks ago, I posted some tips for fostering reading across the curriculum.  That post recognized that no matter what we do to improve instruction in an integrated reading and writing (IRW) developmental or ALP course, students will need on-going support in reading as they encounter challenging texts in disciplines outside of English.  After writing that post, I took some time to read the latest issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and I found a relevant and (quite frankly) disturbing article by Annie del Principe and Rachel Ihara, “A Long Look at Reading in the Community College: A Longitudinal Analysis of Student Reading Experien....”  The authors (English professors at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY) interviewed a cohort of students through their reading experiences across multiple semesters at the college. 


They state the bottom line early in the article:

In brief, we found that by the end of their time in our CC, all of our student subjects had learned the lesson that reading isn’t truly “required” in their classes and that it’s very possible to “get by,” and even succeed, in coursework without doing much, or even any, assigned reading. (183)


The authors recognize that theirs was a small sample and thus conclusions must be drawn carefully; unfortunately, their experience echoes what I have frequently heard from my students.  Students often say they don’t need to read:  in many classes, they are only tested on what is covered in lectures.  When I have tried to make the case that reading ahead of time can help lectures and class activities make more sense (after all, readers build connections and points of knowledge that they can connect to what they hear and do later), students shrug.  They tell me that reading the PowerPoint posted online after class is just as good.


I remember encountering Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning” as a graduate teaching assistant.  It was the first time I had thought about the affordances of writing as a method of learning—not just reporting what had been learned before.  Reading as a mode of learning, however, was a given.  I didn’t need a theoretical account of how deep and extended reading increased vocabulary, content knowledge, critical thinking, or the ability to craft sentences with syntactic complexity and nuance.  Learning by reading seemed self-evident, much as the rationale for integrating reading and writing instruction seems obvious to me.


But perhaps the time for the theoretical rationale has come, as more and more college classrooms appear to be abandoning reading as a mode of learning.  If integrated reading and writing instructors are going to partner with professors across the disciplines to enhance reading practices, we may first need to make the case that reading can and should be an integral part of a student’s learning in the college classroom.  And we must also celebrate and emulate instructors who are helping students read texts (and making the investment in a textbook worthwhile).


One such instructor is my colleague Curtis Morgan, a professor of history.  Morgan could rely solely on lecture (my ESL students have rated him a top guest speaker), but he has chosen to make reading a significant part of the learning in his courses.  Students in his introductory classes write up analyses of documents in their textbook (an exercise which requires reading not only the target document but also related background material in the text).  In addition, they are required to read 500 pages of material that they find on their own, with summaries of 50-page increments to be submitted regularly.  Morgan invites students to “specialize,” using the reading to develop an initial expertise in a particular area of history – thus giving them a stronger base for developing responses in papers and exams (I cannot help but think here of the paradox of the freshman year, where students must be both novices and experts, as detailed by Sommers and Saltz, 2004.  Morgan’s approach helps students navigate that dichotomy).


In more advanced classes (at my institution, these are sophomore level courses), Morgan requires students to present written reports on assigned texts, and he creates what he calls “book clubs” in his classroom to give students a platform for discussion and debate about these readings.  He also assigns a research essay, which of course requires reading. 

Many of my developmental, ESL, and ALP writers tell me that an 8-page reading is “too long,” and that they did not read in their high school courses.  When I can point to examples of courses such as Professor Morgan’s, I can show them that reading is not merely one more in a succession of meaningless hoops required for college success; it is a means to learning (and, in some cases, a rush of pleasure in newfound understanding).   The more I think about it, I would say that conspiring with colleagues across the disciplines to make reading meaningful may be the most important professional development for my work as an integrated reading and writing instructor. 


And now I need to get back to the stack of articles awaiting me.  There’s still so much to learn.


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About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.