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How can we help students deal with challenging readings—especially scholarly readings—in our ALP and IRW classrooms? Many composition programs require students to use scholarly sources in researched essays, and far too often, the result is a quote culled from the abstract or first paragraph of a peer-reviewed paper, inserted perfunctorily into student papers without context or clear syntactic connections. Students have checked the box and “used scholarly material,” but far too often, they have not read that material.
In their investigation of student use of source material, Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue suggest that “students are not writing from sources; they are writing from sentences selected from sources. That leaves the reader with the unanswered question: does this writer understand what s/he has read?” With my students, the answer has often been “no.” They’ve told me so.
When I see students try and abandon an assigned scholarly reading, I am reminded of the frustrated questions of non-English speakers when they first enter an English-only classroom: Where do I start? What do I look for? Where is there a connection to what I already know? What’s important—and what isn’t? How can I move forward when I am completely lost?
One way to help students answer these questions and navigate the readings is to provide reading guides with comments, questions, and opportunities for reflection. In my classes, I assign peer-reviewed research early (as part of a writing about writing approach), and for the first part of the term, I include a reading guide with each selection. I tell students my guide is like the tour bus that will take them through a foreign city for the first time: I will tell them what to look at, give them some background information when needed, and then invite them to linger and make some memories (maybe even take a selfie or two) along the way. I recognize the reading will not be familiar, but I’m inviting them to get on the bus with me, and we will, in a sense, work through it together.
This semester, my students read “Texts of our Institutional Lives: Studying the ‘Reading Transition’ from High School to College: What Are Our Students Reading and Why?” by David Jolliffe and Alison Harl. My reading guide for that assignment first walked students through the sections of the article, including the introduction, the literature review, methods, results, discussions, and recommendations for future research. Then I asked them to go back and focus on specific sections. Here’s a piece of that guide:
Other parts of the guide suggest where to skim and where to read closely.
Reading guides have provided a way for my students to engage in difficult readings through scaffolded support. There are two dangers in providing students with guides such as these. First, the guides may reinforce students’ belief that reading is about getting something right or saying what the teacher expects them to say (as discussed in Cheryl Hogue Smith’s “Interrogating Texts: From Deferent to Efferent and Aesthetic Reading Practices”). A second concern is that students will not transfer, internalize, or repurpose the conceptual knowledge of the guides for future reading.
Four classroom practices can address these concerns:
- Revisit readings multiple times. The guide is an introduction; students should be invited to return to readings throughout the term, and when they do, they should have the freedom to adjust the focus, ask questions, or challenge initial interpretations. Students can also create their own guides or propose revisions to what the instructor provided initially.
- Invite students to apply, connect to, and synthesize readings in ways that extend well beyond the instructor’s initial guide.
If students are conducting their own research, have them create reading guides for scholarly texts selected for their projects. Discuss the general principles underlying the construction of a reading guide, and invite students to assume the role of “tour guide” for the articles they choose.
Finally, extend the reading guides to scholarly texts students might encounter in other courses. Invite instructors from other areas to contribute to the development of a guide, or have students interview faculty and create the guides for themselves.
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