Reading in Chemistry: Part 1

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Instructors (at all levels) have devised means of content transfer which do not involve the primary course texts as a response to student's seeming unwillingness to tackle, or inability to comprehend, the text. Over the years, many instructors developed a detailed set of class notes, presentation slides, videos, etc. that cover all of the important topics in the course. My teaching philosophy was very similar. Early in my teaching career, I required readings, but when I realized that students were consistently not comprehending, I didn't know where or how to deal with the problem, so I decided to work around the text, essentially reducing the 1000 page text into a collection of end of chapter problems.

I didn't understand the reason why reading was so difficult nor did I have the tools to teach reading in my classroom. Moreover, I didn't think it even appropriate to be teaching reading in college level chemistry and math courses – shouldn't the students have already learned how to read?

This semester I was introduced to a framework – not a program - through which reading is given high priority in the classroom and the instructor is given concrete tools to help students become proficient discipline readers. The framework is called Reading Apprenticeship (RA) [1]. In RA, the instructor is the content expert, who is capable of reading discipline texts. The instructor's role in RA is to provide a safe, collaborative environment in which students can be apprenticed to become proficient readers. In this framework the instructor demonstrates all of the techniques they use when reading. RA gives instructors concrete exercises and terms by which they can describe their reading and thought processes.

The metacognitive discussion that arises through each of the dimensions listed below helps students develop into their thought processes to become readers. RA recognizes that reading is a very involved process that involves several distinct dimensions. The dimensions of RA include (link to graphic😞

  • Social - Students help each other comprehend texts by sharing and observing each other's reading processes
  • Personal - Students develop their identity as a reader
  • Cognitive - Students learn problem solving strategies applicable to reading comprehension
  • Knowledge-building - Gaining knowledge about the discipline through reading, linking with previous knowledge

I have been incorporating RA practices into my chemistry and math classes this semester and am very pleased with the results. Students are able to break down complex sections of the textbook in preparation for class. Moreover, students are able to apply RA concepts to problem solving because the first step in problem solving is being able comprehend the problem.

As the semester progresses, I will write up examples of the RA strategies that I am employing in my courses and discuss how students responded.


[1] Schoenbach, Ruth, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy. Reading for Understanding: How Reading Apprenticeship Improves Disciplinary Learning in Secondary and College Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.

About the Author
Brandon Tenn earned his Bachelor's of Science degree in Math and Chemistry from the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in 2001 and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from UC Davis in 2009. Between 2006 and 2010 he taught at both Sierra College and the California Maritime Academy. Since 2011 he has taught math and chemistry at Merced College. He is very interested in teaching developmental and introductory science and math courses utilizing an active learning approach. He has flipped every math and chemistry course he taught since Spring 2015 and continues to research best practices for the technique based on his target student populations.