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Critical Reading: Pedagogy for All Students

Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning
A National Symposium
November 16-17, 2018
Stetson University
Miami, Florida

Leigh Ann Dunning, Stetson University
Megan O’Neill, Stetson University
Michele Randall, Stetson University
Yohann Ripert, Stetson University

Instructors and professors at all ranks and kinds of institutions share a common story about students who don’t—or can’t—read the syllabus, a story that reveals the deeper struggle for students around college-level reading ability. Moreover, without an explicit curriculum designed to remediate reading skills—an approach many universities do not offer—faculty from across the disciplines must do what they can in the classroom to enhance student reading abilities. At Stetson University, an ongoing faculty development effort sponsored by the Brown Center for Faculty Innovation and Excellence is the Critical Inquiry Circle, which is intended as a reading group to enhance faculty understanding around a given topic. In 2017-18, a call went out to interested Stetson faculty to join a Critical Reading Circle, triggering such a response that we did not have room for everyone. Confident that our work was useful, the Critical Reading Circle focused on reading strategies in the college classroom designed to assist learners from all backgrounds, disciplines, and levels of preparation. Our goal was first to better understand what we could do and, second, to share that understanding as widely as we could.

Megan O’Neill: Our first questions for each other were basic: why is reading so challenging for college students? What is it about these challenges that present similar challenges for teaching faculty? As much of the recent research in reading has concluded (Horning, 2007; Horning & Kraemer, 2006; Finch, 2018; Sullivan, 2017), students now entering college come with a vast array of technologies and reading habits already engrained. They multitask, listening to music while reading notes; they are distracted from the kind of sustained reading that college requires by a wide range of activities; they have a great deal to read but, without strategies to effectively digest that reading, they feel too overwhelmed to begin; they have too much to write and feel uncertain about doing what faculty might consider essential reading before they begin to draft; they have rarely considered the kind of reading they do (social media, text messages, visual media) as “reading”; and they have developed alternative habits of reading that may seem alien to their instructors (clicking links, taking in patterns of text as they are arranged on a device screen, and so forth).

This complex set of factors presents challenges for instructors, few of whom have been taught how to respond productively to these reading practices or remember their own similar experiences. But students accustomed to the contemporary emphasis on multi-tasking, absorbing fragments of text, and immersion in technology need literacy instruction in ways that accommodate their modes of thinking.

Fortunately, the fundamentals of pedagogy still work in these challenging situations. How do students learn to read critically? Instructors model good practices. Instructors teach a number of ways to read a text. And we make it matter to them: as part of an assignment. Beyond the “write about the reading” assignment, we can engage students by assigning substantial reading assignments that require them to think, reflect, and apply. Below are three examples of using effective assignment structures to help students from across disciplines learn to read deeply and critically.

Yohann Ripert: In the field of translation, for example, the challenges of critical reading are heightened by the difficulty of reading in a different language. Paradoxically, dealing with the difficulty of the latter becomes a strategy to succeed in the task of the former. What I argue here is that one strategy to train the students in critical reading is to approach it as if they were reading (and we were teaching) the readings–any reading–in translation. Indeed, the ultimate goals of translation and critical reading are remarkably similar: to reflect on ways in which the text conveys meaning; to analyze the framework that supports the argument; to attend to the conditions–textual, historical, social, etc.–that shape the narrative.

In my junior-level seminar, weekly reading responses (WRR) were a particularly helpful way to do just that. Assigned readings increased in length and complexity. Starting with two five-page texts in the first week, I incrementally added a page every week. At the end of a 15-week semester, this meant reaching two 20-page essays. While one text was a primary source in the target language (in my case, French, but this can be disciplinary-focused: cinema, architecture, music, etc.), the other was a critical analysis of either our weekly topic or the primary text. Each WRR was framed by a series of questions designed to increase the interaction between the students and the texts. From week one to week four, three questions guided the students: one targeting a choice (e.g., “What do you find most surprising about the use of dictionaries in this essay?” “What sentence most supports the central argument?”); another emphasizing personal response (e.g. “Do you agree/disagree with the author?” “Do you think the essay is relevant to your world today?”); and a last one inviting a direct comparison with essays read earlier in the semester. From week five to week eight, the number of questions decreased to two, shifting the focus from personal interaction to textual references (e.g., “What evidence is used by the author to support the argument?” “What sources does the author quote?”). From week nine to week twelve, when inquisitive (i.e., critical) habits of reading had settled, only one question guided our discussions (e.g. “Do you think that translating is a political or personal gesture?”).

To link critical reading with independent learning, I progressively decreased the amount of guidelines framing the assignments. A translation worksheet that indicated specific items for students to identify (vocabulary, register, historical context, list of examples, etc.) accompanied the earlier readings. As we moved through the semester, the assignments required similar work but were given without the worksheet. A footnote exercise, for instance, introduced mid-semester, asked students to explain what they found difficult or impossible to translate and share their train of thought. In that assignment, about half of the class included textual references, contextual information, and nuances in tone and register–as they had done through the earlier translation worksheets. By the last week of the semester, about 75% of the students reached our learning outcome: to develop a habit of questioning, relating, and critiquing texts (both in French and English). They internalized, almost unbeknownst to them, a critical way of reading.

Leigh Ann Dunning: As the director of the writing center on campus, I often get inquiries from tutors about strategies for helping students who struggle with writing because of their difficulties with reading. In a staff meeting last semester, tutors described the situations they observe most often: 1) students who have trouble analyzing/synthesizing texts because they can’t discern the main argument; 2) students who plagiarize—most of the time unintentionally—because they are unable to summarize what they’ve read; and 3) students who misinterpret texts that support their main argument/thesis. The major challenge for our staff became how we can support these students within the parameters of the job of a writing center tutor. If we were to train tutors to become reading tutors, we’d need additional professional development from reading experts in the field—not to mention an additional budget. However, writing center tutors can utilize what they already do—talking about writing—to help students think critically about the ways in which an author has communicated their ideas within a particular text for a particular purpose. In turn, this will help students better understand a text’s meaning.

One resource that I’ve used when teaching ENGL 100: College Writing is Michael Bunn’s “Read Like a Writer” (RLW) strategy. The strategy asks readers to “locate what you believe are the most important writerly choices represented in the text—choices as large as the overall structure or as small as a single word used only once—to consider the effects of those choices on potential readers (including yourself)” (Bunn, 2011, p. 72). Bunn’s idea is that when we ask students to examine the choices that writers make, they will become more aware of the choices they are making in their own writing. What I’ve found in my ENGL 100 classes is that when students think rhetorically about a text—Who is the audience? What is the purpose? Why did the author organize their ideas in these paragraphs in this way? Why did the author use this particular vocabulary?—they are also able to grasp the concepts that are being communicated by the writer.

Here’s what I’ve experienced when using RLW strategies in my ENGL 100 class:

  • It helps them identify the main ideas and supporting ideas of a piece of writing.
  • It provides students with a way to take notes while they are reading a text.
  • It provides a way to discuss outlining (structure/organization) with students.

As a writing center staff, we are working to create handouts and other resources that modify RLW to fit the needs of our students. For example, when students are having trouble summarizing or paraphrasing a source, we have students complete a scavenger hunt to identify the main elements of the article. They must answer: 1) Why was this written?/What’s the purpose? 2) Who is the intended audience? 3) What are the most convincing and least convincing parts of the writing? Why?

In your own classes, it may be helpful for your students not only to consider what a text says, but also how and why it says it.

Michele Randall: First-year students who take classes outside of their majors can present an interesting challenge for critical reading. Recently, I taught a poetry class full of students who were reluctant to read any poetry. First, I had to identify the parts of my challenge. In that class of students, their reasons included hating poetry, not wanting to read a whole anthology, preconceived ideas about poetry and poets, and zero desire to write a literary analysis. After this discovery, I considered what else I could do with these readings. To succeed at all, I had to adapt my resources.

My goal was to get students who “hated poetry” to critically read poems and write about their experience. Here are some of the solutions that worked:

  • Calling the poems texts for the rest of the semester, instead of poems/poetry, established a common ground. Students were familiar with text/textbook and the word did not invoke fear.
  • Asking students to send a poem to a friend and discuss why they chose that poem opened up the idea of a poem’s message in a friendlier way.
  • Assigning a Poetry in Public Spaces project moved poetry outside the classroom. Unsurprisingly, every one of them received favorable responses from other students.
  • Reading articles about intersections of poetry and other disciplines opened discussions about how poetry is already used in advertising, music, etc.
  • Offering a candy prize for a scavenger hunt for poetic elements had students feverishly googling definitions and finding examples in the poems.
  • Assigning specific tasks for readings (finding definitions, connections to other topics, information on an author’s background, etc.) helped focus their reading time.

Interestingly, most of them did more than required in response to these activities, whereas previously they had refused to read at all.

How can you change how a text is read? Move beyond comprehension. In one section of the poetry anthology, I asked students to ignore the meaning and look for the idea behind the poem to create a writing exercise. I received some unexpected results:

  • Impromptu discussion of our writing practices and connections to other types of writing—“Can we do this with any other types of writing? Which ones?”
  • Increased focus on language, poetic elements, syntax, etc.

Their created exercises showed deep critical thinking and understanding, as demonstrated in student comments like this one: “The poem explores the relationship between 2 nouns and interchanges which noun affects the other, for example I am the bone that chews the dog.” Another exercise had writers begin a poem in third person using as much imagery as possible, but in the last two lines moved from third person to first person, which was the exact structure of their model poem. This allowed us to address syntax, voice, and stanza—finally, the discussion the class had avoided for weeks. As homework, students chose one of their writing exercises and attempted an original poem. Their poems and reflections were so much stronger than previous work because they were invested in the outcome; they had created the assignment.

Identify the parts of your challenge first, and don’t be afraid to include your students in the solution. Ask them to lead a discussion on an article; create an exercise; complete specific reading tasks in groups; reinvent the reading quiz; and/or use common ground terms that will help facilitate reading.

Megan O’Neill: At Stetson, faculty are encouraged to share strategies and techniques freely, and faculty development opportunities are plentiful and well resourced. Universities and colleges have options about how to respond to a growing concern about students’ critical reading abilities; administrative bodies can consider a curricular or co-curricular effort, perhaps tied to student support services; faculty—and this is perhaps more likely to help the situation—can educate themselves, testing our strategies and techniques to see which approaches can best help students as well as fit naturally into a given classroom. It’s clear from our experience that students from all disciplines can benefit from careful work around encouraging reading closely and critically. All learners are welcome in a room where words matter and reading is critically important.




Bunn, M. (2011). How to read like a writer. In C. Lowe & P. Zemliansky (Eds.), Writing spaces: Readings on writing (Vol. 2, pp. 71–86). Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/books/writingspaces2/bunn–how-to-read.pdf

Finch, A. How to effectively teach reading skills to college students. Retrieved from http://www.finchpark.com/ppp/reading/Handout.pdf

Horning, A.S. (2007). Reading across the curriculum as the key to student success. Across the Disciplines, 4. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/docs/atd/articles/horning2007.pdf

Horning, A.S., & Kraemer, E.W. (Eds.). (2006). Reconnecting reading and writing. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/books/referenceguides/reconnecting/

Sullivan, P., Tinberg, H., & Blau, S. (Eds.). (2017). Deep reading: Teaching reading in the writing classroom. Urbana, IL: NCTE.