At the end of 2009, I packed up my school teacher bags, and, a little burnt out, hopped a plan to Cape Town. My ambition was to study reading, and more importantly, how to get students to read and read well – to read for pleasure, to read for learning. It’s 11 years later, and there have been many turn to the road which took me elsewhere in my goals, but I’m back with reading.
I’m back with reading for a number of reasons. In COVID19-remote teaching times, TEXT IS CHEAP. Sending readings, sharing book chapters, chatting in forums are substantially cheaper than audio, video, narrated powerpoints, synchronous video conferencing etc. Even with an unstable internet connection, downloading a chapter to read and engage with is easier than a short video.
Furthermore, in the context of grossly and racially skewed access to data, devices and even public infrastructure, the best remote, low-tech advice we could give for the majority: start with lecture notes, add some slides paired with the notes. Then if you’re feeling bold, add some audio. If you add video, be very certain that it’s “additional” material. For those with unresolve-able data or device issues, let’s take a distance learning approach. In a week or so, my institution (and many others) will be sending out print materials to students across South Africa.
But here’s the fly in the proverbial ointment, our students find reading hard! And they find academic reading even harder!
In most South African schools, the entire system is predicated on helping students to pass despite almost never having to read anything independently. So why would students know how to read – for learning or pleasure?
Here comes another fly… most academics don’t have the first clue of how to teach students to read in or for their discipline. We can’t draw on experience, because the people who hang around in academia are probably people who figured out reading, even (secretly – gasp!!) enjoy reading! And most South African academics don’t train to be educators. (Rant for another day!)
The combination of COVID, South Africa’s inequality and infrastructure issues, poor reading practices and a limited ability to teach reading – it sounds like the worst case scenario of worst case scenarios. But it need not be.
The capacity to read for pleasure and learning is a act of power and liberation. Limiting your learning solely to what someone speaks to ears or creates as a youtube video stunts our students’ growth! Teaching the ability to read and learn independently might be one of the most precious things we get out of this ghastly experience.
So how do I teach my students to read for learning (first) and for pleasure (hopefully)?
- “Talk” to students and tutors and fellow educators about learning through reading. By talk, I mean text, or a forum chat or a “letter” (emails feel different to letters for me, even if they’re both digital!)
- Make the conventions of text explicit. Many of our students come from places where books ate scarce. The conventions of good textbooks are mysteries and have been locked up in cupboards and shared between grades. Many of our students will have had limited opportunities to make friends with a textbook. For example:
- How do the beginning and the endings of textbook chapters work?
- Is there a structure and a visual language to headings, sub-headings etc? For an overwhelmed student, this might slip by and they’ve missed a meta-textual (??) clue.
- How should students use the questions and resources often included with digital textbooks?
- What’s the structure of a journal article? Don’t asssume your students know this. The other day I was talking to first years about reading and explaining the crude-very-crude structures in journal articles. A student put her hand up. “No-one’s ever told me this,” she says. “Well, it’s first year and orientation! You’re learning it at the right time!” I remind her. “NO!” she says, “I’m a third year and mentor – how do I not know this??”
- Make good reading practices explicit. For example:
- You’re going to need to read this reading at least twice. Read it once and try the skeleton process we talked about. Then put it down for two days and come back to it and try to identify key details for sections 1, 3 and 7.
- Skim the structure of this reading. Create a skeleton of the outline. Write one or two key ideas about each element of the skeleton. Try turning the headings into questions to do this.
- I’m sending you a chapter on X. For this reading, try to focus on [the context/ the methods/ the principles underlying the equations].
- Link reading practices to production practices. Do students needs to read and summarise? Draw a mind map? Chat in a forum? Take a quiz? How will they “get” this and how will they apply it?
- Reward reading. Here’s a whole article on gaming students into reading – How Many Points Should Be Awarded for Interactive Textbook Reading Assignments? (Edgcomb, Alex, and Frank Vahid. 2015 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE). IEEE, 2015.)
Okay! So, I am running out of ranty feelings… which is what this blog is supposed to achieve. Do you have great ideas for how to teach reading in higher education? Share them!