painting of a woman reading

Reading Is Not One Thing

By Annie Del Principe and Rachel Ihara

As we write this, we’re on a train home from an academic conference where we attended a panel presenting empirical research on student reading behaviors. The researchers noted that undergraduates in the study often read in a nonlinear fashion—skimming portions of the text, rereading others, skipping ahead to final sections, and selecting juicy quotations to use in their writing. 

These findings match what we found in our own research on students’ reading behaviors (“‘I’” and “Long Look”). We found that most student reading didn’t look much like what we tend to think of when we think of reading—particularly in the context of writing and literature classes. Most often, students weren’t reading entire books or articles but rather studying from lecture notes, generally provided by the instructor. They only rarely cracked open books—typically textbooks—that were listed on the syllabus as required, and when they did, they most often read in highly selective ways, zeroing in on the sections they felt they needed to read to do OK in a given class.

For many, particularly those of us in the humanities, this type of reading could be seen as problematic. But we want to pause and consider instead what these findings reveal about the variability of reading practices. After all, literacy practices are and always have been in flux and are heavily influenced by technologies, purposes, genres, and prior knowledge, to name but a few salient factors. 

Perhaps instead of rushing to bemoan students’ reading habits and declaring the most recent literacy crisis, we could do more to craft pedagogy that responds to the reality of reading in our students’ (and our own) lives. A few things to keep in mind: 

  1. Often, nonlinear or cursory reading is all that students are being asked to do. Our own studies and others document the fact that, despite listing reading as required on syllabi, many college teachers do not teach in ways that truly require students to have done the reading. Pedagogies in which teachers present information to students or talk through the readings obviate students’ need to read and understand the material themselves. 
  2. We often do the same things students do when we read. We’ll out ourselves right here and admit that when we’re reading an article for work, we often read the beginning and then skip ahead to the discussion at the end. In many cases, this amount of reading is just enough to give us a good sense of the article’s argument, and it might even be enough for us to cite it in our own work. We academics have expert, well-honed reading strategies that we use when reading texts in our disciplines. These strategies are not shortcuts or signs of laziness; rather, they are skillful, smart approaches appropriate to our goals and purposes and to the genres we are reading.
  3. We faculty members mean different things when we talk about reading. These meanings vary considerably depending on our disciplinary identities. In our own local research, we found that most instructors across the curriculum describe strategic, efferent reading practices when they discuss their own approaches to reading texts for their work as teachers and scholars (“What”). Other instructors, primarily those in the humanities, describe deep, slow, close reading practices that involve extensive rereading and careful interpretation of portions of the text. 
  4. There is not one right way to read or consume texts. Thus, we recommend that instructors raise to the surface their own disciplinary uses of text and definitions of reading and make them apparent to their students. If you are teaching a humanities class (and you likely are if you’re reading this blog), realize that your discipline uses texts and defines reading in ways that are quite different from those of other disciplines. If you are frustrated that no one is doing the reading, avoid quick fixes such as lecturing about the material. Instead, consider helping students learn how your discipline reads and uses texts by creating an active classroom environment that models and demands these behaviors. 
  5. We should take the time to learn how our students actually read and bring that knowledge into the classroom. We all need to become more familiar with the ways digital texts have influenced our reading behaviors to help students learn when those behaviors help them read successfully and when they do not. All of us must become reading teachers and slow down our instructional pace to make space to model and enact the types of reading we think are valuable and will work best in our classes for our students. To simply expect that students will read the way we (think we) read when we were undergraduates is naive and unfair. Instead, we have to make our reading expectations explicit, teach students how to read in these different ways, and show them why this type of reading is worthwhile. 

To return briefly to the conference presentation we recently attended, we argue that close empirical study of student reading behaviors is exactly the type of research we need to better understand how students are reading. However, we must be cautious that nostalgia and disciplinary bias do not make it impossible for us to perceive the logic, wisdom, and value of the many different types of reading, and also writing, in today’s literacy practices.

Works Cited

Del Principe, Ann, and Rachel Ihara. “‘I Bought the Book and I Didn’t Need It’: What Reading Looks Like at an Urban Community College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 43, no. 3, 2016, pp. 229–46.

———. “A Long Look at Reading in the Community College: A Longitudinal Analysis of Student Reading Experiences.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 45, no. 2, 2017, pp. 183–206.

———. “What We Mean When We Talk about Reading: Rethinking the Purposes and Contexts of College Reading.” Across the Disciplines, vol. 15, no. 2, 2018, pp. 1–14, wac.colostate.edu/docs/atd/articles/ihara-delprincipe2018.pdf.

Published 27 August 2019

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