Much of the writing students are asked to do in college requires that they craft a carefully reasoned response to something they have been asked to read.  Assignments like this tend to present students with two separate but related problems:

First, many first-year students aren’t accustomed to being asked to form or express personal opinions.  In fact, they may have been told repeatedly to keep their opinions to themselves, since nobody cares what they think.

Secondly, in order to form an opinion about a piece of writing or an author’s position on an issue, one must first understand what one is reading.  This seems obvious, but the truth is, when faced with college-level material, many first-year students struggle with reading comprehension.

In Part 1 of this two-part discussion of ways to get around these two problems, I’m going to address the second problem (comprehension) first.

First, the causes of the problem:

Most K-12 students are encouraged to read, but they are not always taught to read critically or to engage with the material.  They therefore approach their college reading assignments with the same tools they’ve always known, which are the only tools most of them have.  These tools consist fairly exclusively of the eyes alone.  The brain is used primarily as a memorization tool, since what most students have learned is that they will be quizzed on the material.  The answer to Number Six on the quiz can be reliably found on Page X, word for word.

College writing assignments aren’t often like that.  We don’t expect students to memorize and repeat what they’ve read, or even necessarily to agree with it.  We expect them to understand, to think, to process, to analyze, and to synthesize—that is, to form their own opinions and positions based not just on what they’ve read today, but based on what they’ve read today in conjunction with what they’ve read before.

In order to do all of this, they must engage with the material.  And this requires comprehension.

Many first-year students approach college reading assignments the same way they read anything else: by casting their eyes over the material word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page, starting at the beginning and continuing through to the end, until their eyes have looked at each word in the document.  “There,” they say as they close the book.  “Glad THAT’S done.  I have no idea what it’s talking about, but hey, at least I read it.”

The reading tools they used in high school will not often serve them well in college.  Even students who like to read are often stymied when they’re presented with college-level material.

The following strategies can help students improve their reading comprehension:

  1. Skim the material before you read it.  “Skimming” does not mean running your eyes quickly over the whole document.  First, read the introduction.  (Note that the introduction may consist of more than one paragraph.)  Then read the conclusion (again, this may be more than a single paragraph).  Then read the first sentence (or two) of each body paragraph (this is where you’re most likely to find the topic sentences around which the body paragraphs will be organized).  The purpose in doing this is to give yourself an overview of the work as a whole.  What you’re doing is identifying the work’s central themes and arguments—what the author sets out to do, how s/he does it, and where s/he winds up.  Only after you’ve skimmed the work and have a basic understanding of its content and purpose should you go back to the beginning and read it all the way through.
  2. Read actively.  By this I mean, read with a pen or pencil in your hand (not a highlighter).   Put asterisks, question marks, exclamation points, and comments in the margins as you go.  Read the work as if the author were speaking to you personally, and write your responses in the margins.  “I disagree” is fine.  “WTF??” is fine.  “You’re an idiot” and “This is stupid” are also fine.  “Wow, I never thought of that before” is good too.  Or “Interesting!” or “Oh, this is like —!”  Remember, this is a conversation.  You both get to talk.  NOTE:  College textbooks are TOOLS.  You cannot learn to use a hammer if you just sit and look at it.  If you just can’t bring yourself to write in a book—say, the book isn’t yours, or if you can’t get past the idea that writing in a book is a sin—then us a pencil so you can erase everything before giving the book back, or as a last resort, photocopy the assigned material so you can write on the photocopy.
  3. Underline or circle unfamiliar words, LOOK THEM UP, and write the definitions in the margins.  Sometimes you can figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word from the context of what you’re reading, but if that word shows up several times, you should look it up anyway just to be sure you’re interpreting it correctly.
  4. Reword sentences containing difficult syntax.  Unfamiliar sentence structure confuses readers more often than almost anything else.  Combined with unfamiliar words, it can make an assigned reading seem as if it’s written in a foreign language.  Well, guess what?  To many students, this kind of formal English is a foreign language.  How do you cope with it?  Go back to grammar basics:  Find the subject and the verb.  Be aware that the subject may not be at the beginning of the sentence, and it may not be followed immediately by its verb.   Pretend you’re listening to Yoda.  Difficult, it is.  Do it, you can.  Try to summarize the idea contained in the sentence to see if you understand it.  Pretend you have to explain it to someone else.

Can you add to this list?  What methods do you use to get through a difficult read?


Rules of Engagement, Part 2 will appear next Wednesday.  Stay tuned, and good luck!