“What can we do if they don’t do the reading?” by Erin Delaney

April 12, 2012

This February, I attended the First Year Experience conference held in San Antonio, TX. While there, I had an opportunity to learn more about helping students read. This experience gave me the opportunity to reflect on where I had been as a teacher, and where I wanted to go.

In my first semester of teaching, I made two assumptions about students and reading:

• Most students would read assigned articles simply because the teacher had assigned them

• Even if they did not read the articles, they would bring their books to class

These assumptions were based on my own college experience; I did do (almost) all of my assigned reading, and I always brought my books to class. I presumed my students would do the same.

I was wrong.

On the day I learned just how wrong I was, I had prepared a carefully-crafted lesson on pre-reading. The students were going to survey an article to find out just how much they could learn about it before they began to read. If the students did not have their textbooks, the lesson would flop.

Guess what? Many of the students didn’t have their textbooks, and the lesson did, in fact, flop. At first, I felt disappointed in my students. No, I felt betrayed. I had worked so hard to plan a lesson, and they didn’t fulfill their half of the bargain.

Since that time, I’ve re-thought the entire incident. Perhaps the students didn’t live up to my expectations that day, but I bare some of the blame. My students are college freshman who are still learning just what is expected from them. It is my responsibility as a college instructor to help them learn what my expectations are and give them the tools to meet (and exceed) those expectations.

So, I found myself asking the question, “What can I do to help my students read and act like college students?”

Over the years, I’ve collected different strategies to help my students. When attending the First Year Experience Conference this February, I picked up three new strategies to help students read more productively.

1. Never ask “who did the reading?”

The way we ask questions matters. Students understand deeper implications in our questions than we first expect. If we ask “who did the reading?,” we imply that it is OK to not do the reading. As teachers, we know that not all students did the reading. However, we should set higher expectations for our students. We can let them know that, in college, it is expected for students to complete the assigned reading.

We should phrase our questions more carefully. For example, if we ask “what did you think about the reading?,” we presume that the students have completed the assignment (whether or not they actually have). “I didn’t do the reading” is not an acceptable answer to this question. By changing our phrasing, we make our expectations even clearer.

2. Give them study guides to help them focus

When we assign reading, our students do not always know why we’ve assigned it. They might have to write a paper, take a test, make a presentation, or talk to their classmates about the reading. We might not even cover the reading during class time. Our students need a sense of purpose and focus to be able to read more effectively.

As instructors, we can prepare study guides for our students that help them zoom in on the most important points of the reading. In some cases, the study guide may be as simple as a summary of the text. In others, we might define difficult terms, give background information, or ask reading comprehension questions. All of this information will help them when reading; they will be able to pick out the most important material because they will recognize it from the study guide.

I teach an article called “Educating Illegal Immigrants.” I used to assign the article to the students without introducing it at all. I discovered that the students were missing a key point: the group of illegal immigrants that the author is discussing. He focuses on people who were brought to the United States illegally as children; people who grew up in our education system. If students miss this distinction, they miss the crux of the argument. If I take a few minutes before they read the article to explain who the author is writing about, the students have a much stronger understanding of the entire article. I learned (the slow, hard, painful way) that I needed to introduce this article. Even the shortest, most casual introduction helped my students do a better job on their assignment.

3. Teach them to use question and answer strategies

Just as we might give students questions in a study guide, they can also learn to craft their own questions about a reading. One way for students to generate questions is for them to turn titles, section headings, or graphics into questions before they read the article. Then, as they read, they can search for the answers to their questions.

For example, in an article called “Crime on Campus,” there is a graphic titled “Fewer College Students Are Victimized.” If I were a student, I would write the following questions:

• Fewer than what?

• What does the author mean by “victimized?”

• What kinds of crimes are included in the data?

• Why have fewer students been victimized?

• How do we know that victims are reporting crimes?

When students read through the article, they will be on the lookout for the answers to their questions. When they find the answer, they will be more likely to remember it because it was information they were specifically searching for. This strategy is similar to the test-taking strategy of having students read test questions before they read the test material: the questions help them find the information they are looking for.

Part of me wishes I had known these strategies in my first semester of teaching. I wonder, would I have made the same mistakes? The other part of me is glad that this knowledge was revealed over time. Like my students, I’ve had the chance to learn from my mistakes and develop my own questions to improve my teaching practices.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. I know that I have a great deal to learn, and I’d love to add new tools to my toolbox. What reading lessons work best for you?


Erin Delaney teaches English and a Freshman Seminar course at California State University, Northridge. She also teaches English courses at College of the Canyons and has taught at CSUN for six years.