Teaching reading in an IRW class: why, what, how

“College students already know how to read, don’t they?”

Yes, students know how to recognize words on a page. But no, many do not know how to read actively to create meaning and analyze and evaluate the author’s message.

Why reading needs to be taught

Just as writing needs to be taught, active reading strategies also need to be taught. It may be intuitive to us, as instructors, but it is not for our students. Integrated Reading & Writing (IRW) classes teach these skills fundamental to student success.

Many developing college writers have a rudimentary command of basic grammar. They can speak clearly and be understood. They may also possess a massive store of word meanings, but they cannot write coherent paragraphs or essays. Likewise, as readers, many college students can recognize words, understand word meanings, and pronounce and define words, but they do not know how to engage and interact with a text to extract meaning from it.

Both reading and writing are essential survival and success strategies for college and the workplace. Both involve critical thinking: interpretation, analysis, and evaluation of ideas.

What needs to be taught

College reading is built on five approaches and skill sets that can be taught:

  1. Teach that reading is a process that parallels the writing process. Emphasize that it is an active process in which the reader interacts with the writer’s ideas.
    Reading = recognition of techniques (for example, identifying and understanding topic sentences)
    Writing = implementation of techniques (for example, drafting and revising topic sentences)
    Reading = analysis of ideas (for example, analyzing a writer’s tone)
    Writing = expression of ideas (for example, choosing a tone that suits the audience and purpose)
  2. Explain that reading involves strategies to use before, during, and after reading. Students need to:
    • preview before reading
    • think, connect, and anticipate ideas as they read
    • review and analyze after reading
  3. Teach students to extract meaning from a text. This involves interacting with the text and being able to explain the author’s intended meaning in their own words.
  4. Teach students to think critically, analyzing and evaluating the author’s ideas. Show students how to examine the author’s techniques and assess a work’s accuracy, worth, and value.
  5. Equip students with skills to learn and remember what they read. In their other college courses, students must not only discover meaning, but determine what to learn, and use strategies to retain the material. Skills such as paraphrasing, highlighting, annotating, summarizing, and outlining or mapping are valuable.

How to teach reading more effectively

Instructors can teach reading more successfully by following these guidelines:

  1. Always prepare students for a reading assignment. Don’t just assign a reading and send students off to complete it. You might pre-teach the reading by:
    • offering some background on the topic
    • building interest through a brief classroom discussion
    • asking students to do a quick Google search of the topic
    • creating a list of questions about the topic

    Alert students about trouble spots, and offer some specific purposes for reading. (For example, “Watch how this author uses shocking examples to stir your emotions.”)

  2. Be intentional about teaching reading and writing together. Always remind students that reading is the “flip side” of writing. If you consistently remind students of this connection, they will eventually make the connection themselves and transfer this awareness to new situations.
  3. Teach process not content. Don’t focus on the content of the reading (who did what, when and where). Instead teach how to discover what the author says and means. Strategies for discovering meaning have long-lasting value, while knowledge of a particular reading’s content is far less important. Think of the reading as a vehicle for teaching skills and strategies, not as an end in itself. Show students how to find the important details in a paragraph, for example, but don’t spend time on the details themselves.
  4. Ask students to stretch. They should be asked to engage with challenging material, while you give them help and support to succeed. You might create a reading guide or graphic organizer; or use scaffolded instruction by providing a partially complete outline to guide them through the reading. Students will encounter difficult materials in other courses, so they need to develop strategies to cope. As they complete difficult readings, they will experience growth, a sense of accomplishment, and greater confidence in their abilities.
  5. Teach by showing, not telling. “Walk” students through challenging readings. Demonstrate how to uncover meaning. For example, suggest questions to ask, or use think-aloud protocols.

By using these techniques to teach the approaches and skills outlined here, you can help students think more critically, and interpret, analyze, and evaluate ideas more effectively. Those abilities will empower them — in college, at work, and in society.

About the author

Kathleen T. McWhorter has authored over a dozen textbooks designed to help students succeed in college. Born in a rural farm community in Upstate New York, she went on to receive her EdD from SUNY Buffalo. For 34 years, she taught at Niagara County Community College in Sanborn, NY, where she is a professor emerita of humanities. Through her texts, Dr. McWhorter has helped some 500,000 students improve their reading, writing, and critical-thinking skills. She remains deeply involved in the educational community, and welcomes opportunities to share her expertise, tips, and tricks.

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