Guest blogger Ann Amicucci directs the First-Year Rhetoric and Writing Program at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. She teaches courses in first-year writing, writing pedagogy, and the rhetoric of social media. Readers can connect with her on Twitter at Ann N. Amicucci (@AnnNAmicucci) | Twitter.
All readers make snap judgments. To lay the groundwork for sustained, critical reading, I teach students to identify the thinking that occurs when readers encounter a new text. I describe three activities here that foster metacognition by leading students to understand why readers are drawn to some texts but not others. Following "Reflection in the Writing Classroom" by Kathleen Blake Yancey, I have students engage in reflective discussion and writing throughout the semester to develop their facility with the habit of mind of metacognition (see the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing).
Reading Reaction Chart
I assign a Reaction Chart in connection with my first-year writing course’s custom reader, which contains 43 non-fiction texts: a range of speeches, essays, and personal narratives. This activity can be adapted for any course reader or textbook. My directions are brief: “Read the title and first sentence of every text, and write a reaction note that tells us (briefly!) what your first impression of the text is.” I list titles on a spreadsheet in Microsoft’s OneDrive, then students type their name and reactions in a column on the spreadsheet.
The following is a sample of students’ reactions to the title and first sentence of Richard Rodriguez’s “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood”:
- Love hearing about someone’s struggles that they had to climb over.
- I feel like I should know more about this, but this is not interesting.
- I am not interested in this topic at all.
- I think memoirs are really cool and get very personal so I admire this already.
Later, when I give students choices in what to read and write about, they refer to the Reaction Chart to recall which texts caught their interest and to browse others’ reactions for insight. By directing students to name initial reactions, this activity prepares the class for metacognitive practice to come.
Questions that Readers Ask
Next, students reflect on the thinking that occurs when we decide whether to read a text. I lead a discussion about what text types students choose to read and give students time to explore their favorite websites and study visual features that catch their attention. Students then work in small groups in response to the prompt, “What questions are we answering without even realizing it when we decide what to read?” and post questions to our class discussion board. \
Questions written by this semester’s students include:
- Am I interested enough in the topic?
- Will this article or topic be helpful in the future?
- Is this is factual or written by a biased source?
- Does this book benefit myself or those around me?
- Would I be judged for reading it?
Brainstorming these questions fosters students’ metacognitive awareness of the choices we make in deciding what to read by slowing down the moment of initial reaction to a text and making thought processes explicit.
Finally, we investigate how readers react to texts’ visual features, in connection with students’ reading of Chapter 1 in The Academic Writer, which discusses how communication technologies and multi-modal text features impact reading and writing.
I select a range of web and magazine articles and bring printed copies of their first pages to class, and students work with these texts in small groups. They write brief “annotations” that identify visual features and corresponding reactions. As the photo shows, students attend to images, use of quotation marks, illuminated letters, and paragraph length, among other features. Students hang their annotated texts around the room and circulate to read each other’s notes, then I post photos of the annotations . As with the previous activities, this annotation process gives students metacognitive practice in noticing their thoughts when confronted with a new text, and their attention is now specifically tuned to their thinking about visual features.
What Comes Next?
All three activities have longer-term purposes. A writing course aims to teach sustained, critical reading and analysis that is a far cry from the snap judgments of the Reaction Chart. I lead students into the critical reading process by first acknowledging what those snap judgments are. When students return to read texts fully, they test their latter opinions against their initial reactions. They can see value in reading closely when their opinions become more nuanced from digging into a text. Similarly, the Question and Annotation activities serve as a starting place for analysis of how texts connect with readers. In deciding what text aspects to analyze for major essays, students get ideas by rereading their questions and annotations.
All three activities prompt students to identify their reactions as readers. Doing so allows students to understand the thinking processes behind readers’ snap judgments and to recognize that such judgments are just a first step toward analysis.