I am frequently asked how to incorporate reading instruction in corequisite classes, especially when institutional logistics make it difficult to add anything to an already packed syllabus. I have found that in many of my first-year courses, students don’t read assigned material unless there is some measure of accountability for those readings. Most of them tell me that in prior classrooms, there was no reason to read. In a 2018 post, I queried whether or not we still expect students to learn via reading, and I touched on some of the techniques used by a colleague teaching history to promote student reading.
Two years later, at a new institution, I am still looking for ways to engage students in reading before class. In the process, I’ve asked myself WHY I am asking students to read – is it for content? An understanding of disciplinary conventions and methods? As examples of argumentation or analysis? To have experience with critical texts? To practice critical reading? All of the above?
In my first-year courses, both the traditional and the corequisite versions, I assign readings related to writing, rhetoric, language, and linguistics. My aims for readings vary, encompassing all the factors above: encountering different types of writing, gaining conceptual knowledge or vocabulary, practicing critical analysis, finding models, seeing connections, and building a framework for future reading and writing.
This past summer and fall, I experimented with variations on a reading journal to address these goals. I created a template for the journal in a shared Google doc. Housing the journals in Google docs made keeping track of entries and responding easier for me and for students.
I hoped the journal platform would encourage both individual and collaborative reading, as well as re-reading. (In this, I have been influenced extensively by the work of Cheryl Hogue Smith, whose “Interrogating Texts” should be required reading for all IRW instructors). For each assigned text, I asked students to complete an initial reading response before class discussion:
Reader responses. Provide an initial response of 100-250 words (due by __________). This response can include any of the following:
a. Your understanding of the main idea.
b. What surprised you, confused you, or irritated you.
c. How the text confirmed, contradicted, or complicated your previous experiences.
d. What you’d like to say to the author.
e. Your questions for the author.
f. Connections between this text and yourself or other texts we’ve read.
Then, students added a post-discussion reflection or addendum—comments, insights, or new questions, based on our paired, group, or class discussions.
To encourage continued reading and thinking, within two weeks after an initial reading, students were asked to complete either a formal summary (which could then be adjusted for use in other class writing) or a “Focus on Language” (FOL) entry for assigned texts. The FOL entries required students to revisit the text and consider the way the author used language. My goal in asking students to complete FOL reflections was for them to engage with the text not only in terms of content or organization, but in terms of language:
Focus on language questions. Write 150-250 words reflecting your observations about two or more of the following concepts.
a. Stance (How does the author insert himself or herself into the piece? What’s the writer’s tone? Provide a cited example, and discuss. Focus on style, language, and writing strategies, NOT content. It’s not WHAT the writing is saying, but HOW it is said.)
b. Engagement (How does the author connect with readers? What is an example of a strategy the writer has used to recognize the readers of the text? Again, provide quotes and discuss them, with a focus on style and language).
c. Zooming In (Focus on a single paragraph. How does the writer use language to support her point? What do you notice about the writer’s punctuation or sentence structure? What questions do you have? Focus on HOW the writer is writing, the language, the arrangement of words, and the effects of the word or structure choices. Do not focus on content here.)
d. Power sentences (What is one sentence that seems particularly powerful to you? Why? Quote the sentence and cite it correctly. Can you describe it? What strategies are in this sentence that you can use in your own writing? How does this sentence create a specific effect for readers? Do not focus on the content of the sentence, but the structure, language, and style).
The reading journal entries accounted for 325 points of a possible 1000 in the course. Points (full, half, or no credit) were awarded on a completion basis.
As part of an IRB-approved study, I collected the FOL responses (along with writer’s memos composed for the final portfolio) submitted by students in the fall. I am in the process of analyzing those comments now. While the analysis is on-going, there are a few trends I can point to:
- Despite the offer of completion credit, only about half of the students in the cohort earned full credit or nearly full credit for the assigned readings. Many simply ignored the assignment, even though some class time was allotted for completion and reminders were given electronically and verbally each week.
- The early and late FOL journal entries for those who did complete the journal demonstrated growing awareness of language, rhetorical purpose/structure, and the interactions between audience and author.
- Many students who completed the journal commented on the value of the entries—and their growing reading confidence—in their final reflection pieces for the course.
For those that participated, this journal appears to have fostered the kinds of thinking, writing, and reflecting that I wanted to see. The problem, of course, is that a significant part of the class did not complete the journal, even with the incentive of a participation grade. I would be interested in hearing how you have used reading journals—or other tools—to promote reading engagement in your writing classrooms.