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Teaching Reading in the Composition Classroom

The following post was co-authored by Clay Walker (1010 Lecturer) and LaToya Faulk (1020 Lecturer)

Click HERE to download the file or continue reading below

Teaching reading in the composition classroom can be challenging for a variety of reasons. First, we cannot easily access the internal processes of meaning making that take place when students read. Because reading is such a deeply internalized process, we often can only access indirect measures of reading ability, such as written responses to questions, summaries, notes, etc. Second, readers’ prior experiences and existing ideologies shape how readers respond to various academic texts. Handling the wide variety of cultural backgrounds that shape reading activities in a diverse composition classroom can be difficult for writing instructors. Third, while reading may be a deeply internalized process, it is also a rhetorical process in which meaning making is constructed by the reader in rich socialized contexts.  Thus, the reading process requires a connection between the reader and the literate act, a connection that allows the reader to actively engage in a kind of comprehension that situates meaning and the self.

While reading is a culturally situated, internalized process of meaning making, effective academic reading is also a set of skills that must be taught to students. Nonetheless, several composition scholars have noted the dearth of practical research on college-level reading (Adler-Kastner and Estrem; Bunn; Jolliffe; Salvatori and Donahue). Others have outlined the distinction between inexperienced and experienced readers (Haas and Flowers; Penrose and Geisler), and the various distinct purposes for reading that writing instructors can use to conceptualize reading practices and develop learning activities in the classroom (Adler-Kastner and Estrem). This blog post aims to open a conversation on reading in the department by providing specific pedagogical strategies for teaching reading in the composition classroom that are tied to research in the field. We have organized this post using the four distinct reading strategies outlined by Linda Adler-Kastner and Heidi Estrem (“Critical Thinking”; “Reaching Out”; “Reading Practices”) in order to discuss a variety of concrete strategies for approaching the teaching of reading in the composition classroom.

Process-Based Reading Strategies (Rhetorical Reading) These strategies reflect a commonly used mode of reading in composition courses in which the text is situated as a model of composition for readers. Students are thus asked to read the text as an artifact of a socio-culturally situated writing process in order to glean insight into the writer’s compositional decisions.

Christina Haas and Linda Flower examine the differences in reading practices between inexperienced and experienced readers in “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning.” Their study included two sets of students (freshman and graduate students), and used think-aloud protocols and observation of the readers reading a common passage. Haas and Flower found that while both groups of students made comments that focused on content and function/features (e.g., introduction, example, transition, etc.) of the text at about the same rate, only the experienced students made comments focusing on the text’s rhetorical situation (with the exception of one instance by one student in the inexperienced group). This difference is significant, Haas and Flower argue, because although both groups can readily identify and extract facts from the text (e.g. read for content), “Readers who used the rhetorical strategies, first recognized more claims, and second, identified claims sooner than other readers” (179). Further, Haas and Flower argue, the inexperienced readers appear to view reading as a kind of “information exchange: knowledge-telling when they write, and ‘knowledge-getting’ when they read” (182).

Our task as educators, therefore, is to help our students recognize that we construct meaning at several levels while reading (e.g., content, function/features of the text, and rhetorical situation of the text). While we should encourage our students to annotate the content and function/features of the text being read, we should also teach our students concrete strategies for identifying and evaluating a text’s rhetorical situation. A variety of activities can meet these goals, including think-aloud role-modeling in which the instructor reads aloud and shares her/his comments for a selected passage, sharing and discussing sample annotations of a text that illustrate the types of comments listed above, and/or class discussions that push students to identify, comprehend, and analyze specific passages in a text that point to the text’s rhetorical situation.

Content-Based Reading Strategies (Reading for Understanding) These strategies focus on the reader’s ability to read and comprehend the content of the text.

Students read (and write) with authority when they actively construct meaning. Ann Penrose and Cheryl Geisler analyze the relationship between reading practices, writing practices, and authority by examining the literate practices of two students in their essay “Reading and Writing Without Authority.”  Like Haas and Flowers, Penrose and Geisler selected for their study two students with contrasting positions in relation to academic knowledge: on the one hand, Janet is an inexperienced freshman reader/writer; on the other hand, Roger is an experienced graduate student completing his PhD in philosophy. Penrose and Geisler gave both students the same set of academic tasks and materials, and analyzed their reading and writing practices over the course of a semester through think-aloud protocols, interviews, and textual analysis. Penrose and Geisler’s findings showed that while Roger, the expert student actively constructed meaning through his reading and writing practices, Janet, the inexperienced freshman, adopted a transfer-model of knowledge that positioned her in a passive role in the assigned reading and writing tasks. Specifically, Roger approached the texts that he read with a number of useful assumptions, including: (a) texts are authored and thus subject to debate; (b) texts use claims and evidence to present knowledge; (c) knowledge claims may conflict from text to text, thus requiring careful evaluation of the validity of conflicting claims; and (d) knowledge claims may be tested and evaluated through the use of example (508). Janet, on the other hand, (a) conflated texts into one unified corpus of material, (b) assumed texts presented knowledge as facts, (c) avoided or ignored conflicting knowledge claims, and (d) failed to use examples to develop insight.

The implication of this research for composition pedagogy is that we can better help students develop academic authority by teaching students to construct an understanding of college-level texts using the strategies deployed by Roger. Namely, students should develop an understanding of the content by critically analyzing the overall quality of various arguments in an academic conversation. For example, students may be asked to summarize a college-level article and respond to the article by explaining how or why the knowledge claims made by the article are (or are not) sufficiently supported by the evidence presented in the article. This type of critical engagement with a text may be limited to a single paragraph or section, or the entire text itself. Also, in class discussions, we can push students to not only identify knowledge claims, but to recognize that those knowledge claims are authored by juxtaposing them with opposing knowledge claims, and/or by urging students to evaluate the validity of various knowledge claims by analyzing specific examples that illustrate the knowledge claims at hand.

Practice-Based Reading Strategies These strategies ask students to reflect on textual conventions from a discourse community perspective in order to better understand how specific discourses are tied to and sponsored by discourse communities and other social actors/agents.

Given social and cultural influences often affect reading activities in academic settings, reading should be meaningful to student’s experiences as participants and communicators in several discourse communities. In composition scholarship, deficiency models do not always take into consideration the vast social worlds students participate in as readers of home based or non-academic literacies (e.g. comic books and graphic novels, gamer magazines, or religious artifacts), or the ways in which cultural and social influences block or enhance reading abilities in academic settings (Shor). Additionally, much of the social and cultural influences that direct student’s entrance into an academic text are identity driven and often unconscious to students (Kirkland 201; Gee). Thus, educators  must “see readings as an extension of self,” but also understand ways to show students how their social and cultural backgrounds shape their  individual reading process, so as to make conscious decisions on which reading strategies fit various contexts. An awareness of what experiences might add to our understanding of how students come to understand and engage reading allows for deeper recognition of informed responses and interpretations of reading from students.

One way to foster practice-based reading is to give students an opportunity to investigate  how valued texts in a home based discourse community function to support the operations of the community. In Beverly Moss’s A Community Text Arises, Moss analyzes the ways in which oral and written communication in African-American Churches dictated linguistic competence. She argues that home based discourses have the potential to provide a foundation for understanding and acquiring academic literacy. Students do this, according to Moss, by analyzing sites of conflict and common ground in oral and written communication – shifting boundaries between writer or speaker and reader and listener, shifts in point of view, shifts in ideas concerning ownership of a text, shift in boundaries between oral, written, and musical language, shift in rhetorical concepts of argument, particularly logos, pathos, and ethos – among academic and nonacademic texts.  In recognizing how texts function in particular communities, and comparing and contrasting such functionalities to other communities helps readers better understand how to situate oneself as a conscious consumer of knowledge in various contexts.

Structure-Based Reading Strategies (Reading to Understand Genre Functions) These strategies see reading a text as a way of understanding how it is organized as a specific genre-type. The aim when using these strategies is to develop students’ understanding of specific textual conventions.

Students can also benefit from an awareness of how the features and patterns of specific genres used in an academic or professional setting reveal the ways individuals in the community create knowledge. In Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres, Amy Devitt, Mary Jo Reiff and Anis Bawarshi expand the definition of reading by adding that one can also read “scenes and situations of writing” by examining genre expectations (48). In order to understand genre functions, students are asked to collect sample genres from a professional or academic community and observe where, when, who, why and how the genre is used in various contexts within a community. Then, they identify the commonalities or differences between the rhetorical strategies and languages or styles used in the various genres collected (63). Once students have a critical understanding of how a genre takes shape and functions as a rhetorical tool among community members, students are more likely able to make informed choices regarding the context-specific ways in which you can approach style, language, organization, incorporating evidence, format and purpose as they write.

As instructors who understand the rich connection between reading and writing in our composition classrooms, the four distinct reading strategies (reading to understand genre functions, practice based reading, content-based reading, and process based readings are all reading strategies)  support a student’s ability to comprehend, examine and analyze a text in order to approach various writing tasks (e.g. summary, response, analysis, and argument). When students are able to identify and evaluate a text’s rhetorical situation, understand the rhetorical consequences of other individuals writing, recognize how culture shapes communication practices, and enter texts with learned assumptions about how a specific genre functions, it is our hope as instructors that they can negotiate their own reading and writing practices beyond our classrooms, and gain knowledge of the various rhetorical techniques they have at their disposal when entering new and unfamiliar reading and writing situations.

Works Cited

Adler-Kastner, Linda and Heidi Estrem. “Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A View from the Field.” The Outcomes Book: Debate and Consensus After the WPA Outcomes Statement. 2005, 60-71. Print.

Adler-Kastner, Linda and Heidi Estrem. “Reaching Out from the Writing Classroom: Research Writing As a Situated, Public Act.” Writing in the Context(s): Textual Practices and Learning Processes in Sociological Settings. 2005, 229-246. Print.

Adler-Kastner, Linda, and Heidi Estrem. “Reading Practices in the Writing Classroom.” WPA 31.1/2 (2007): 35-47. Print.

Bunn, Michael. “Motivation and Connection: Teaching Reading (and Writing) in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 64.3 (2013): 496-516. Print.

Devitt, Amy, Bawarshi, Anis and Reiff, Mary Jo. “Materiality and Genre in the Study of Discourse”. College English. 65.5 (2003): 541-558. Print.

Devitt, Amy, Bawarshi, Anis and Reiff, Mary Jo. Scenes of Writing: Strategies for Composing with Genres. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 3rd Ed. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Haas, Christina and Linda Flower. “Rhetorical Reading Strategies and the Construction of Meaning.” College Composition and Communication 39.2 (1988): 167-83. Print.

Joliffe, David. “Who is Teaching Composition Students to Read and How Are They Doing It?” Composition Studies 31.1 (Spring 2003): 127-142. Print.

Kirkland, David. A Search Past Silence: The Literacy of Young Black Men. New York:

Teachers College Press, 2013. Print.

Moss, Beverly. A Community Text Arises: A Literate Text and a Literacy Tradition in African American Churches. Columbus: The Ohio State University, 2003. Print.

Penrose, Ann M., and Cheryl Geisler. “Reading and Writing Without Authority,” College Composition and Communication 45 (1994): 505-520. Print.

Salvatori, Mariolina Rizzi and Patrica Donahue. “What is COLLEGE ENGLISH? Stories About Reading.” College English75.2 (2012): 199-217. Print.

Shor, Ira. Empowering Education: Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Print.



One thought on “Teaching Reading in the Composition Classroom

  1. Really useful explanation of Adler-Kassner and Estrem’s four reading strategies. It could be very useful for those of us teaching composition courses to talk about how to use each of them across our courses (ENG 1010, 1020, and 3010). We might want to think more explicitly about the progression of reading, as well as writing, abilities we hope to see students develop as they move through the sequence. Great post!

    Posted by Gwen Gorzelsky | December 7, 2013, 11:32 am

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