Why College Reading Matters

When people ask me what I do for a living they always seem perplexed when I tell them I teach reading in college. Most individuals equate the teaching of reading with learning the alphabet in kindergarten. But few people know what happens inside a college reading class. So, I was intrigued when I read Julian Hermida’s article “The Importance of Teaching Academic Readings Skills in First-Year University Courses.” Hermida closely examines the correlation between reading skills and academic success.

He is addressing a problem that many institutions encounter when students first enter college, which is namely that students enter with only a surface learning of reading. This ersatz learning includes rote memorization, learning facts, and the inability to understand how to make relationships between texts, concepts and theories. Hermida calls for a deeper reading of the text.

First year college students are new to the lexicon of academic language. Students coming in with minimal reading and writing skills can find it akin to a foreign language, and to the most skilled students it still requires a close reading of the text. But the common denominator is that all students are introduced to new academic words and terms. These are words and terms that, for the most part, were not used in high school, and are not used in colloquial and standard English. Hermida’s emphasis in regard to how to help students build textual skills is apt; students need to understand how to approach a collegiate text. To expand students’ academic repertoire, professors need to create and build activities that will help students engage with the text. If done appropriately, according to Hermida, this will result in a critical understanding of the reading.

He differentiates critical reading from surface reading, and argues the former is essential for academic success. Critical reading is the ability to dissect the text by understanding the author’s message, create a deeper meaning of it, relate it to other topics, and make relationships to other texts. I would expand Hermida’s definition of critical reading to also include the ability to intimately understand political, global and social issues and how these issues relate to what texts are stating. It is, in part, the ability to begin to see the world through a lens that allows you to understand larger cultural and societal issues.

Hermida suggest we begin with contextualization. Students must first learn about the writer, the environment, the issues, the history, and any other information that lends itself to an understanding of what one is about to read. Only then can students delve deeper into “general analytical tools,” such as understanding the purpose of the reading, the author’s thesis, deconstructing hidden assumptions, evaluating the weight of the author’s arguments, as well as the consequences of all arguments.

Hermida illustrates practical applications professors can use with their students. Learning activities can include games, such as the one he uses in which students reenact scenes from The Apprentice in which students thoroughly present a text and the worst team is fired. I doubt I would do that particular “game” but the larger aim is to make critical reading an engaging and fun learning activity. He also assigns other text related work, such as double-entry journals, concept maps, and reading journals. Hermida’s research examined the intersection of text and activities, and its correlation to “higher-order cognitive skills.” I move further with his research and suggest we begin to develop college level reading classes that center on the notion of intimately addressing any text.

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