Writing Tip: Reading?

Many students who come to the Writing Center in the early stages of their papers or projects say they are stuck and are not certain what overarching point to make (a claim, in argument; a thesis statement in essay). When we as writing consultants start asking questions, it becomes clear that some students didn’t fully understand the content they were assigned and as such, tackling the assignment prompt seems overwhelming.

Arriving at campus, students discover that there is often far more to read in college than there was in high school. Many students remark that they don’t really have enough time in any given day to cover the reading material assigned. This is especially true of today’s students, who are encouraged to join clubs and engage in personal and professional development activities outside of the classroom. Add to that a part-time job and a social life, and this claim speaks true.

However, it is important to note that many students have bad habits when reading, including listening to music with lyrics, answering texts and monitoring social media, and reading in locations with numerous distractions, to name a few.

These are sort of the “macro-level” habits that can hinder reading and content comprehension. There are also some myths students embrace that limit their ability to read assignments. Some of these include (Dartmouth Writing Center, 2015):

  • Students should read every word
  • One read-through is sufficient
  • Passages should never be skipped
  • A faster rate means less comprehension

Harvard University psychologist Dr. Perry, Director of the Harvard Reading-Study Center, conducted an experiment with 1500 first-year students. He gave students a 30-page chapter from a history book to read, explaining up front that in about twenty minutes, they would be stopped and asked to identify the important details and would write an essay on what they read.

He then gave the class a multiple-choice assessment on detail, and the groups scored rather well; however, noted Perry, only 15 students of 1500 were able to write a short statement regarding the underlying theme of the chapter. This group had read the “Summary” and had also skimmed down the descriptive flags in the margin. In other words, with a short timeframe, these students were active and strategic readers.

College students should learn to rid themselves of “obedient purposelessness” when reading certain texts. Literary masterpieces, novels and stories, which are often examined for the language and style in addition to the story, may not fall in the same category as an examination of, say, a published academic journal. As such, students tackling research and articles should learn new approaches and establish a goal in their reading. They need to, according to Perry, ask themselves what they want to garner from the reading assignment, and then look around for those points (Dartmouth, 2015).

In addition, students as active readers should be “mindful” not only of the content, but also in asking themselves, while reading, “is this the point I am looking for?” This is especially true of a second-read that follows even a first skim.

As we begin to revamp this website, we will be adding new resources including many devoted to improving critical reading skills for writing. We hope you visit frequently.

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