Planning for reader success

Three strategies to improve student preparation for class you can use right now.

Planning out readings for my courses is relatively easy. It takes time, but it isn’t a cumbersome process. I’ve learned that the why of what I assigned is reliant on me being explicit about the purpose of what I need students to get out of the reading. I shouldn’t assume the students know what I was thinking. Instead, I’ve shifted to providing more reading strategies for my students to help give them the best preparation for assigned reading I can. Utilizing these strategies also forced me to think about my instructional purposes more and helped me set a tone in my classroom for (1) critical reading and (2) metacognition.

The three strategies included below offer different approaches to reading, and any of them are easy to use right now. Some require more time to create on the front end, but they can be easily used and modified in subsequent activities or semesters. Others represent more engagement with others than just with the text. No matter which you choose, it is important to openly share your purpose for reading with your students.

Strategy 1: Interactive Reading Guides

Interactive reading guides are beneficial strategies to employ in our classrooms. Students will often go into a reading assignment knowing little more than the fact it has to be completed by the next class session. Sadly, we often are disappointed in how students read the assigned text. An interactive guide will do a few things for students:

  1. Prepare them for class.
  2. Give purpose and practice to reading.
  3. Enhance their focus.
  4. Encourage critical thinking about content that directly impacts classroom discussion.

Interactive guides can take several forms, usually depending on how much time, effort, or work a teacher wants to put into creating one.

  • Anticipation Guide: This type of reading guide allows students to understand what is coming in the reading by helping them reflect on their experiences with the topic before and after reading.
    • Give students a list of questions that help them reflect on their knowledge before and after reading a text. The prompts you provide them will be directly pulled from the reading they will do.
    • I use a combination of Likert-style and reflection questions.
    • I plan for the last five to seven minutes of the class preceding the reading for students to complete the pre-reading questions. I then keep their responses. Students fill the same sheet out when they come to class after reading. I give them back their pre-reading to see how they’ve grown. Additionally, the prompts prime their brains to what they will be reading, which is a win-win.
  • Chapter Guide: These are much more detailed navigations through a text, and warning they will take you more time to create. However, I find them helpful to provide early in a semester to help students process more difficult academic readings.
    • A chapter guide utilizes questions that directly interact with the text. This pushes students to focus on specific segments of the text and in ways that the instructor would guide them if they were together in class.
    • Instead of literal-meaning questions, I like to ask questions I would traditionally do in the discussion. This does two things: (1) primes students for discussion and (2) gets them to think about deeper meanings and purposes of a text.
    • As an instructor, it is sometimes tough to rein in the questioning. When people create a chapter guide they tend to over-ask. Try and limit your questions to what will push students to apply, analyze, synthesize, or create new information from the reading.
  • Walk-through: This approach reinforces out-of-class reading in an in-class guided activity. What you do here is create a guide that helps students engage with the text (usually with a partner) at a heightened and more critical level than what they do before class.
    • Begin the walk-through by asking students to reflect on the reading. I use broad questions that help them think about the reading purpose.
    • As you design the document, the order of questions is by page. Tell students exactly where to turn and what passage to re-read with a partner (I even like to encourage them to read it aloud).
    • Not only should you call to attention specific passages or phrases, but you should also write questions that get students to explain what they read further, summarize the information in their own words, apply the information to a case, or synthesize what they read with other topics and readings they’ve recently discussed.
    • I borrow other strategies here as well, such as asking them to
    • How detailed you make this is up to you, but the goal is to help the students through the reading.

While these three options may feel like you are hand-holding your students, they genuinely are more about helping scaffold them toward participating effectively and thoughtfully in discussion and class. The more chances I provide students to know what I’m thinking and doing, the better they perform.

If anything, here’s one more interactive reading guide opportunity: tell the students the exact purpose/goal of reading and have them annotate for just that. It takes minimal preparation to do that, and it will make all the difference.

Strategy 2: Walk-and-Talk

This strategy is a take on the classic think-pair-share. When students arrive in class, I have a question on the screen for them to quietly answer in a notebook on their own. The question asks them something about the reading by asking them to apply what they read to an issue or idea. For example, maybe I ask them to define a term and then explain how it applies in X situations.

Once we are settled into class, I begin by explaining the agenda for today’s lesson and then allow for another two minutes to finish the free-write thoughts. I then ask students to find someone in class they don’t traditionally talk to and to go on a walk-and-talk with that person. Here is where they explain what they wrote to a partner. They also connect what they wrote to the readings. It gets students talking, even if they deviate from what is expected. I’ve found that nine-times-out-of-ten they use this time to process what they didn’t actually understand in the reading, and their partner helps explain it.

Depending on what I have planned for the day, I give somewhere between 7 and 10 minutes for this activity. I also tell them they have to leave, and they have to walk and talk. I’ve also had students use this time to grab a coffee, a drink, or a snack. I’m not opposed to any of that. When they return, we are ready to jump right in, especially since they’ve usually gotten their reading insecurities out of the way.

Strategy 3: Question the Author

Higher education budgets don’t allow many of us to regularly bring in (or Zoom!) authors of readings. It is also difficult to match schedules for speakers to join a class. If we’re lucky, there is a video of the author talking about their work, but that’s usually reserved for Ted Talks or high-profile authors. This reading strategy asks students to prepare for class by interrogating the reading as if they were interviewing the author directly.

In the class session (or two) before the reading is assigned, provide students with the guiding questions below. These questions get them to speak back to the author of the piece. It also brings our students to think about deeper meanings of a text rather than searching the text for a potential quiz or test question. These questions are derived from Questioning the Author: An Approach for Enhancing Student Engagement by Beck et al. (1997)

Question Bank

  • What is the author telling you? (this will help students get at the thesis or the claim)
    • Why is the author telling you this? (consider this question an opportunity for students to get at motivations)
    • What is the point of the author’s message? (I use this question when I want students to be able to summarize the author’s argument but to also consider if the student can convey the author’s purpose)
  • What does the author assume you already know? (this gets students to think about (a) their knowledge, (b) their skills, and (c) how the author is writing)
  • What does the author want you to understand? (this should help students to make connections and inferences)
  • What does the author apparently think is the most important? (a question like this provides a chance for students to differentiate between what they think the point of the reading is and what they think the author decides is the most important based on how the reading is written)
    • How does the author signal what is most important? (here is your chance to get at style and evidence within the reading)
    • How does this follow with what the author has told you before? (this question works best with a book, but I also like to modify it to get students to make connections to other readings by substitution “the author” with an author’s name we previously read)
  • What does the author say that you need to clarify? (students often are embarrassed that they didn’t know/get something in reading. The question being phrased this way allows them permission to interact with the author rather than put doubt in their own abilities)
    • What can you do to clarify what the author says? (I like this question because it helps students do translation, which in turn heightens their retention of subject matter)

This works best if you focus on one reading in class that day, especially since we are asking for higher-level cognition needs by engaging this strategy. This strategy allows students to participate in a question-answer relationship where they think about what the author says and what they are expected to know. If you use K-W-L (what do I know, what do I want to know, and what did I learn) in your classroom to guide a lesson, then this is a strategy your students will grow attached to quickly.

Extension Activity: Have students work with a partner and compare their notes and questioning. This could lead to them brainstorming how they approach the questions they asked, how they interpret the text, and what they need to better understand the text.

Providing students with different reading strategies will help them navigate far better in more than our own classes. The strategies help students to apply this critical reading approach in their classes and future work lives. These strategies also encourage more student inquiry, more student ownership, and more student-centered teaching. They also help make students better prepared.

And, in the end, it never hurts to share your own annotations. I use the beginning of the semester, usually a reading or two, where I annotate a reading in one color and explain my annotations in another. I then provide these to my students to show them how I respond to the readings and how I come to think and reflect on them. It is an important and foundational strategy. It is just a matter of how comfortable you are at using it.

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