Learning Innovation Teaching Resources

Student Engagement with Texts

Getting Students to Read Closely



Causes for Students’ Reading Difficulties

Often, instructors struggle to encourage deeper, critical reading of texts in their classrooms, and find when they encourage students to push deeper, the students struggle to understand what the instructor is looking for. Students often describe feeling overwhelmed by the density and the complexity of their reading materials.

There are many possible reasons why students might struggle to read closely:

  • Misunderstanding the reading process. Students may fail to recognize that experts do not read quickly, but rather reread and pick apart confusing passages. Growing up, they may have learned or primed themselves to believe a strong reader is a fast reader.
  • Difficulty understanding the argument. Inexperienced readers struggle to see writing as a structure (for instance, “this part maps out an upcoming section,” or “this part summarizes an opposing view”). When asked what the main point of a piece is, students fail to state the argument.
  • Difficulty understanding the context. Students do not see what conversation a text belongs to. They do not understand what question is being addressed or why the writer was troubled enough to write about it. They fail to recognize the biases in different sources, the varying degrees of prestige of certain sources, or the reputation of an author. Additionally, students struggle to see their place in the conversation, seeing sources and readings as inert information rather than as arguments meant to change or solidify their views. 
  • Lacking “cultural literacy.” If the student is not the intended audience of the text, they will find difficulty with the author’s voice or miss implicit assumptions the author makes. These texts may alienate the students and prevent them from pushing and interrogating the text.



Strategies to Encourage Close Reading

Along with understanding what causes student frustration in reading, it’s important to recognize a student's level of reading skill, writing skill, listening skill, and comprehension skill; by understanding their unique needs, readings can be adjusted to accommodate needs while still challenging them with new ideas.

Below is a list of suggestions for helping students become better readers:

  • Explain your own reading and note-taking process to students. By modeling what you expect and your own difficulties with texts, you help students see how and why your reading strategies vary. Demonstrate when you read for the gist of the message, when you read for detail, when you read for analysis, and how you clarify your note-taking and engagement with the text. Demonstrate how you take notes on readings. The 15-20 minutes needed for such a discussion and modeling will have a powerful influence on students.
  • Teach students how to write “what it says” and “what it does” statements. A helpful way to encourage students to understand structural function in a text is to have them write “what it says” and “what it does” statements for each paragraph in a reading: “what it says” helps summarize the content and “what it does” helps with understanding purpose and function.
  • Make students responsible for texts not covered in class. Create a space for active learning by making students responsible for course readings not discussed in class; this strategy shows students all learning does not have to be mediated through the instructor. This will also help break the cycle of “teacher explains readings in class because students are poor readers; students read poorly because teachers explain readings in class.”
  • Develop ways to awaken student interest in upcoming readings. Students’ reading comprehension increases when they are already engaged with the problem or issue a reading addresses. The trick is to arouse student interest before they read so they are already participating in the conversation the text belongs to. Some strategies for increasing interest include exploratory writing tasks or collaborative group tasks to tackle an issue addressed in the reading.
  • Show how to interrogate and analyze texts. When students understand pieces are arguments meant to persuade readers to a certain point of view, it allows them to view the work less as a passive receptacle of knowledge and instead as an artifact to analyze. Showing students how to map biases and persuasive techniques between two different accounts of one main topic invites them to understand cultural codes, new vocabulary, and the relationship between the purpose of a text and the audience of a text.
  • Create “reading guides” for particularly difficult texts. Typically these guides define key terms, fill in needed cultural knowledge, explain rhetorical context, and ask critical questions for students to consider as they progress through the reading.



Developing Assignments that Require Students to Interact with Texts

Rather than simply quizzing or testing students on written material, utilize active learning strategies to encourage students to engage with the texts in the course. This will help strengthen the synthesis of materials and ideas, connecting to larger learning objectives.

Below is a list of suggested types of assignments to encourage engagement with the text:

  • Marginal notes approach: Banning highlighting/underlining demands students to write their thoughts as marginal notes on the side of the paragraphs, with critical questions, definition of terms, and synthesis of main ideas.
  • Reading logs: Like an open-ended journal, a reading log requires students to write regularly about what they are reading but gives them freedom on what to say. Students can summarize the text, connect it to personal experience, argue with it, imitate it, analyze it, or evaluate it.  
  • Responses to reading guides or questions: By giving questions beforehand, students will have a basis to look deeper into texts in order to critically analyze it. These questions/answers can be incorporated into class discussion.
  • Multiple-choice quiz questions developed by students: Have students write their own multiple-choice questions for each textbook chapter they read. Students might be required to turn in their questions each week. This strategy helps students distinguish between main and subordinate material, between points and data, and between concepts and illustrations.