Support for Critical Reading

On the WAW network Ning in 2011, instructors had a conversation about how to help students read scholarly articles. With the contributors’ permission, we have copied and pasted the initial post and–in the comments–the replies.


Hi, all!

I’m in the process of meeting w/ and preparing a group of 9 of our part-time faculty here to pilot WAW in spring 2012. (It will be piloted in our second semester comp course.)

The one question I’m getting consistently, that I am currently unable to answer is about supporting students with the readings. I know Barb Bird has done a good deal of work on this and I’m sure others of you have as well. I’d benefit from seeing handouts, hearing about your approach, and advice on supporting instructors in their approaches!

Thank you!

-Michelle LaFrance

(To read the replies, scroll below or click on “Comments,” above.)

4 thoughts on “Support for Critical Reading”

  1. This was Barbara Bird’s reply (reprinted with permission):

    Hi Michelle!

    The most important thing my collegue and I do (two of us teach all 5 basic writing sections using WAW) is to have students annotate the articles. The first one or two we focus on helping them paraphrase main ideas in the articles, just trying to understand 2-3 ideas, emphasizing that they do not need to understand everything in these articles. Then we have them begin adding to these paraphrase annotations any connections to their own life they can find–prior knowledge, experiences, even feelings.

    Other pedagogies to support students:

    – We “pre-teach” each article. The day before each article is read, we outline the article in some way. I usually do a mini-lecture on one or two key ideas, relating these ideas to knowledge most students already have as writers/readers.

    – We develop interactive activities to get them into the ideas from the readings the day the readings are due. This is mostly done through groups. For example, after reading Troyka’s article on reading (sorry — I can’t remember the title at the moment–it’s about prediction & redundancy), my colleague did a Mad Libs with her class and I did a similar experiment where students had to fill in missing words and then talked about why 1 of the 2 groupings I had was very easy to predict and why 1 of the other 2 that both had unfamiliar ideas was a little easier than the other. I also had my students do the Troyka experiment (that she talks about in her article) with a draft of the paper they write for this unit, reading a line of their peer’s paper, stopping to predict what they think will come next and writing that down, then reading the next line, etc. After teaching with WAW in basic writing for about 8 years now, I have developed quite a few pedagogies for the specific articles we assign.

    – My colleague (a former high school teacher) always does fishbowls for each unit, prior to their paper on that unit. She is amazing!! She pulls more knowledge out of her students than I can out of mine, so I’m learning from her. Her students really grasp the ideas in the articles from this exercise. If you haven’t used fishbowls before, it’s where half the class is responsible to intelligently discuss concepts while the other half watches and listens, and then the groups swap. My colleague usually splits up the concepts between the groups by pairing up articles. We have 3 articles per unit, so one of her groups will discuss, for example, how Bazerman’s and Salvatori’s ideas relate to each other while the other group will discuss how Adler & Van Doren’s and Bazerman’s ideas relate to each other. Other times she will pick two broad topics that all 3 authors discuss and just give each group one of those topics. Her basic writing students do an amazing job engaging with each other in these
    fishbowl sessions!

    – I also have in-class “quote-responses” following each reading assignment, where students come to class knowing which sentence or two in the article they want to respond to and write for 5 minutes any kind of response to that passage. This daily practice in responding to ideas has proven to be very helpful for deepening understanding.

    I have really improved in how I get students engaged with the ideas in the articles we use since I began teaching these texts. I have actually really enjoyed developing mini-lessons and thinking up activities that help students connect personally with the concepts. I really believe that instructors have to be confident their students will get something out of each assigned text or else their discomfort and/or hesitancy will show and students will pick up on that and just complain about the level of difficulty. It is really important for instructors to be confident that these texts have concepts students really need to learn, have concepts students can personally and even emotionally connect with, and that students will quicky learn how to read difficult texts.

    I always begin the semester explaining WHY we are using these texts — very important!! And I prepare them for the difficulty by telling them that their experience reading these texts will be like entering a country speaking another language after only have 2-3 semesters of work in the language. We talk through the parallels, which really helps my students, especially since most of our students have learned another language and about 1/4 of my students have been to another country, so usually someone in each class can share what it is like to be immersed in another language that you barely know. I also use an athletic analogy since I have a lot of athletes in my class. I know that college level athletics is much different than high school, so I have them explain some of the differences they have already seen (mostly it’s my football guys who do this since they start practice 2 weeks before school).

    I can post some materials after the semester is over. I’ll try to pull out some specific exercises I have used with specific articles to help you. But I’m sure your instructors can brainstorm creative activities. That might be a fun session as a group — splitting up the texts you will use among all your instructors and have each small group develop 2-3 possible activities to help their students learn specific concepts in those texts. You could even get really creative and encourage them to come up with at least one activity that is really outside the box (using legos, playdo, whatever).

    I hope this helps!



    1. This was Elizabeth Wardle’s reply (reprinted with permission):

      Hi Michelle,

      I know you and I have discussed this before, but I thought I could quickly sum up here some of the ways we’ve approached this question at UCF. The question is a common one when teachers first start looking at the WAW approach, and the concern can sometimes keep them from trying the approach. So it is an important question to address.

      First, build into every syllabus activities and information on how to read. We point out that it’s been years since anyone directly taught students how to read something, and what we are asking them to read (complex, informational texts) are different from what they have been reading. So BUILD IN READING INSTRUCTION. We invited a reading specialist (a WAC-loving reading specialist) to our orientation one year, and that was a big help. She pointed out that students can’t read the way we want because they don’t know how–but they can learn. Teachers tend to worry about “losing time” focusing on the “how to read.” But the real question is: if they can’t read this kind of text well, you are already losing time and meaning. So it is better to go slowly and teaching them strategies for reading these kinds of texts–what they are for, how they are put together, where main ideas tend to be, how introductions can help you understand what follows, rhetorical situation, how to annotate. (and then that is another plus because it introduces the concept of genres and how they work flexibly–more declarative knowledge).

      Second, don’t teach the readings like you are teaching them to graduate students. These are first-year students. The readings can serve two important purposes: modeling some of the “moves” that complex informational texts make, and introducing students to declarative ideas about writing that serve as springboards for them to think about themselves as writers, look at their own rhetorical situations and discourse communities, and so on. If a teacher spends three days on the nuances of one article, the students would mutiny. And they should. That’s not the point.

      Try to frame new and difficult articles with common examples relevant to students’ own lives. For example, before introducing any of the language related to rhetorical situation and constraints, one of our teachers walks students through a “fun” exercise (you’ve been arrested, you are in the squad car) that asks them to share a message about their situation with different audiences, using different mediums, for slightly different purposes (texting to friend, calling mom, Facebooking when you get home when your Aunt Kathy is a FB friend and your mom doesn’t know, etc). She then guides them through what they did and how they knew to do those things, and then shows them the theoretical names for what they have done. So by the time they get to the Grant-Davie reading, for example, they have been primed for what he has to say with an example that is visible to them.

      We talked about reading a lot during the first three years of our move to this curriculum. We are all better at it now, but there is always a teacher who is exceptionally good at getting the students to read and engage with the reading ,and we are always looking to share what teachers like that know, through workshops, discussions, class observations, and so on.

      What do others of you do, yourself and with your programs, to help teachers help students read difficult material–and engage with it?



      1. This is Michelle’s reply (reprinted with permission):

        Thank you so much , Barb and Elizabeth. This is terrific information. I’m meeting with half our our pilot cohort tomorrow and I’m pretty certain that approaching the readings/student needs (as readers) effectively will be one of our primary topics.

        Once the semester is over, I would very much benefit from copies of handouts, exercises, and resources you are willing to share. (I have made a wiki for instructors to offer resources and places to workshop their own materials or ask questions/feel out their own approaches to the textbook–I attribute everything and often add notes and thoughts to focus instructors.) My instructors and I are grateful for your insights and generosity !


        Liked by 1 person

  2. This was J. Thomas Wright’s reply (reprinted with permission):

    “For example, before introducing any of the language related to rhetorical situation and constraints, one of our teachers walks students through a ‘fun’ exercise ….”

    One huge advantage of exercises like this, in my experience, is that they allow students to develop their own theories–not just understand theories presented in the readings. So in the exercise given, the students might argue that people present different levels of detail in different rhetorical situations. Later in the unit, the class would be able to work from this point when analyzing new texts. We could ask, “How does our theory about the level of detail explain how this author responds to this rhetorical situation?” It’s not just a matter of asking how Grant-Davie’s theories apply. The students seem to find this seriously cool: “Hey! We’re doing the same thing they’re doing!”

    A related advantage is that if their theories disagree with those presented in the readings, they understand better that even the experts’ theories are malleable and negotiable. Even good ideas sometimes have to be modified. One of my students demonstrated this point clearly in the unit on discourse communities. He argued that although the traits John Swales presents in “The Concept of Discourse Community” might be adequate for traditional communities, some of them need to be modified if they’re going to be applied to online communities. It’s harder to take that view if you read Swales as saying, “This is the official definition of a discourse community.”


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