February 12th, 2018

Reading Reframed for the Community College Classroom


college-level reading skills

When people hear I’m a professor of reading at a local community college, I’m often met with some variation of, “Really? You teach reading…in college?”

The assumption implied, of course, is that college students should already know how to read, that reading as a focus of study belongs in the elementary classroom. For most people reading this article, the fact that students struggle with collegiate-level text is not revelatory. Indeed, the office-doorway concerns swapped amongst faculty are confirmed by various reports, such as the one cited in the U.S. Department of Education’s recent review of developmental education, which noted that approximately 40% of first-year community college students enrolled in at least one developmental course in the 2011-2012 year (2017).

Based on my classroom observations, students, to their detriment, also embrace the notion that reading should be taught, learned, and left in the primary grades. While such deficit-mindedness stunts academic progress, by teaching students to reframe reading as the complex, problem-solving process that it is, one that demands ever-developing cognitive strategies (Frankel, Becker, Rowe, & Pearson, 2016), instructors can facilitate more productive engagement with text, whether in stand-alone reading courses or embedded in disciplinary courses.

Below are three precepts that foster a more productive approach along with a variety of supporting classroom applications.

The Reader has a Voice (or, Reading is Dialogic)

Developing readers tend to relegate themselves as tacit receptacles of information, rather than accept a text’s invitation to a back-and-forth dialogue. As an inextricable thread in the dynamic weave of text, the reader has a voice, and it matters.

A tangible way for students to enter the textual conversation is through annotating. Although annotations range from highly structured to free-floating, the mere requirement that students write down something in response to an assigned text implies they have something to offer. When teaching annotation, I remind students to periodically “Stop-Think-Jot,” that is, record their thoughts while reading either on a separate reading log or on the text itself. To focus attention on the reader’s voice, I tell them that the photocopied articles they’ve been given in class are identical, but when turned in, they should look unique because each student will have engaged the text in a personal way. Additionally, the classic dialectical or double-entry journal in which equal space is allotted to writer and reader also demonstrates the conversational nature of reading. Lastly, Billy Collins’ quirky poem Marginalia features various types of readers and their annotations, providing a discussion-starter that emphasizes reader voice (Fletcher, 2015).

Reading Involves Revision (or, Reading is Recursive)

Students hold the impression that good readers move through text beginning-to-middle-to-end, arriving at understanding. Yet, while decoding is linear, comprehension is cyclical; it is incremental, leveled, and nuanced. Similar to the writing process wherein revision is a natural, expected stage, reading, too, involves revising initial and partial understandings to incorporate a fuller perspective of the text upon subsequent readings. Viewing the reading process as recursive allows students to embrace ambiguity, freeing them to continue exploring the text, developing and amending their comprehension.

Directed re-readings, with a pause for reflection between readings, illustrate the depths of text that can be plumbed. Poetry, with riches of meaning packaged syntactically tight, lends itself especially well to this kind of cyclical textual-mining; however, dense or complex informational text similarly offers more of itself upon repeated readings. For example, students can be assigned to record only questions of a text on a first read, and then to record possible answers on subsequent readings. Alternatively, students can return to and elaborate on original annotations to push deeper into the text.

The Reader Needs a Circle (or, Reading is Communal)

The traditional view of reading as a solitary endeavor is certainly limiting. Alternatively, when students come to view reading as a team effort, pressure to arrive at the exact right interpretation is removed and the burden of nuanced comprehension is shared across multiple shoulders. The social aspect of reading is featured as foundational to the Reading Apprenticeship initiative gaining traction on community college campuses (WestEd 2014).

To foster collaborative interpretation, I have begun incorporating a 15-minute “text huddle” in my classes. Students are presented with a brief text and three standing questions borrowed and adapted from Schulten’s What’s Going on in This Poem? (2016): What do you see? What in the text shows you that? What else do you notice? The questions could easily be adapted for non-literary text, for example, swapping “see” and “notice” for “learn” and “discover.” Students read the text aloud, pausing at designated spots to discuss the questions. Each group then shares highlights of their discussion with the class. The entire huddle is conducted verbally, ensuring that ideas and interpretations are easily revised, simultaneously reinforcing the collaborative and revisionary nature of reading.

By challenging students’ assumptions regarding reading in their college courses and reframing the process according to the three precepts, instructors empower students to find their reader’s voice, practice reading revision, and participate in a community of readers.

Sarah Hawes is a professor of reading at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, California.


Fletcher, J. (2015). Teaching arguments: Rhetorical comprehension, critique, and response. Portland, MN: Stenhouse Publishers.

Frankel, K. K., Becker, B. L., Rowe, M. W., & Pearson, P. D. (2016). From “What is reading?” to What is literacy?. Journal of Education, 196(3), 7-17.

Schulten, K. (2016). What’s going on in this poem? Exploring poetry through open-ended questions. The Learning Network: Teaching & Learning with the New York Times. Retrieved from https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/07/

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development. (2017). Developmental education: Challenges and strategies for reform. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/education-strategies.pdf

WestEd. (2014). Never too late: Boosting reading scores in community college. WestEd’s R&D Alert, 14(3).  Retrieved from ERIC database.  (ED559590)