August 13th, 2009

Reasons to Read Deeply


Many of our students don’t read well. They read slowly, struggle with the vocabulary and retain little. They need stronger reading skills—to succeed in college and in life. We need to encourage them to read deeply, to read for understanding and retention, but how do we do that? Roberts and Roberts suggest six ways to entice students to read at deeper levels.

1. Intrinsic interest—Students (like the rest of us) read deeply what they find of interest. The challenge for us is to find course-related material of interest to students. Once interest in something is piqued, motivating more reading on the topic is not as difficult.

2. Curiosity—Can we make students curious about what’s in their assigned readings? We can try. For example, we could pose an interesting question, taking a few minutes to play with the question before telling students that they’ll find the answer in the reading assigned this week. Or, we say that there’s something in the text that really explains how/why a particular theory works. “If you don’t really understand this, and of course success in this course depends on you understanding this, you’ll want to spend some time with the reading assignment.”

3. Connections—When an assigned reading relates to students lives, to their beliefs or to their future ambitions, there a reason to read. Teachers do sometimes forget that connections between content and life issues that are perfectly clear may not be as obvious to students. We shouldn’t be reluctant about pointing out those connections. “If you’re planning on staying married for life, you’ll want to thoroughly understand the chapter on conflict resolution.”

4. Deep reading makes material easier to remember—You have to get students doing some deep reading in order for this to work, but most students do know that what they memorize the night before is gone the moment they finish the exam. If they experience how really understanding something in a course makes it so much easier to remember and how that makes learning tasks more enjoyable and rewarding, deep reading might be something they end up doing for themselves.

5. Perspective taking—If the readings themselves pull students in, engage them by challenging beliefs, proposing alternatives and different views, and offering interesting anecdotes, that engages readers and keep them in the text for longer.

6. Requiring higher-order thinking—“If texts and papers allow the students to be successful with only rote memorization … there is little enticement to read deeply.” (p. 130) The same is true of tests. Questions must make students do more than regurgitate.

Reference: Roberts. J. C. and Roberts, K. A. (2008). Deep reading, cost/benefit, and the construction of meaning: Enhancing reading comprehension and deep learning in sociology courses. Teaching Sociology, 36 (April), 125-140.

  • Nancy Johnston

    Thanks for taking this direction. It isn't always that students aren't reading. They read and often are frustrated when they can't retain ideas.
    Nancy Johnston
    University of Toronto

  • Richard Young

    Ah, deep reading. This is a great stream of thought and one that I continually wrestle with. Part of the problem may be that so many texts are long-winded and dry. To overcome that I in at least two of my courses in competitive strategy the approach has been to put together my own readings packets instead. Too many texts are attempts at rehashing the thoughts of the gurus anyway so why not let the students read the gurus.

    The other issue is intellectual curiosity, specifically how to foster it. One way is to become perhaps a little less focused on one's own discipline. Now before you say that this is heresy, I would posit that all knowledge is connected and often I have students visit my office to tell me that those connections are the most memorable part of the course because it gives them a mnemonic for recalling the course content. Although I did have one grad student stop by a number of years ago and tell me that intellectual curiosity is also a curse. Oddly enough, she is now pursuing a Ph.D.

  • I've always been a firm believer that the best students are those who teach, so one way that I've found to improve deeper reading is to make students responsible for teaching that which they read. Although I believe that concepts like connection and curiousity can improve the chances of reading more critically and for better comprehension, there's nothing like the motivation that they must now become the teacher. Though there are logistical issues that must be dealt with (size of class, resources, class period length, etc.), it is something to consider incorporating in your teaching.