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Beyond the ABC’s of Reading

William Faulkner famously advised aspiring writers to “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it… Read! You’ll absorb it.” In fairness to Faulkner, reading more is usually a good thing in the end. But in addition to encouraging our students to read more, we should also be teaching them more thoroughly how to read in the first place.

As kids, most of us learn how to look at words on a page and understand their meaning, but learning to read involves much more than that — it means learning how to deliberately use concrete strategies like annotation to get the most out of a text. Helping students discover how best to use these strategies can help them read at a higher level, take ownership of their reading ability, and, with any luck, enjoy reading much more.

When we think of reading as an ability that we develop once when we’re young and then use when we’re older, it can be easy to see it as a fixed skill. But in reality, we are always learning to read more efficiently and with greater comprehension. More importantly, though, we’re always learning to think more thoroughly about a text and to consider how it applies to us as people.

The point of reading is not just to acquire information, but to make connections, to think hard about complex problems, and to reconsider some of the things we take for granted. Many of the best books of all time, of course, contain no information at all, and reading them is therefore certainly not just a question of efficiently acquiring facts. We’re really always learning to read “better” — in such a way that our reading experience will make minute-to-minute life more interesting and exciting.

Annotation is one strategy that can help us do that, and students should be introduced to it at a young age and continuously guided as they get older. When students underline, they slow down to discern what is important. When they make symbols and arrows, they blend their own ways of thinking with those of the author. When they write notes in the margin, they engage in a dialogue with the text through thoughts, questions, and connections.

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While it remains unclear whether certain specific reading strategies can produce better results than others, research has shown that readers who actively engage with a text get much more out of it. Researchers Patricia A. deWinstanley and Elizabeth L. Bjork found that readers remembered more from a passage that featured partially incomplete words than from a normal text. Like students who engage via annotation, participants who were asked to take part in generating the passage’s content by filling in the blanks recalled more as a result.

More importantly, however, the process of actively engaging with a text can also help people read better in the future. In the same study, deWinstanley and Bjork found that once people had witnessed the benefits of generating content for themselves, they read more actively afterward even without the partially incomplete words. When we begin to see reading as a flexible skill that can be improved, we can actively take steps to actually do so.

In that vein, teaching students to annotate can help them take ownership of their reading ability. In his framework of self-regulated learning, researcher Barry J. Zimmerman highlights the important cycle of developing strategies, evaluating those strategies, and devising new strategies for self-regulated learners in any field. Teaching students to annotate is a way of showing them that concrete and deliberate strategies do exist when it comes to reading books. Reading is certainly a skill that students can improve, but when they are not taught active reading strategies it is hard for them to see it that way. Teaching them to annotate allows students to develop a growth mindset around reading — and to realize that through experimentation and practice, they can find their own unique and specific way of enjoying a great book.

Part of the reason reading often loses out to other forms of entertainment today is that reading can be challenging. But teaching students the concrete strategies to take on that challenge can help make reading feel less daunting and more rewarding. Our answer to iPhones and Xbox should not be to simply demand that kids read more. Instead, let’s teach them the strategies that will allow them to see why reading has meant so much to so many for so long.

R. Noah Knopf ’20 is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House.

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