Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Why don’t students keep up with the reading

U.S. faculty member, CMU-Qatar

When I was teaching in the U.S., I assigned a lot of reading. It seemed only appropriate for college-level courses. But the students I teach now speak English as a second language. They struggle to read even short texts. Talking to colleagues from the same culture as my students, I’ve learned that the style of writing, as well as the language, poses challenges. My students are used to readings that follow different conventions vis-à-vis the presentation of argument and evidence, so when they are reading an English text which would take a U.S. student an hour to read, they might take 2-3 hours. If they even get through the material – and they frequently don’t – they can’t engage in a meaningful discussion because they don’t fully understand what they’ve read.

I’ve found some teaching strategies that help. First, I’ve prioritized and cut my reading list so that students can focus more deeply on fewer readings. Second, I’ve incorporated more short videos and other multimedia material, using them both in class and as homework to generate discussion of key principles. Since these particular students have sophisticated media literacy and listening skills, I’ve found that they can engage with audiovisual materials more easily than they can with readings, where their lack of English literacy gets in the way. As a result, they bring more of their analytical skills to bear in class discussions and learn more.

Other strategies

  • At the beginning of the semester, tell students a little about each assigned text before they read it (e.g., who the author was, where it appeared, what audience the author had in mind) and very briefly preview the argument. Even a short overview (e.g., “In this article, Lewis challenges McIntyre’s theory about the formation of cities”) can help students read more efficiently and prepare more effectively for class discussions. As the semester goes on, you can withdraw this “scaffolding” as students learn to look for this information themselves.
  • Teach students how to read the standard forms of writing in your discipline: discuss different genres (e.g., research paper, review, polemical piece) and the conventional structure of each (e.g., “A research paper in Psychology generally has an introduction, literature review, data, discussion, and conclusion. Here’s what each section does...”).
  • Direct students’ attention to language that signals key rhetorical moves such as building on the work of others (e.g., “I join with Geertz in proposing...”), positing a thesis (e.g., “I contend that...”), considering opposing evidence (e.g., “Critics of this perspective might argue...”). This will help students read more efficiently and effectively.
  • Give students questions to guide their reading and require them to think (or write) about it before coming to class. This can help them distinguish the key ideas from background information and extraneous detail.
  • Don’t assume that students will be able to “read” and interpret multimedia materials any more easily than they do texts. Cultural differences in media styles can interfere with understanding and fast-paced films and videos that use colloquial English may be hard for students to follow. Moreover, while students may have used various media as entertainment, they may need to learn how to approach these media analytically, asking disciplinarily relevant questions. You may want to experiment with a few pieces before relying on them too heavily and provide students with questions and prompts to guide their viewing.
  • Recommend that students get help developing more effective and efficient reading skills from the Intercultural Communication Center (Pittsburgh), Academic Development, or the Academic Resource Center (Qatar), as appropriate.

For help brainstorming or adapting strategies to your own teaching context, contact the Eberly Center in Pittsburgh, the Eberly Center in Qatar, or the Intercultural Communication Center in Pittsburgh.