Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Step 3: Explore Strategies

Explore potential strategies.

Students don't keep up with the reading.

Students may lack either the general or the discipline-specific skills necessary to focus on the relevant aspects of the reading.

While reading might seem to be a straightforward task, in fact it involves complex processes – the experienced reader has questions in mind as she approaches a reading and is able to recognize key features, prioritize certain kinds of information, etc. Many of the reading strategies we employ as experts in our fields have become automatic and unconscious to us. We forget that, at some point, we learned them and that our students might need to learn them, too.

Even students who have good general reading skills may lack discipline-specific skills and require help learning how to approach readings in your discipline. They may not recognize the organizational structure of a text and may lack the skills necessary to discern the important ideas, distinguish argument from evidence, or recognize an author’s intended audience, assumptions, or goals. They may read every word of a chapter or article but not know what they are supposed to do with it.

When students lack the skills to identify the relevant aspects of a reading they may accord every sentence equal weight and thus:

  • take too long with each reading and fall behind
  • fail to comprehend the reading properly or process it inadequately, thus appearing not to have done it

The issues above can be exacerbated for students from other cultural backgrounds, who may be used to different conventions in writing and argumentation and thus have difficulty recognizing the organizational structure of assigned readings. Second-language issues may also slow them down, making it more difficult to keep up with the reading.


Provide parameters for how long reading should take.

Give students a sense of how much time it should take them to get through a particular kind of reading (bearing in mind that it is normal for students to take 3-4 times longer than you do to read a text). Advise them to come talk with you if it is taking them significantly longer than this (6 hours for a 15-page article, for example) and refer them to Academic Development for help developing more effective textbook reading strategies.

If you think the problem is cultural/linguistic, refer students to the Intercultural Communication Center

“Scaffold” reading assignments.

Begin the course with simpler readings and work up to increasingly complex, theoretically challenging or sophisticated readings. This allows students time to build the skills necessary to read effectively.

Operationalize performance criteria.

Make explicit to students what you expect them to be able to do after completing a reading. For example, you might inform them that for each reading they should be able to tell you the central question posed, the argument made, and three pieces of evidence enlisted to support it. Or you might ask students to come to class with a one-sentence summary of the reading’s main point, a question it raised for them, or a critique. Hold students responsible for this information by requiring them to submit it in writing or by asking them for their summaries, questions, or critiques as a preamble to discussion.

Model your own reading strategies.

As an experienced reader in your discipline, you never just read; you approach readings with a set of questions and strategies designed to pull relevant information out quickly. You also know how to vary your questions and strategies depending on the genre.

Help students see how experts in your discipline approach reading by talking students through how you yourself approach different kinds of texts in your discipline: What parts of a book or article do you look at first (date of publication? author’s name? table of contents? preface?) and why? What questions do you have in mind when you begin to read? What do you take time with? Skim through? Come back to? How do you approach a book differently than a journal article or a primary document?

One instructor, for example, illustrates to students how he prioritizes information as he reads by showing students a passage of text, with the main ideas or arguments in large font, the supporting points and evidence in medium-sized font, and the incidental information in small font. He then has students practice doing the same thing themselves with other passages of text. Other instructors show students their margin notes and annotations to show how they identify key ideas and flag problematic assertions.

Modeling your own approach to reading helps students to recognize that reading is a conversation between a reader and the text, and conditions them to approach the task of reading actively and inquisitively, rather than passively.

Because these are skills that students need to practice as well as understand, ask them questions (in discussion or on assignments) that support the goals you are pursuing.

Give questions to guide reading.

Help students learn to recognize the organizational structure of readings and distinguish key ideas by giving them questions (in class or as homework) that require them to discern arguments and positions, identify assumptions, delineate and evaluate evidence, etc. This is especially important for the first several reading assignments if students are new to your discipline. Instructors can require students to submit their answers or simply use them as the basis for discussion.

Also, ask questions that support the reading strategies that you want students to develop. For example, if you think it’s important for students to read the preface of a book, ask questions that require students to have done so, for example including questions that ask about the author’s motivation or the genesis of the book.

By repeatedly asking certain kinds of questions, instructors reinforce the meta-cognitive skills they want students to develop as readers.

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