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Talk About Teaching and Learning

March 20, 2012, Volume 58, No. 26

Teaching Students to Read: Teaching Students to Think
Barbra Mann Wall

I am both a nurse and historian; thus I use a transdisciplinary approach to my teaching of students. In all of my classes, I require complicated reading assignments. Teaching students to read a book can essentially teach them to think. Reading allows students to recognize and solve problems, to analyze, to reflect, to evaluate evidence and to form conclusions. Reading can also guide students’ writing, helping them see how paragraphs are written, how authors use evidence to support their claims, and how topic sentences can structure the major themes.

In this essay, I offer two approaches to improve students’ reading skills: strategies to help them skim or pre-read, and strategies to help them read more deeply. I follow guidelines compiled by historians,[1] my own years of teaching,[2] and principles on how to read with intention in the classic How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren.[3]

During the pre-reading or skimming phase, I encourage students to pay attention to the book’s title, table of contents, jacket and preface. These elements can help students get an idea of the book’s structure and the author’s purpose. Next, I have students peruse the index and read the first paragraph of each chapter, the first sentence of each paragraph thereafter, and the last paragraph. I ask them to review tables, graphs, and pictures. Finally, I have students read the last chapter of the book in its entirety. This is superficial reading, for sure, but it prepares the student to read the book more thoroughly the second time.

Throughout the skimming process I encourage students to mark the text: underline major points, mark checks or asterisks in the margins to emphasize the most important passages. They should use numbers to indicate a sequence of points. They should also write questions in the margins or at the beginning of the chapters. I ask them to summarize complicated chapters with a few sentences.

One method I use in my history of nursing class to help students in this pre-reading phase is to have them write two questions they have about the readings and bring them to class. This helps them focus on what they still do not understand and can guide class discussions.

Once they have finished pre-reading they are ready for the next level, reading the text more deeply. To do so, they have to further analyze the structure of a book. I ask them to begin by considering what kind of book this is.  Is it fiction or exposition?  Is it a textbook? What discipline does it belong to? What questions are important to that discipline? Each classification has unique styles of argument. 

After students classify what kind of book they are reading, I ask them to analyze the title, beginning with the key words. For example, if I assigned my first book, Unlikely Entrepreneurs: Catholic Sisters and the Hospital Marketplace, 1865-1925, I would ask students to think about the terms “entrepreneurs” and “marketplace.”  Are Catholic sister nurses the types of people they usually associate with entrepreneurs? Why might that term be appropriate? How do we think about the church interacting with the marketplace? What might these words say about the themes of the book?

After determining what a book is about, students interpret the findings. What are the chief goals or aims of the work? What assumptions does the author have? What questions are addressed? I ask them to determine what the author’s point of view is, his or her voice, and any biases the author may have. The next step is to determine the major themes or theses of the work. Do these agree with the expressed aims of the author? What evidence do authors use to support their claims? And is it the right kind of evidence? Finally, what does the author conclude? What may be left out of the book?

There are several ways I convey these analytical strategies to students. For the first assigned book in my nursing history class, I lead the discussion by providing handouts with questions about the thesis, evidence, and major themes in the book. This handout can guide students later in the semester when they form small group discussion sessions. In those sessions, I have group leaders open the discussion of the book for that week by summarizing the arguments presented, and then they come up with their own questions about the readings to guide the discussions. Students also have a 10-12 page writing assignment on a text that asks them to: Identify the main themes of the book. How does the writer illuminate them? What evidence does the writer use to make his/her claims? (i.e., What sources are used?) What is the author’s voice? In what ways do you agree with the author and in what ways do you disagree? What questions do you have about the author’s interpretation of the topic?

Another strategy I use to get students interested in reading is to have them do written assignments on that reading before class. Before each session in my course on sociocultural influences on health, students are required to write a 100-150-word essay on the assigned readings and post it on the Discussion Board on Blackboard. It helps prepare them for class discussion by further clarifying the major points of the reading and refining their own opinions and questions. Then students make brief comments on one other student’s essay. By writing what they think the person is saying and engaging in discussions prior to class, students find that different readers have different answers. All, however, must base their interpretations on the evidence provided.

For my psychiatric nursing class, I use books that are problematic. For example, students read Slim to None: A Journey through the Wasteland of Anorexia Treatment, a true story published by the father of a woman who died from an eating disorder. It is a compilation of her diaries she wrote while she underwent treatment, and the father’s voice as author is seen in the very title of the book. I give the students a series of questions about what the book says and how. Are the statements true? While one blurb claims that the diaries “speak…without manipulation, but with the plain truth of who she is,” the students find conflicting types of truth, and they have to show persuasive evidence with specific areas from the book to support their responses.

While Slim to None lends itself well to different viewpoints, nursing and medical textbooks are written with different purposes, yet I encourage students to read these texts in the same ways. I hope that students will focus their reading of any text on determining what questions are addressed, and how facts, assumptions, and principles are interrelated. Thus, in my course reading well is not just a practical skill. It also has the intrinsic value of keeping one’s mind active. Students should be encouraged to see it as serious work that can yield many positive results.

[1] McKee, A. (2003). Textual Analysis: A Beginner’s Guide. Sage Publications
Berkhofer, R.F. Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse. (1995). Harvard University Press; 
Booth, W.C., et al. (2003). The Craft of Research, University of Chicago Press.
[2] Wall, B.M. (2006). “Textual Analysis as a Method for Historians of Nursing.” Nursing History Review, 14, 227-242.
[3] Adler, M.J. and Van Doren, C. (1972, 1996). The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Simon and Shuster.

Barbra Mann Wall is the Evan C Thompson Endowed Term Professor for Excellence in Teaching,
associate professor of nursing and
associate director of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing in the School of Nursing

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.


Almanac - March 20, 2012, Volume 58, No. 26