The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The books that help you most are those which make you think the most. The hardest way of learning is that of easy reading; but a great book that comes from a great thinker is a ship of thought, deep freighted with truth and beauty."... ...Theodore Parker

Commentary of the Day - March 14, 2003: I Don't Know HOW to Read This Book!  Guest commentary by Tina Blue.

Over the past few years, I have found that more and more students in my freshman-sophomore English classes at the University of Kansas are completely unable to keep up with their college reading assignments.

I quit teaching "Introduction to Fiction" five years ago because the students could not handle the course readings, even though I had reduced the reading list by about 30 percent.  I switched to teaching "Introduction to Poetry."  At least in that class I can read each poem aloud to them before we begin to discuss it.  Obviously I can't read a 500-page novel out loud at the beginning of every class period.

In my English 101 class I now spend a fair amount of time teaching my students how to read their textbooks.  One semester a young man, almost in tears, held up his thick geology textbook and said, "My professor doesn't even lecture on what's in the book.  He lectures on other stuff and expects us to read the book on our own.  But I don't even know HOW to read this book!"

A lot of them tell me they never read their textbooks in high school or middle school, because they didn't have to.  They could usually get A's or B's without doing the readings.  Their teachers went over the textbook material in lectures, passed out lecture notes and study guides for tests, and gave easy extra-credit assignments to help them raise their grades if they still did badly on exams.

Now all of a sudden they are in college, and their professors expect them to read books outside of class.  And far too many of our students can't do that.

It would be easy to blame the students for being lazy, for partying when they should be studying, but a lot of the students I work with are not lazy.  They're motivated and diligent -- but they just don't read well enough to handle the amount and difficulty of reading assignments in college.  They often read and reread the same page in a textbook, without understanding or remembering what they have read.  Eventually, they give up in despair.  Much of what looks like laziness in our students really is just despair -- the conviction that no matter how hard they try, they're not going to be able to read or understand their texts.

Three years ago, in the textbook used for a one-credit freshman orientation class, I read something that startled me, but only momentarily: the average focused reading span for a college freshman is five minutes.

After my initial surprise, I realized that my experience validated that estimate.  Since then, I have polled my students -- upperclassmen as well as freshmen -- every semester, and every semester most of my students acknowledge that they cannot focus on their reading assignments for more than five minutes at a time.  They also tell me they can only read one or two pages during that five-minute period.

Let's say you're expected to read a total of 100 pages a week (not a particularly heavy college reading load).  If you can only focus on your reading for five minutes at a time, and you can read only one to two pages during each five-minute session, there is almost no way to keep up with your reading assignments.   Few undergraduates are wise enough and self-disciplined enough to schedule 50 to 100 little reading sessions before an assignment is due.  There will also be some problem with comprehension, since breaking a stretch of text up into one- or two-page bits is not the best way to understand what you're reading, especially if the subject is at all difficult.

And I assure you, those five-minute reading sessions are not going to come all that close together.  Most students will be lucky to get three of them in per hour.  Some students may manage four. But even diligent undergraduates are probably going to set aside only about two or three hours to complete a reading assignment the night before it is due.  Let's see, four little "reads," at -- let's be generous -- two pages per read.  That's eight pages an hour.  Eight pages per hour, three hours -- 24 pages of text.  Best case scenario.

But now let's be honest.  Most students are not going to get that much done.  They are more likely to manage maybe three sessions per hour, and to set aside only two hours to get their reading assignments from one class done for the next day.   And most are lucky to get even one page, not two, properly read in each five-minute session.  So instead of 24 pages, such a student will read about six or ten.  Each time he tries to do his homework he will fall even further behind, until finally he surrenders to hopelessness and starts looking for ways to weasel a higher grade than he deserves out of the class, without doing the readings. Considering all the pressures that lead instructors to succumb to grade inflation, chances are he will find one.

Even many students who read a lot for pleasure are not learning how to read the sort of text they must read in most of their college courses.  A geology or ethics textbook, or even a complex, sophisticated work of fiction, will make far more demands on the student reader than a news magazine or a book by John Grisham.

Unfortunately, too many of our students have not acquired the reading skills they need to cope with such demands.

©2003 Tina Blue
Tina Blue is a lecturer in English at the University of Kansas.  She also publishes the Teacher, Teacher web page.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP's experience has been much the same as Tina's.  Often when working individually with students in the Physics Tutorial Room at Krispy Kreme U., the IP has found that many difficulties students have with physics can be traced to an inability to read college-level material.  In subject such as physics, where many new concepts are introduced during the course of the semester, poor reading skills probably contribute the most to student failure.

Two weeks ago we published a commentary by Patrick Groff on the teaching of reading at the elementary school level.  Clearly, the reading problems we encounter at the college level have their seeds in early failures to teach reading skills properly.

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