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When my younger daughter was about 3 years old, she would sit in a small chair with her teddy bear on her lap and “read” Frog and Toad books aloud. Sometimes the book was upside down, and sometimes she turned the pages backward. The story wasn’t always the one in the book, either, since she couldn’t really read: she would make up the story with bits and pieces of what she remembered from us reading to her along with her own ideas. I have a clear picture of her “reading” a lot; the happy outcome is that she is now a professional librarian. But her upside down, backward and made-up reading is a good metaphor for the condition of college students’ reading skills.

Even as the nation has focused growing attention on how to improve success rates for underserved students in general, and first-generation students in particular, I’ve been struck by the absence of any mention of students’ critical reading skills in these conversations. The need to help students better develop their critical reading skills in a more focused and sustained way is urgent and likely to become even more urgent in the coming years as students whose educations were interrupted by the COVID pandemic enter our classrooms. We know, for example, that reading (and math) scores for American 9-year-olds fell sharply during the pandemic.

But even before the pandemic, there was compelling evidence of students’ reading problems. Findings from an analysis of almost 2,000 citations from a nationally representative sample of college student papers, conducted as part of the ongoing Citation Project, show that college students typically use quotations from the first page or two of a source and cite that source only once in their own work. Only about 6 percent of the citations examined summarized the source. Sources thus are largely almost surely unread or read superficially and with limited comprehension, issues discussed in detail by one of the Citation Project’s lead researchers, Sandra Jamieson of Drew University.

The situation is no better when students read material online, as shown by a series of studies done by researchers in history education from Stanford University, who have found that students at the middle school, high school and college levels all struggle to evaluate online sources.

Reading has long been problematic in higher education. While colleges and universities once offered focused help with reading in developmental courses, many of those courses have been abandoned in the face of cutbacks, and in response to students’ needs to progress more quickly through credit-bearing coursework, which developmental reading usually is not. Some students can get help through summer bridge programs that offer intensive help in reading skills prior to initial enrollment, and some get help in first-year writing courses that focus on reading in combination with writing. One example appears in the work of the Community College of Baltimore County emeritus faculty member Peter Adams. Adams’s approach, called the Accelerated Learning Program, entails a corequisite approach in which students enroll simultaneously in a three-hour noncredit integrated reading and writing course and a three-credit college composition course, and it has been adopted by colleges and universities around the country. In general, however, reading has largely been ignored or had only minimal and inconsistent attention, despite students’ need for help.

Faculty in every discipline can help students with reading as part of their focus on their own teaching goals. Simply assigning reading, even if course materials are freely available online, does not mean students will do the reading and get the information, background and knowledge they should have. It also doesn’t help if instructors provide summaries of the readings; doing so means students have even less motivation to develop their skills.

Most importantly, students need to develop the ability to read all kinds of sources critically. Evaluation of information for authority, accuracy, currency, relevance, appropriateness and bias is critical to success in college and beyond. Students are and will be participants in our democratic society; inability to read critically will not only limit their success while in college but will also limit their ability to assess candidates for public office; evaluate local, state and national policy proposals; and complete assignments in the workplace.

Most faculty do not have the training to help students improve their reading, but help is readily available. Many institutions have a center for teaching that offers workshops for faculty; those centers can offer local and focused workshops for all faculty on reading. University of Cincinnati reading scholar Victoria Appatova and I make the case for this approach in a forthcoming article (to appear in To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development).

Another resource comes from the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which has issued a position statement on the role of reading in writing classes. Despite its name, the statement includes a number of specific strategies all faculty can use with students to help develop their reading skills and also offers a list of resources faculty can consult to learn more (full disclosure: I was a co-leader on the development of this statement). Asking peer groups in class to write 25-word summaries of sections of a reading, or having students synthesize opposing views on an issue, are the kinds of activities that call for active engagement and can be used online or in a classroom. Discussing an array of reading approaches that allow students to make mindful choices about how they approach reading assignments can also expand students’ metacognitive awareness when they are doing substantial reading.

A further step faculty can take involves making a connection to librarians on campus. Many faculty librarians are members of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), a division of the American Library Association. ACRL has developed its own Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and ACRL members have developed assorted exercises that can be used with students to develop pertinent skills for search and for evaluation of research materials. A wealth of materials useful for teaching is available at the ACRL website.

Some of this work is tied to the pertinent studies of Project Information Literacy, directed by Alison Head at Harvard University. All of these resources are also readily available.

Students’ reading troubles have been with us for a long time and are not getting better. Given the impact of the pandemic and the shift to online instruction that continues in varied forms on many campuses, the need to improve students’ critical reading skills is more urgent now than ever. And if U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s goals for improving college graduation rates are to be realized, all faculty must work to improve students’ reading abilities to facilitate their success.

Reading is an issue many students struggle with: first-generation college students, underprepared students, community college students, as well as those at well-endowed, highly ranked institutions. All students can grow from upside down and backward readers, somewhat like my 3-year-old, to be more effective, efficient critical readers; faculty can use the resources discussed here and others they can get from teaching centers and librarians to help them. More focused attention to critical reading can allow all faculty to achieve their teaching goals and help students cross the finish line.

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