Teaching Developmental Reading Requires Teaching Students to Read Contexts as Well as Texts

Article excerpt

Perhaps as a vestige of the remedial paradigm which once dominated college reading instruction, there seems to be a tendency when discussing the teaching of developmental reading (and, perhaps in the teaching itself) to focus excessively on bottom-up (e.g. word-level) approaches to teaching literacy. While bottom-up strategies have their place in balanced approaches to developmental college reading instruction, I believe that they unnecessarily limit the scope of curriculum and instruction and actually inhibit the achievement of higher order literacies which college coursework demands. Too often, insufficient attention is given to top-down processes of meaning making in which readers use whole text and contextual aspects of the reading situation to comprehend or analyze a text.

Competent readers engage texts using top-down as well as bottom-up strategies. The top-down strategies they utilize include identifying an author's purpose and argument, and reading rhetorically, using knowledge of genre conventions and text structure to guide their reading and to make meaning. College students must also read texts "synthetically"- not in isolation - analyzing and synthesizing multiple sources in relation to one another. Purposeful readers understand how any given text functions in the design of a course - what instructional objectives the text serves in the course as a whole. Similarly, it is important for students to understand how the texts fits in relation to other components of the course such as lectures, films, etc.

Specific norms and conventions of the discipline and the field are additional resources for competent readers to draw upon to effectively understand and learn from texts for specific purposes. Knowing what reading practices the instructor implicitly and explicitly expects students to employ - by virtue or his or her discipline-can help them adopt course-specific ways of reading. While explicitly considering these contextual aspects of engaging with texts adds a dimension of complexity to teaching college reading, it also suggests additional resources for readers to draw upon to make meaning. Reading the disciplinary and course contexts of texts makes the texts themselves more accessible and helps the reader to establish a clear purpose.

What follows is a brief essay explaining my situated socio-cognitive view of reading as it relates to teaching reading to college students. Those who teach developmental writing, math and other subjects can read it fruitfully to understand how they might adopt a socio-cognitive perspective and explicitly draw upon the social and cultural resources embedded in the contexts of their instruction.

A Socio-cognitive Perspective on College Reading

Reading, like all literate activities, is in its essence a meaning construction process. Competent readers draw upon their knowledge, skills and strategies to actively make meaning in interaction with texts. They don't merely "decode" or "absorb" the intended meaning of the author inscribed in the text. When making meaning, readers engage in activities that are both psychological (though not exclusively cognitive) and social in nature. Explicating both the cognitive and social dimensions of college reading can help to show how effective reading instruction must address both.

Cognitive psychological approaches to reading emphasize the constructive and information-processing aspects of meaning construction and learning with text. It is asserted that efficient readers come to reading tasks with not only prior knowledge and purposes, but also with a set of assumptions (based upon their knowledge and experience) and expectations. These expectations relate to text type and structure as well as the subject matter of the text and are indispensable for competent reading of complex texts. Moreover, learners purposefully draw upon their storehouses of knowledge (organized as schema) as they perform mental operations (e. …