Reading (and re-reading)

I find that Sheridan Blau has a lot to offer in his text, but I’m particularly interested in the exercise he develops to encourage re-reading. It’s funny, his suggestion is so simple (almost obvious) but from where I stand, the exercise acknowledges quite a few common reading problems/misconceptions, and asks students to challenge them.


The Think-Aloud exercise really helped me to see how essential re-reading is for expert readers. Jen, Ben, and Chris re-read sections of “Dirge” several times, asking questions and seeking interpretations from each other throughout their readings. And I think Blau has it right when he explains that while many students have heard about the idea of re-reading—or at least have been encouraged to try it—few seem to have reached a place in their learning where they’re self-motivated to try the strategy on their own (44).


This all ties back to Salvatori and Donahue’s conception of difficulty: that students can sometimes see a challenging task as indicative of their own knowledge or learning deficits. But it seems to me that even just taking students through the exercise Blau suggests (where they read the poem three times, rating their understanding and taking guided notes all along), could help novice readers experience success with the re-reading technique, and might even help students feel less frustrated with what they see as their own short comings when they approach a text that appears challenging. I also like Blau’s suggestion of having students work in groups of three for this exercise, as it seems that small groups are a place where students can admit they don’t understand something, and can get similar feedback from other students. It’s kind of a norming session, a place where students have an opportunity to see that re-reading a text is not indicative of a cognitive lapse or failure, but is instead an integral part of the reading and interpretation process! I also love the idea of rating “understanding” as the process goes on, then having a discussion about what those numbers mean, and how “understanding” can be “knowing” less (knowing you don’t know means you’re a bit a head of thinking you know when you don’t, right?)


The exercise begins to pick away at some of students’ previous conceptions about re-reading, and may help them experience success as re-readers, which is about all we can expect to do in a class period. But I think this idea that expert readers, like expert writers, can complete the reading or writing process “in one effortless draft without struggle and without frustration” is, as Blau suggests, a conception that is truly deeply ingrained in our students (31). In class last week I gave the example of a student who wrote in his paper “you won’t understand this, Professor Gleason, because I bet writing 6 pages for you is a breeze…” and I’ve been chewing on this idea since I read his draft, wondering how I can illustrate to students that for me, the reading and writing process is still difficult. It’s still frustrating. It still (often) makes me want to quit. I’ve showed them early drafts of my own work, and have pointed to difficult passages in our readings and readily admitted that I don’t get it, or that I need their help or background knowledge to understand what’s going on. But still, I get that sentence in a student’s paper!


So I recently tried to set up this analogy: that reading and writing are similar to athletics, or to being a professional musician. Students readily acknowledged that for athletes, a game or match is still difficult (although they make it look easy). And that for professional musicians, playing a difficult passage perfectly would still take hours, if not days or weeks, of focused practice, to master. I tried to explain that writing and reading are much the same. I guess we’ll see, over time, if the analogy works, but I plan on coming back to it, and I also plan on using Blau’s re-reading exercise early and often when I start teaching lit next semester.