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Teaching Reading with Reading Modes (Reading Modes Series Part 1)

June 5, 2015

As an English teacher I am tasked with the goal of teaching my students how to read, understand, and analyze a wide variety of texts. As one of my colleagues often says, a major struggle for English teachers is the “all-at-once-ness” of it, and the teaching of literature is no exception to that. I used to think that having students do “literary analysis” consisted of three steps:

  1. read the text
  2. re-read sections of the text to “look for evidence”
  3. write a paper using the evidence to say something about theme, character development, etc.

However, the longer I teach and the more I learn, the more I see that this is not a linear process, but instead a recursive and spiraling one. The task of reading, and then writing about what they read, requires students to engage in distinct modes of reading, but often simultaneously.

As I’ve puzzled through issues around reading in my classroom, I’ve begun using a framework based on three major mode of reading. These three modes have become organizing principles for my classroom, and have helped me make sense of the way I am asking my students to get through the texts we read in a meaningful way.

This post is the first in a series about these modes of reading in which I will explore how my students use these modes when engaging in the text, and how thinking about reading through this lens heightens the interconnectedness between modes of reading, rather than seeing reading in a linear fashion. In this post I will define the modes of reading as I see them.

Mode 1: Comprehension

This mode is the most obvious. Readers are in comprehension mode, most, if not all, of the time. This applies to reading for pleasure (such as the thriller I couldn’t put down last night) or reading for academic purposes (such as an essay by Alice Walker in one of my college courses). When we are reading in comprehension mode, we are trying to understand the basic plot or argument in the text. We are also making inferences, some that are more obvious, and some that are less obvious and require more in-depth thinking. A mis-conception that I used to have is that reading had to be done in comprehension mode “first” before any deeper thinking or different modes of reading about the text could occur. However, the longer I teach, the more I realize that other mode of reading can support comprehension, which shifts comprehension out of the role of “first step” and makes it part of an ongoing process.

Mode 2: Analysis of craft

There are many example of type of “analysis” that happen both in and out of English classes. However, the type of analysis I focus on most in my class is a close-reading related to author’s craft. Essentially, when my students do analysis they are looking at the way the author use specific literary or rhetorical devices (aka “writer’s moves“) to further a point, develop a character or theme, etc. Often this involves focusing on specific short (1 page or less) passages from the text, and reading and re-reading them closely to discover these interesting literary or rhetorical devices, and the writing about and discussing the effect of those devices.

Mode 3: Reading as Rehearsal for Real Life

The name for this mode is taken directly from Kelly Gallagher. In his book Readicide he argues that one of the main benefits for teaching classic literature is that it provides students with opportunities to grapple with real human dilemmas, allows then to develop wisdom and essentially provides them the opportunities to go through imaginary rehearsals for the real world. This is the mode of reading that I both think is most important, and that I also often find myself skipping when we are pressed for time in my class. It is an interesting paradox. The ultimate point of reading, in my mind, is to develop empathy, to become a part of a larger society, to have a deeper understanding of the world around us, to become better citizens, etc. Essentially, reading should make us more human and more connected with our world. Obviously comprehension and analysis are part of this process, but the idea that we read because it is enriching and helps us understand more about ourselves should be a cornerstone of the work that happens in English class. I both believe this deeply and have to remind myself to build this mode of reading into every text we read, because it is too easy to let it slide when we are stuck in the weeds of figuring out which character said what and writing analysis paragraphs.

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These are the three primary modes of reading that my students and I use to engage in the texts we are reading. We sometimes focus on one more than the others for certain texts, or even just at different points when reading a long texts. We do not move through these modes in a linear fashion. Instead, I use their interconnectedness to move through a text in a meaningful way. In the next few posts I will focus on the way in which these three modes are interconnected and support one another in my real-life classroom.

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