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Reading Analytically

I think that the new high school graduates I see … most lack close reading skills. …. I find that they are most inclined to substitute what they generally think a text should be saying for what it actually says, and lack a way to explore the intricacies and interests of the words on the page. …. Usually the result is that they want to read every text as saying something extremely familiar that they might agree with. I see them struggling the most to read the way texts differ from their views, to find what is specific about the language, address, assumptions etc. (Tamar Katz, peers. com., 17 September 2001) [Cited by Robert Scholes in "The Transition to College Reading"]  

Many students arrive at college without having had much practice with critical reading. New instructors are sometimes surprised that, when asked to analyze a text (a song, for example, a popular assignment in undergraduate rhetoric courses), students seem to find it hard to come up with much more than a literal reading.  But high school writing classes often focus on getting students to demonstrate their understanding of a text, and on teaching them to summarize (something many still don’t do well).  First-year college students tend to read for content, and see what is most familiar to them. Analyzing a text, going beyond summary (doing something with a summary) requires practice, critical tools (the ability to identify the values and assumptions informing a text and to imagine alternatives) and an understanding of the context of the argument.  But the purpose of teaching rhetoric is to lead the students to a better understanding not just of the explicit appeals made by an author but to make visible the implicit appeals to values and beliefs that are embedded in a text.

Here are some suggestions for helping students move beyond summary and towards doing a critical analysis:
  • Provide students with a set of critical tools. Pick one or two ways of reading - a critical gender analysis, for example, or a class perspective - and show the student how to apply these when reading a text.  See here for an example of one rhetoric instructor's approach to teaching the critical skills necessary to analyze an ad.

  • Model what you want them to do – verbally, in writing and together in class.

  • Ask the students to make three columns on a blank page.  For each paragraph they record

    • What the author is saying (a summary)
    • What the author is doing (in terms of the argument structure – sketching the context, setting out her claim, providing evidence, rebutting an objection etc.  See Six Important Features of Academic Writing)
    • How the author is doing it (in terms of rhetorical strategies – what are the various appeals?)

  • Assign carefully selected readings which cover a range of perspectives on a particular topic, readings which respond to each other and evaluate and critique each other’s language and reasoning.  Be prepared to have to explain the context of each argument so the students can get a sense of the ideologies and assumptions informing each writer (see below).

  • Cue the students to evaluate a reading using one or more particular critical lenses: (O.K. First I want you to think about what this particular piece is telling us about gender – think about stereotypes of gender – does this piece challenge them or reinforce them?  Then think about race and class – what sort of message is this author sending us about what sort of behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate? Or about what it means to be an American?

  • Be prepared to introduce and teach critical perspectives.  A lot of (maybe most undergraduate ) students have never read feminist / Marxist / radical / progressive / libertarian or even conservative critiques of mainstream American belief systems – though they may have picked up odd bits and pieces in passing.  They don’t fully understand the difference between Democrats and Republicans, conservatism and liberalism, or understand that capitalism is an economic system and not simply part of the air that we breathe.  One thing you can do is to provide a brief (quick and dirty) explanation of alternative perspectives and then have the students think about how the text would look from these positions and what objections might therefore be raised to the argument (“O.K, today I’m going to briefly explain a feminist perspective and then we’re going to think about what messages this text is sending about gender.  Then I’ll explain an environmentalist perspective and we’ll think about what message the author is sending about the relationship between human beings and the natural world” etc.)

Ways of Reading

Stuart hall

Professor Aimee Carillo-Rowe suggests introducing students to Stuart Hall's argument that social position affects the way a reader interprets a text.

  • In a dominant (or 'hegemonic') reading the reader fully shares the text's code and accepts and reproduces the preferred reading (a reading which may not have been the result of any conscious intention on the part of the author(s)) - in such a stance the code seems 'natural' and 'transparent'
  • In a negotiated reading: the reader partly shares the text's code and broadly accepts the preferred reading, but sometimes resists and modifies it in a way which reflects their own position, experiences and interests (local and personal conditions may be seen as exceptions to the general rule)
  • In an oppositional ('counter-hegemonic') reading: the reader, whose social situation places them in a directly oppositional relation to the dominant code, understands the preferred reading but does not share the text's code and rejects this reading, bringing to bear an alternative frame of reference (radical, feminist etc.)

(from 'Semiotics for Beginners")

Hall, Stuart ([1973] 1980): 'Encoding/decoding'. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed.): Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 London: Hutchinson, pp. 128-38




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