Learning to Read Critically

by I.A. Isherwood

I had trouble reading as a child. In part, this was due to stubbornness, but it was also because my mind had not made the right connections. I remember that it was embarrassing and upsetting for me to be behind everyone else, to not get what my teachers were trying to get across, and I recall my childhood frustrations still acutely. Fortunately, I had two wonderful elementary school teachers who invested time in me and would not let me give up. At Emerson Elementary School, I learned how to read. I also learned that I could do something that I didn’t particularly like, because it was hard, or that I thought I could do at all.

Learning to read is different than reading well. This week I am trying to teach the latter. The issue at hand is that none of my students have had any training in how to read like an historian. They have been told their whole lives to read critically, to take notes, to summarize, make flashcards, etc. etc. Most of this stuff comes across as white noise. Like learning to read as a child, learning to read thoughtfully is difficult, frustrating, and often individualistic. But doing so is transformative. If learning to read is necessary for your ability to communicate, then reading critically is essential for you to be educated.

So why all this talk about reading?


British Soldier Reading on Stretcher. October 1916. © IWM (Q 4370)

Because I think we are at a cultural impasse at the moment. For years, people have been blathering on about changing reading habits and attention spans. It has been Domesday 101 for reading. But it has only been in the last year that I have noticed a difference in my students, specifically, in the way that they read. Eight years ago I could walk into an English 101 class without a lesson plan and we could thoughtfully talk about essays and books with impromptu energy and intelligent banter. In the last year, however, I’ve had more book conversations turn stale than I care to remember. Not all of them, but a lot of them. It certainly could be my teaching. But it could also be that there is something poisonous in the water.

There will always be students who don’t do the reading – this is a simple fact of existence – but the issue I’ve been wrestling with are those that don’t get the reading. Some of this can be chalked up to just not having the right educational foundation to understand some core concepts; but a lot of it, I think, has to do with not paying attention to the reading, digesting it, wrestling with it, and remembering it for class. The former can be taught in the classroom – pieces can be contextualized and references explained – but the latter is something that no teacher can really resolve. If students just don’t want to read because they don’t like reading, then class discussions are akin to fighting a battle with an army deserting right in front of you in droves.

So for the next two weeks I am focussing on how to read history books critically. We are using David Reynolds’s The Long Shadow and students will be responsible for not only reading, but critically engaging the text with others we have used this semester. In short, I am investing the time in trying to understand how my students read and to try to figure out what I can do to help them read better. Futile? Maybe. But it is a WWI course so we’ll keep trying until we get a breakthrough. It’s been my educational experience that they do happen.