Read Better, Sleep More

A primer on teaching undergraduates how to read the right way

Last fall, I met a lot of confused first-years. I worked as a peer tutor at the College's Writing Center, helping undergraduates improve their academic writing. The vast majority of the 400 students who seek tutoring are freshmen grappling with the demands of Expos--the expository writing requirement.

Through regular meetings, I followed the progress of my tutees. Typically, they would be asked to analyze how a theme or a motif is carried out in a story. Although they had dutifully read their assignments, they often regarded me quizzically when I asked them to identify specific images or themes. If I tried to stimulate their thinking with simple reading comprehension questions, their brows furrowed. So before they started writing, I scheduled extra meetings at which I asked tutees to read the story aloud and tell me, sentence by sentence, what the author was saying. Often students stumbled over key words or failed to identify the writer's carefully embedded images.

I wasn't surprised; just about all first-years quickly realize that Expos requires a level of close reading and sophisticated analysis many of them did not attain in high school. But Expos isn't the only reading challenge new Harvardians face.

In the concluding moments of our conferences, I would often ask tutees how the rest of their studies were going--Expos aside. Sometimes this provoked a recitation of their bewildering workloads. Humanities students would complain about the technicality of their reading for science Core courses. Scientists would gripe about the critical reading expected of them in literature and arts Cores. Everybody I knew groused about the massive amount of reading, hundreds of pages more each week than in high school. Furthermore, assigned reading is usually a diffuse and eclectic collection of primary and secondary sources instead of sections from one authoritative textbook. Clearly, reading challenges affect the entire student body, not just the minority who patronize the Writing Center. Nevertheless, dean of undergraduate studies David Pilbeam says that reading abilities are "not something that gets discussed" by the faculty. Like writing skills, they are supposed to be mastered in Expos and the sophomore tutorial.

Although most undergraduates do manage to intuit the reading skills needed to survive at Harvard, some seek outside help. They have one primary recourse: the "Reading Strategies" course by Harvard's Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC). Of the 300 or so students who enroll yearly in one of the reading course's five sessions, roughly two-thirds are undergraduates, primarily freshmen. The course, which meets one hour daily for three weeks, aims to teach more efficient reading techniques as part of improving overall study habits. BSC director Charles Ducey calls the recently revised course, first offered in 1946, the longest running at Harvard. (The College covers half the $150 fee for undergraduates; additional help is available for students on financial aid.)

Both Ducey and the director of the reading strategies course, Abigail Lipson, have backgrounds in clinical psychology that they bring to bear on the course's decidedly technical design. Much of the course consists of films that scroll through blurry paragraphs in which only a few sequential words of text at a time are legible. During the course, the films increase in speed from 180 words a minute (the speed at which we normally speak) to about 600 words a minute. According to Ducey, the films both mimic the sequential line-by-line approach to reading that people learned in grade school and shake people loose of word-for-word habits. "It can be quite anxiety-provoking," he explains, since viewers can't reread a missed word. But that anxiety is precisely what Lipson hopes to induce: "It highlights the difference between what the eyes and the mind are doing. Where is your attention? If you lose it, how do you get it back?" she prods. This is not to say that they teach speed reading, Lipson notes. "We're not getting their eyes to move more quickly across the page, but we're working on the speed of comprehension."

I sat in on the third day of the course, when the film ran at 270 words a minute. It was disconcerting as parts of an article about Australia slipped by me into blurred oblivion; nevertheless, I was able to answer the reading comprehension questions at the end of the film and summarize its main ideas.

The thrill of liberation from word-for-word reading is common to those who take the course. Psychology concentrator Aaron Hall '99 enrolled because he was frustrated by his first college reading load: "I knew I had the time, but I didn't know how to use it in the best manner." But as Hall relinquished linear reading, his success with the films became "relaxing and reassuring." Now, when he reads for a moral reasoning Core, Hall says, "I get the ideas; I don't have to get every word."

The reading course session I attended also dealt with "understanding expository text as inquiry and argument and recognizing the text's implicit structure," as described in a BSC brochure. In other words, the teacher tried to communicate the idea that a "text" is not just words to be read, but also words that were written--consciously and deliberately. By asking themselves at the outset about the author's intent, students can learn to handle hefty reading assignments efficiently by extracting what they need to learn.

This method struck me as an effective one for dealing with quantitative reading demands, but I wondered if it could speak to the difficulties my tutees had had in unraveling the subtleties of a short story. In reply, Ducey acknowledged that "some passages are unusually dense or rich, and they demand close reading," a technique that the course encourages students to apply in those cases.

The crux of the BSC approach is to make reading and studying into a conscious activity, in which students are aware of which passages they choose to read and at what level of detail. Such discernment in reading a text and in structuring ideas is critical to the act of writing, especially the kind expected in Expos. The professed goal of Expos, according to director Nancy Sommers, is to "move from summary to interpretation," which, in turn, "introduces students to the enterprise of scholarship."

When the BSC class and Expos both accomplish their purported goals, the two ought to dovetail beautifully. Students learn basic reading and study skills in the former, and then apply those skills to a deeper level of analysis through their own writing in the latter. According to Sommers, mere plot summary is precisely what Expos is trying to overcome. But through tutoring, I saw that students need to become aware of plot summary as such before they can distinguish it from exegesis--let alone formulate an original and cogent interpretation. "When you write," says Sommers, "you show who you are as a reader." Trying to assert a reader-ly identity in your writing is baffling, though, when you do not understand the plain meaning of what you have read.

Given the benefits the reading course can offer, it is puzzling that it is not a prerequisite to Expos. Granted, some first-years arrive with well-developed study habits and reading skills, but many also arrive with sharply honed pens and still gain from Expos. Like Expos, the reading course is styled, according to Ducey, as "fundamental to a Harvard education"--not as a remedial course.

Dean Pilbeam feels the departmental sophomore tutorials, in which students engage in close reading of and writing about primary texts, adequately teach scholarly skills. However, the first weeks of tutorial reading tend to inundate many sophomores, forcing them to sink or swim. Hall found himself awash in source materials again when he began tutorial this fall. "Writing for Expos is nothing like writing for psychology," he says. "There are all these numbers and statistics; I really have to stop and slow down." Hall thinks taking the reading strategies course has been a lifesaver. He now works as an assistant for the course, and would like to see it introduced into the standard curriculum. "If Harvard would integrate it," he says, "it would take off."

I found myself wondering how some of the first-years I had tutored were faring in their tutorials and whether they had sought help at the bureau. I spoke with Zeynep Fetvaci '99, a Turkish student with whom I spent many conferences refining already thoughtful Expos papers. In November, she was just beginning to get a handle on the reading for her tutorial in social studies. She faces not only the challenge of English as a second language, but also an immense quantity of very theoretical reading. "If you learn English in school as a second language," Fetvaci explained to me, "you do just literature, not psychology or theory." Had she heard about the reading strategies course? Yes, but with the self-sufficiency that distinguished her last year, she had decided that she could learn to read the sources by herself, with enough practice--and very little sleep. (When I asked when I might call for an interview, she said, "Oh, not after 3 a.m., please.") Since the reading course section that was being offered began at 8 a.m. every day, she thought she had better skip it, and get the extra sleep.

Part of the reason Fetvaci and the rest of us were admitted to Harvard is that we can clamp down and learn these reading skills independently. We can spend weeks of our freshman and sophomore years getting very little sleep, and many of us do. But since we are all expected to learn to read selectively but carefully, to identify passages that require close reading, and to search out the implicit structure of a text, why not attempt to decrease our all-nighters by teaching us these technical skills when we arrive? Then, in those extra waking hours, we can engage sooner in the real intellectual excitement that is the heart of a liberal arts education.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Miriam Udel Lambert '98 is studying Hebrew and Spanish literature. She is affiliated with Adams House.

Read more articles by: Miriam Udel

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