Guest Contributor: Beth Pandolpho, Mercer County Community College.

One of the challenges of teaching non-credit reading courses is that many of my students don’t read outside of class – at all. When asked what they like to read, I hear over and over again that not only are they not reading books, but they aren’t reading magazines, newspapers, online news sources, or even special interest blogs. They are unapologetic about their lack of interest in reading because, in their opinion, reading is “boring”. Their reading consists primarily of social media posts, emails, and texts, none of which (not surprisingly) are boosting their critical reading skills.

As a result, many of my students are not culturally literate. A question as basic as, “Who is the vice president?” generally elicits a hushed response. Many can’t name more than one contemporary author, philosopher, or politician. This lack of knowledge often hinders their comprehension ability as they lack fluency and are unable to make meaningful connections. When faced with inferential questions, my students are generally flummoxed; allusions, references, and unknown terms that are integral to constructing meaning are often given a cursory glance. To make matters worse, many of my students view remedial reading classes as implicitly insulting. For some reason, it’s okay to have poor math skills, but not poor reading skills. I often hear murmurs of, “I know how to read!” I tread carefully as I deal with a subject matter that can feel diminishing.

My goals are many, but at the minimum I want to build cultural literacy, boost my students’ confidence in reading difficult texts, and help them understand that being a good critical reader is essential to being a powerful and informed citizen.

Initially, we address these issues in class by providing context for all of our readings. I help build prior knowledge by sharing relevant YouTube videos, recent current events articles, and having students conduct guided research. I isolate terms or references they may be unfamiliar with, so they can identify them before we begin reading. We then collectively share our newfound knowledge before we read, so we are able to make meaningful connections as we read.

After we complete a reading, we challenge our critical thinking skills by working in collaborative groups to sort out answers to complex questions. We work to determine an author’s intent and tone; we consider the pros and cons of complex issues, and we consider the historical context during which a piece was written. Lastly, we consider all of this data to determine if our opinions are valid as we attempt to draw final conclusions.

I try to create a lively environment in which we are immersed in reading and discussion. . . where we are all equally valid critics; we work with passion and purpose, as a community of learners. We ask questions, we disagree, we research further, we draw conclusions. . . and sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re wrong. But we’re all reading. We’re all wrinkling our brows and we’re thinking. And we all know more at the end of the semester than we did at the beginning.

Cengage Learning’s Aplia assignments have helped to support my best classroom practices by offering students opportunities to independently hone their critical reading skills. In Aplia, students read small amounts of text, answer targeted critical reading questions, and receive immediate feedback. It is very self-fulfilling for students as they become increasingly successful on subsequent questions and assignments, and it motivates them to work harder. Aplia provides my students with the repetition they need to achieve mastery, and it provides meaningful diagnostic data for both instructors and students throughout the process.

My students have commented that they leave my class feeling well-prepared, and confident in their ability to move on to credit classes. At the end of the semester, they feel like college students, and I feel like I’ve done my job.

Beth Pandolpho is a Senior Adjunct Instructor at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, NJ and a Technology Power User for Cengage Learning. She’d love to hear your feedback if you have any questions or great ideas! pandolpb at faculty.mccc.edu

Share your strategies for building critical reading skills in the comments!