Saturday, July 28, 2012

How to Read

Here is a routine exchange from  my chemistry classes:

Student:  Dr. H, can you go over problem 38?  It’s a really hard one.

Me:  Sure.  Let’s take a look.

I flip to the back of the chapter and find the problem in question.  It is towards the end of the problem set which generally correlates with increased difficulty, at least as perceived by students.    

I begin by reading the problem aloud, occasionally making some notes on the board, pausing to give each phrase and detail a few seconds to sink in,  and when I am done I ask, “So what do you think?  Where should we start?”

Student:  Wait a minute.  Isn’t that  pretty much like like the problem we solved in class on Tuesday?  Couldn’t we solve it the same way?

Me:  Yup.  Let’s go ahead and try that.

So we set up the problem, maybe wrestle a little with the math and when we are done, the student says,  "That wasn’t  as hard as I thought it was.” 

This scenario has been replayed frequently, with almost no variation, in every chemistry class I have ever taught, from the introductory to the most advanced classes.  Typically, students think that it is the chemistry and math that are difficult when in fact, the problem is often just reading.  These kids are not bad readers; I suspect that they read non-technical texts very fluently.    They just haven’t mastered the skill of reading dense, rigorously precise scientific writing.  When I help them parse the information and extract the key points, they frequently know exactly how to take the next step.

I am reading a book called, oddly enough, “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren.  The title amuses me because if I really needed to learn how to read a book, I couldn’t learn to read a book by reading a book called “How to Read a Book.” (Ok, I admit that little bit of wordplay was a bit self-indulgent.  In truth, if I really needed to learn how to read a book, I couldn’t learn to read a book by reading ANY book, not just that one.)

Anyway, Adler and Van Doren make the point that we stop teaching kids to read in sixth grade which is when most students can read narratives fairly fluently, can extract the meaning of unfamiliar words from context and can obtain information from straight-forward texts. Adler and VanDoren argue that we  don’t teach high school students  to read complex texts analytically for understanding.  Yet, authors of college level textbooks expect them to do just that.   In arguing for better reading instruction, Adler and Van Doren write

“We must become more than a nation of functional literates.  We must become a nation of truly competent readers, recognizing all that the word competent implies.  Nothing less will satisfy the needs of the world that is coming.”

A pretty serious indictment of education, if you ask me.  Interestingly, this book was first published in 1942 and re-released 30 years later.   We certainly aren’t doing a very good job today, and I guess it wasn’t that much better back in the good old days.

I do think Adler and VanDoren are correct and agree that it is important to teach students to approach different kinds of texts differently.  Reading a physical chemistry book is just not the same as reading a novel, which is different still from a historical treatise or an epic poem.  The same book can be read differently for different purposes.  Reading is not a single skill and people can be very good at reading some kinds of books, but lack the skills to effectively read other kinds. 

I have been enjoying “How to Read a Book” and have found it very useful.  I have gained a few new skills and attitudes towards reading and best of all, I am better prepared to help students develop their analytical reading skills in my science classes. 

After all, they pay hundreds of dollars for those books—they should be able to use them.

Maybe textbooks should come with instruction manuals. Instruction manuals that DON'T need their own instruction manuals.

Yes, so many books.  So little time.
At the end of “How to Read a Book,” Adler and Van Doren provide a chronological list of  books by 137 authors that they feel are worth the effort of close and detailed reading.  This is a daunting list that begins with Homer, ends with Solzhenitsyn and includes multiple books by most of those 137 authors.  They are up to author number 22 before they even get to the Common Era!  I think of myself as being a little more than a “functional literate” but I haven’t read all that many of their recommendations.  Still, I don’t think I’ll  take on their list anytime soon.   I am at a conference, and today alone, I heard about six or eight books I really want to read.   Plus my own backlog.  Maybe I’ll get to Homer when I retire.  At that rate, I should get to Solzhenitsyn about the same time that I get to the Pearly Gates!  Good thing the last edition of “How to Read a Book” was published 30 years ago; otherwise the list would never end.

In fact the list of great books will never end and for that richness of human expression  I am indeed grateful!

1 comment:

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos--lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

    ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

    Thank you,

    Max Weismann