The Difficulty of Reading

Eastern Kentucky University has committed to a focus on critical reading for our current Quality Assurance Plan. As a writing teacher, I have always seen writing and reading as connected. We learn how to create a successful text by reading successful texts. This is so intuitive to us as teachers, but it doesn’t seem to translate to our students. I can get a fair amount of buy-in on writing. Students seem to understand that no matter what they want to do, they need to be able to communicate their thinking in words. But when it comes to reading, especially in my co-requisite classes, my students look at me with a combination of disgust and pity. I take the challenge, go over strategies, attempt to select readings that will be interesting, and they are still, mostly, unmoved. This is such a challenge. Many students will point to annotating as a skill that has helped improve their reading comprehension, but I don’t know if it has done much to remedy their fear and (seemingly) abiding hatred of reading.

This is a challenge I work so hard to overcome. And I wonder if this is an artifact of a testing approach to reading. Both of my kiddos are taking their K-Prep tests this week, and they both have told me about the reading section. They read long sections of text and then answer questions about the text. I understand the reasoning behind this kind of approach, especially to state agencies and governments, but it seems to be missing something. Like the magic and wonder?

As a kid I was a voracious reader. I was lucky. I understand this now. There was nothing that made me happier than a long afternoon to read. I read everything. And I liked the long quiet of reading. It was like a spell. Or someone whispering in my ear.

A comic illustrating a lifetime of reading.
My attempt at a comic.

Many of my students admit to loving reading as young children. But something seems to happen, right around the start of middle school, that turns them off. I plan to spend the summer doing some research about this. Not only on what happens to turn kids off of reading, but is there anything we can do to re-kindle their earliest love of reading?

The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.
― Ta-Nehisi Coates

How do we make our classrooms more like Coates’s library? How do we shift from “other people’s interests” to “discovering myself”? I want my classes to be open. I want reading to be magical. How do I do this?

Lynda Barry writes about how we stop drawing and dancing. She discusses the central idea of the image, something that is somehow alive inside a picture or a text or a narrative or a song. It is the magic, the spell. This combination of words, or colors and lines, or sounds can make something happen inside my body. I can feel something happening. I am changed by my experience of the image.

Do we ever talk about that experience? The physical feeling of witnessing an image, of feeling it embodied in some way? Of taking it in and sitting with it?

I teach my students that annotating is like hijacking the narrative. When you read, the writer has all of the power. But we can reclaim that power if we annotate. We get to talk back. This is the essence of critical reading.

Annotating has always been a source of real joy for me. I was participating in the magic. Adding my own language to the spell. And together, the writer and I created the image together. And it wasn’t always a beautiful creation, but it was something.

He quietly and diligently inscribed his love upon the page, pressing firmly as if to pin the words and their feelings to the paper. But since he could still remember what it had been like to want something with his whole heart and know he couldn’t have it, he said to himself, Now it really does feel like being alive again. 
― Chris Adrian

There is something missing. I admire EKU’s attention to critical reading, but I wonder if, before we can read critically, we need to believe that there isn’t some “right answer” embedded in a text that you can extract, if you are smart enough, through the hypodermic of higher learning. Quizzes and exams peddle that fiction. There are no quizzes in Coates’s library, except for the ones you create on your own.

How do you teach about or talk about something as strange and personal as reading?

…one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life. 
― Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

This is my struggle. But I think it is pretty typical for most instructors. Any ideas?


  1. I’m not an instructor or teacher by any means, but a couple of years ago I had to read Hard Times for my uni course, and I could not get into it! I then tried reading it aloud, really feeling the punctuation and the effects of the words. By chapter three, I was back to reading as normal, I had broken the back of it and was in – but even now if I have to read something and its just not going in, I start reading it out loud (sometimes just a whisper) and it does help – takes ages! It makes me realise how quickly I read when I read just in my head and I must miss certain words 😳 Also, I love your comic! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that reading aloud is a great way to feel the physical quality of the words, you know? I think that is a great strategy! I often have students read their papers out loud to each other- just to have that experience of shifting from thought to spoken language. But it is always a struggle!

      And thanks for the complement on my comic! I am trying to get more comfortable with my own drawing abilities! 🙂


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