Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills

Steven Volk, March 29, 2015


Reading (Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome; Stefano Corso), CC

The “Article of the Week” has considered issues of reading a number of times [e.g., here and here], most often dealing with how much should we be assigning in our classes as well as the technologies of reading. The articles also addressed problems of novice vs. expert reading in disciplinary fields. This last issue has been quite noticeable in my own field, history. The goal of history reading in high school – most often assigned from textbooks – is usually intended to encourage memorization. As such, it is considerably different than the skills we are looking to strengthen at the college level. So, I’m always on the lookout for appropriate ways to scaffold reading assignments to help students read both for comprehension and analysis.

I recently found one such method discussed in the current issue of College Teaching [63:1 (January-March 2015:27-33]. In “Active Reading Documents (ARDs): A Tool to Facilitate Meaningful Learning Through Reading,” Justin M. Dubas and Santiago A. Toledo, respectively an economist and a chemist, present a practical tool that promises to develop student understanding of assigned material incrementally through reading. I’ll summarize their findings in this “Article of the Week” and encourage those of you with access to the journal to read it in its entirety.

We assign reading as either general background to inform broader understandings or as an essential element that will lay the foundation for specific class discussions. Faculty have expressed considerable frustration that students aren’t reading as much or as closely as “they used to” in a past (real or imagined) golden age. In any case, many instructors are trimming the amount of reading they assign (which is not always a bad idea) or preparing for class in the expectation that students haven’t done the assigned reading (which is a significant loss). Given the importance of developing careful reading as a central skill we aim to cultivate, giving in to a student’s weak reading abilities seems an unfortunate move. So, how can we insure not only that students are reading, but that they are reading for comprehension (something we can always check with a simple quiz at the start of each class), and, even more, reading at higher cognitive levels?

The Active Reading Document (ARD)

The Active Reading Document (ARD) was developed at Texas Lutheran University, a small (1375 enrollment) liberal arts university where over half the students are first-generation, and a quarter are Latino/a. It was created for students taking economics and chemistry in classes where a textbook was the primary reading assignment, but as I read through the document it seems perfectly useful for many genres of reading in the sciences and social sciences.


Marzano’s Taxonomy

The ARD asks students to develop a document that creates reading tasks at various levels for each of their textbook chapters (See Table I below). These tasks map onto Marzano’s Taxonomy (see above), a theory of human cognition that modifies Bloom’s Taxonomy in a number of useful ways. Robert Marzano’s scheme is composed of three “systems” and one “domain”: a Self-System (which addresses the reality that before learning begins, learners confront their own beliefs about the importance of knowledge, issues of self-efficacy, and, perhaps, assorted emotional issues connected with learning); the Metacognitive System (in which goals are set and monitored), and the Cognitive System (which processes the necessary information). The Knowledge Domain is about content: information, mental procedures, and physical procedures. [For more on this, see Robert Marzano and John S. Kendall, The New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, 2nd ed. (Corwin, 2006)].

The ARD works specifically with the four levels that comprise the Cognitive System and are differentiated hierarchically by the degree of cognitive control required to accomplish a task: retrieval, comprehension, analysis, and knowledge utilization. The lower-order levels (retrieval and comprehension) are about accessing and making sense of existing knowledge; the higher levels (analysis and utilization), concern the creation of new knowledge. The higher levels are dependent on having developed good skills at the lower levels.

Table-1The first task (with two component parts) has as its goal the student’s ability to reproduce the hierarchical structure of the reading, using visual representation as a method of presentation. This is a way to help students learn the content of the reading and determine what was most important in terms of vocabulary, concepts or theories. Visual representations can take a number of forms: mind maps, concept maps, structured note taking, or outlines. The second task has students vet the information through their personal experiences. Considerable research suggests the value of these steps in helping students remember and understand. Both are within Marzano’s “comprehension” level: making sense of existing knowledge. Proficiency at these tasks involves accurately breaking down the reading into sections and subsections, replicating the author’s structure, and presenting it with visual clarity. The goal is to create a concise display of the hierarchy of ideas in the chapter or other reading, not to include every piece of information that is presented. Task 1b helps this process by requiring students to discriminate between relevant information and that which is less important. These understandings are further strengthened through the 2nd task which asks students to present the key terms or concepts in their own ways (through their own definitions or visual representations).

Tasks 3-5 help students create their own knowledge, discover new ways of organizing information, and appreciate the interconnectedness of ideas, concepts and skills. They are related to Marzano’s higher order thinking skills (analysis and knowledge utilization). In the 3rd task, students are asked to uncover original connections within the reading and explain the rationale behind the connections. Task 4 requires that students tie new information to information previously covered in earlier readings or activities. The final task broadens this out, asking students to look for connections to skills or knowledge gained from other classes or subjects as well as for personal connections to the material. Once again, the research is quite conclusive about the positive impact personal resonance can have on learning.

Scaffolding the Introduction of ARD’s


Raaka, “Palm Reading Card” (CC)

The authors point out that such a set of tasks can be daunting for students with little exposure to active reading, and suggest that faculty carefully scaffold the ARD assignment so that students benefit the most from it. They recommend two approaches: 1) allow revisions to the original (draft) ARD, and 2) offer feedback before recording grades on the assignment. Instructors ask their students to bring their ARD drafts to class, which both strengthens class discussions and allows the students to further clarify their understanding of the material and to revise their ARD’s accordingly. It also allows more class time to be spent discussing higher order analytical issues. Students further revise their original ARD’s based on feedback from the instructor. While this can prove time consuming, particularly in very large classes, this feedback can be particularly helpful in introductory classes, for novice learners, and more at the start of the semester than in the second half. Draft ARD’s can be graded on a simple check/check-minus basis, with the lower grade only if there are glaring omissions. The final drafts can be graded in a traditional fashion, using a contract grading system, or, again, with a check/check-minus system.

The authors note that, “[t]ypically, after four fully-graded ARDs (six total), students will fall into two camps. Some will have realized the usefulness of the tool and have a strong incentive to continue completing them in a conscientious manner. Others have chosen not to pay attention to the feedback provided earlier in the semester and continue neglecting certain tasks (usually those that require higher order thinking skills). Either way, the benefits of additional detailed feedback are outweighed by the costs associated with requiring faculty to spend valuable time providing that feedback.” They suggest that, while they give regular letter grades to final ARD assignments earlier in the semester, by the end of the semester, they only assign check/check-minus grades, with the check grade for a conscientious engagement with the reading and check-minus if students don’t engage with any of the analytic tasks.

Research suggests that providing students with practice at ever-increasing levels of challenge tied to low-stakes feedback improves the chances of persistence and ultimately mastery of learning goals.

Dubas and Toledo’s article provides a sample rubric for evaluating final Active Reading Documents, which I won’t reproduce here. They also note the challenges associated with using this method to scaffold the development of students’ reading skills, not the least of which is a considerable time commitment on the part of faculty. They point out that “[w]hile the [time] burden is significantly reduced by introducing the gradual release of responsibility to students…it can still take away from other objectives.” Nevertheless, they argue that the tool was essential “in fostering meaningful reading of class material and well worth incurring the costs of implementation.”

Do you have other replicable tasks that you use to increase your students’ reading comprehension? Share them by commenting on this post or send them along to me and I’ll post them for you.

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