Reading is a lifelong adventure in exploring new ideas, worlds and stories. Through reading, we can continue to converse with the great thinkers and writers of the past, allowing their ideas to form and shape us even today.
In a classical Christian education, books are a primary tool in helping students develop a biblical worldview and become critical thinkers and effective communicators. Students who foster a true delight in reading will enjoy a lifetime of learning.
Reading well, however, is very different from simply skimming a page. It is a muscle that needs to be developed and stretched.
Even for the voracious reader, a heavy academic reading load can prove challenging. For students of all ages, reading can become a chore to check off a box. A 50 to 100-page assignment can become an anxiety-producing task that spills into late nights or weekends, a beast to conquer.
As a student, it might be tempting to solve this dilemma by skimming or even turning to online summaries, but educators who want to nurture a love of learning must help students become better readers, not necessarily faster readers.
In his bestseller How to Read a Book, philosopher Mortimer J. Adler writes, “One reader is better than another in proportion as he is capable of a greater range of activity in reading and exerts more effort. He is better if he demands more of himself and of the text before him.”
As educators and parents, our task is to help our students demand more of themselves and of the text—but not at the cost of their health or enjoyment of reading.
Below, John Choi, an instructor at Wilson Hill who teaches The Great Conversation 5 and Rhetoric 2, shares effective principles and strategies for helping students successfully navigate challenging reading assignments.
The 4 Principles for Becoming a Better Reader
Before incorporating practical strategies, it’s important to establish a framework that will guide and encourage a student’s academic reading journey. These four principles are not exhaustive, but they serve as a sturdy foundation for implementing the following practical strategies.
Effective reading is active reading.
It’s possible for students to go through the motions of reading—even actually read a passage—yet not be able to answer any questions about what they just read. Effective readers thoughtfully engage with the text, connecting arguments and summarizing key passages as they read.
Reading is a conversation.
Literature allows readers to converse with authors across time. There’s a reason our literature courses are titled “The Great Conversation.” We’re not only having conversations about what we’re reading, but we also believe we have the privilege of entering into ongoing conversations with the authors as we read their works.
We must read with integrity.
Reading is an invaluable tool to access and understand a wide variety of ideas and arguments. For some students, this may prove uncomfortable if they encounter ideas that conflict with their own worldview. Readers who approach texts with integrity devote every effort to understand authors before evaluating or judging their messages. Reading widely across genres and authors nurtures a true delight in learning and helps students learn how to engage with messages they might not agree with instead of immediately refusing to dialogue.
We cannot read perfectly.
If a student is a perfectionist, that student might be trying too hard to master the text. Pages upon pages of notes for one reading assignment is likely too much. No one can read perfectly—what a relief! The classics are friends we return to over and over throughout life, gleaning more each time we reread. That’s why it’s crucial we help students learn to read actively and also to recognize when they need to rest and set appropriate expectations of themselves.
arn mathematics, even while saying simultaneously that only some have a unique talent in that subject. In other words, we understand that the point of studying mathematics is not to be an award-winning mathematics student. But after watching an award-winning Senior Thesis speech, we can very easily be tempted into thinking that such notable and inspiring eloquence is the goal of Senior Thesis. We are tempted to think, “If I (or my son or daughter) can’t speak like that, what’s the point?”
Well, let’s ask that exact question. What is the point of Senior Thesis (called Rhetoric 2 at Wilson Hill)?
Too many classical Christian schools have found their starting point in answering that question from the Roman orator Quintillian’s famous statement that the goal of rhetoric is “the good man speaking well.” Whatever Quintillian might have meant by “good,” he did not draw his framework for understanding goodness from the Scriptures. And this makes all the difference in how we understand the goal of rhetoric (and thus of Senior Thesis).
Starting with the assumption that the Bible is not at all silent on rhetoric, why not orient our understanding of the purpose of rhetoric from the biblical worldview, starting with the scriptural exhortation to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15)? The biblical and Christian idea of love – not simply as feeling but as action – is the most countercultural commandment given in the Bible, and thus not to be found, much less emphasized, in the classical pagan orators. We speak, in all situations and with all people (“in season and out of season,” as Paul put it to Timothy), not for our own good but for their good – that is, the good of the audience, whoever that might be. This is rhetoric understood self-sacrificially.
This is why we teach that the first rule of rhetoric is “to know your audience.” Whatever I might want to say about a matter, I must begin not with myself but with the other. Whatever I might want to say about a matter, the most important question is, what does my audience (whether one person or a thousand people) need to hear if I am to love them well? If I am to speak the truth in love?
The most important point to see is this: rhetoric, understood rightly and from the Scriptures, is about being human in the full sense of living as God created us to live.
Rhetoric is not for the award-winners; rhetoric is for all those who want to see their neighbors transformed by the love of God. Rhetoric does not just prepare you for speaking in formal settings (though it certainly does that!); it does not just prepare you for the challenges of research and writing at the college level (though it certainly does that!); it does not just prepare you to assume primary responsibility for your own project and bring it to completion on time, thus giving you confidence that you would not have had otherwise (though it certainly does that!). Rhetoric prepares you for a life of loving God and loving your neighbor. This alone must be the high goal, the chief end, or we miss the entire point.
To remind my Senior Thesis students of the true goal of rhetoric, I often return to the prayer found in Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The true pursuit of rhetoric can have no other motivation.
Practical Strategies for Helping Students Read Well
X-ray the text before reading.
Before diving into the text, it’s helpful to get a sense of its structure. Start by examining the table of contents and any chapter summaries to gain a deeper context. For example, when beginning Augustine’s Confessions, students should start each passage by first reading the in-text summary to obtain a fuller picture of what they are about to read. With classical literature, there’s no need to worry about spoilers!
Avoid copious notes.
Developing a cramp in your hand from taking pages of notes will not make you a better reader, but thoughtfully annotating as you read is a powerful tool for reading comprehension. Note important ideas, key elements of the author’s arguments and principle themes connected throughout the text. Record questions with specific page, section and line numbers to recall exactly what sparked your curiosity. For readers reluctant to write in a book or parents hoping to keep a pristine copy for the next child, Post-it notes are a helpful tool.
Summarize the text.
The ability to accurately summarize what you just read is one of the most effective ways to retain information. Encourage students to write brief summaries of major passages to help them become more active readers and engage with the text as they read.
Record your favorite quotes.
Commonplace books, notebooks or composition books where students can collect memorable quotes are a meaningful way to nurture delight in reading. It’s also a helpful way to increase reading comprehension and capture a season of life through the lens of their reading list.
Schedule reading time.
Time management can be a challenging skill for many students. One way to help students build discipline in this area is by scheduling reading time. Mark times on a calendar devoted to reading informed by the student’s reading speed. If students continually struggle to finish their assignments, help them strategize. Allow them to create and execute the strategy (one hour a day every day or 30-minute periods after each meal time), and then check in regularly and reassess reading goals if needed. This process encourages independence while still providing needed accountability and support.
Get enough sleep.
Perhaps an overlooked requirement in today’s academic culture, sleep is fundamental to effective reading. Burnout is not going to solve a student’s problem; it will amplify the problem. Staying up late in an attempt to finish a reading assignment will only lead to poor active reading and low comprehension.
Reading as a Lifelong Pursuit of Loving God and Neighbor
At Wilson Hill, one of our core goals is to help students genuinely delight in learning. Our master teachers help them view learning as not solely linked to school obligations—but to a lifelong pursuit of loving God and learning about the world He created.
Our Great Conversation courses invite students into a longstanding dialogue about universal experiences, historical events and philosophical ideas. Contained in what are known as the Great Books, this dialogue encapsulates the questions that have been asked and answered since the beginning of time and has shaped every aspect of Western civilization.
The ultimate goal is that, as students learn to love what is beautiful, good and true in these works, they will grow in their love for God and neighbor. This is the goal in all of our courses and the true aim of becoming a better reader.
Principles and strategies are useful only in their end goal, and we hope that becoming a disciplined, active reader leads to students who are eager to use what they learn in literature to glorify God and advance His kingdom.