How Reading Comprehension Led To Formal Logic

Well, it would have, if I’d been a little quicker on the uptake.

Recap: In order to make sense of their course on High-Reliability Soldering, my students must read and interpret text that is both dry and fastidiously precise.  They are able to read everyday text, and can skim for main ideas, but have no practise with “analytical reading” (which I mistakenly called “inspectional reading” — apologies to Mortimer Adler), and no strategy for deciding which reading techniques they should use and when.

In my last post, I wrote about helping students learn a large amount of vocabulary quickly.  I asked students to choose 1 or 2 techniques that would help them understand and remember the meaning of each vocabulary item.  The choices I offered were:

  1. Rank by importance
  2. Draw a diagram
  3. Give an example/list other names
  4. Identify confusion
  5. Ask a question

I adapted these techniques from Cris Tovani’s excellent book Do I Really Have to Teach Reading.  I deviated only slightly from her suggestions:   She uses the term “visualize,” which I interpreted as “draw a diagram.” She calls them”strategies” (as do most reading comprehension authors); I don’t think they are strategies, I think they’re tactics.  But I don’t think I’ve offended against the spirit of the thing.

The following week, we went beyond vocab to interpretation.  As a comprehension constructor (Tovani’s word for a scaffolded exercise in comprehension techniques), I used a template for a process control plan.  I scaled back and only asked for techniques #1 — Rank by importance (summarize the inspection criteria), #5 — Ask questions, and #4 — Identify confusion (Decide what kind of evidence you will provide).

Strangely, my class worked at this with intensity.  Frankly, I didn’t understand why.  Process control plans are a tedious but necessary evil.  It started to make more sense when I read them.  They were surprisingly good.  I had accidentally put the students in a position where gaming the system led to high-quality work: the more concisely they wrote their criteria, the less work it would be to inspect their soldering.  Interesting result: the students mercilessly cut through the “shoulds” and the “recommendations” and the “guidelines” and pulled out the sufficient conditions.  In situations where there was more than one set of sufficient conditions (more than one way to achieve a Class 3 rating), they chose the shortest set.

I missed an opportunity here, but I’ll be on it next time: this is the place to start talking about necessary and sufficient conditions.  Most students are unfamiliar with this terminology, and even with the underlying concepts.  This leads them to have trouble distinguishing between a definition and a characteristic which… leads them to not understand the textbook.  In my list of critical reading techniques, I may replace “summarize important points” with “define in your own words”  (this probably works best with non-textbook sources, where there’s no glossary entry to regurgitate). 

Moral of the story: my students’ reading comprehension improved when they knew in advance that they would use the text to create an assessment plan.  Their logical reasoning improved when they planned to use it to assess themselves.  And this took me by surprise.  You’d think I had never heard of assessment for learning.

Follow up: I took another page from Tovani’s book and used student work to demonstrate some ideas I wanted to reinforce.  I found quote-worthy examples in every process control plan, and put them on the projector at our next class meeting.  The students seemed inordinately pleased to see their names next to example of best practises.  Result: some students modified their plans to make use of these best practises.  One student rewrote his from scratch.

Points they earned for the first draft: 0

Points they earned for improving their plans: 0

Improvement in reading comprehension and critical thinking: priceless


  1. No real surprise that student read better when they have something they need to do with the material. Having them write their process control plans, which required them to distill the essential parts out of the material was an excellent choice. They were doing design work on their plans, which is always more motivating than following someone else’s instructions.

    • I think you’re right — I could have asked for any task as the outcome of their reading, but it wouldn’t have worked as well as designing instructions for themselves. I’m trying to figure out if I can generalize this to other courses, where we don’t have a specification document to pit our collective wits against. Maybe I should be trying to design the course skill-lists to fill that role. Students would have to use their reading to design a plan for demonstrating the listed skills. Still thinking about this — need to learn more about assessment for learning.

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