I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating when trying to explain to students why adapting their writing habits for college or school work is necessary. In the same way you wouldn’t wear sweatpants to a job interview (and, for whatever reason, all the students seem to agree that there is no job where this would be appropriate), nor do you write for your classes the same way as you would write to your friends. Nor do you write the same way for all your classes; each discipline has different conventions that need to follow. This, I tell my students, is why you need to know your rules for using a comma or semi-colon correctly, or how to format your paper following MLA guidelines; each time you make a mistake, it’s like wearing sweatpants to a job interview.
But what about a student’s reading habits? Most of my students claim to enjoy reading; at least, they enjoy reading what they enjoy reading. As many of them put so eloquently, anything else puts them to sleep. So I ask them, how do you read when you’re reading what you enjoy? Do you see reading as a form of escape, where you can lose yourself in the words? Are you looking to escape when you read, or perhaps you’re transported to another time? When you do this, you are passively reading, allowing yourself to be taken wherever the authors intends to. You are also engaging primarily on an emotional level, and you’re brain gets to take a holiday.
There’s nothing wrong with reading this way. But, how has it worked when you’ve read materials that don’t “take you away” or engage your primarily on an emotional level? In other words, how well has it worked to read this way when you’re reading for school? Because, let’s face it, most of what you are assigned to read for school is not written for your heart, but written for your brain. In the same way a student needs to adapt their writing for a variety of circumstances, so too must a student adapt their reading strategies depending on the purpose and materials. Reading an academic essay or textbook the same way as you would a novel is, once again, like wearing sweatpants to a job interview.
There are lots of strategies that you can engage with a text as an active reader (note-taking, pre-reading, writing responses, glossaries, etc), but I like to tell students that they need to see their reading for school as more of a conversation. Question and ask questions of the author, even if he or she isn’t there to answer. Argue back with the author. Study the way the author is making their argument. If it makes you feel stupid, investigate why that is happening and work to remedy it. Stay awake, stay alert, and keep working to understand, even if all you end up with is an endless list of questions. And, above all, re-read again and again. The words on the page won’t change, but you will. And each time you read something, it’ll be a different conversation.
And if this makes it harder to read passively, even for fun, then so be it. Just don’t tell them that.