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March 2002 Issue

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What is the Omphalos of Your College Reading and Study Skills Course?

By Gary K. Probst


Today there can be found many different approaches to teaching college developmental reading and study skills.  The following approaches can be found not only in various colleges but also within the same college’s developmental reading department or program.  The reading instructor’s background, training, and preconceived ideas of what constitutes college reading and study skills usually determine the approach used.

The omphalos of a college reading course’s approach will be defined as the activity in which the student spends most of his or her time while in the program.  While there is overlapping between the approaches listed, the approaches listed below are the omphalos of that specific college’s developmental reading course.  The textbook used in the college reading class often reveals the approach. A major publisher of developmental reading textbooks is well aware of these different approaches.  This publisher currently advertises fifteen different college developmental reading textbooks.   Each of these textbooks uses a different approach to developing college reading and study skills.   However, each of the fifteen different textbooks claims to teach the skills required to become a successful college student!


English Literature Approach – The English literature approach uses a wide variety of readings on general topics.  This type of reading textbook appears as a watered down English anthology.  After each reading selection, there are several questions to answer.  There may or may not be a list of vocabulary terms given after each article.    Sometimes a vocabulary textbook with a list of X thousand words a college freshperson should know is used or a textbook that introduces words with Latin and Greek prefixes and roots.  The terms found in these vocabulary textbooks appear to be of two types.  One type is words the student already knows.  The other type of words is the student does not need to know in order to learn the information found in content area textbooks. 

English Writing Approach – The English writing approach combines a developmental reading and a developmental writing class into a combination class with the purpose of developing writing and reading skills.  Students read to write.  The emphasis of this approach is on developing writing skills.  This is because this approach’s practitioners believe that reading improves writing and writing will improve reading skills.  Different literature selections are used for the reading part of the course.

Book Report Approach – The book report approach has the students read any book and make an oral or written report of what they have read.  Sometimes the whole class reads the same book and discusses it.

Preacher Approach – The preacher approach is similar to the English and book report approach except emphasis is on reading selections that reflect the political, social, religious, etc. viewpoint of the instructor.  Students quickly learn that passing the course requires giving “instructor correct” viewpoints.

Counseling Approach – The counseling approach is centered upon ways to develop the student emotionally, socially, and educationally.  The textbooks used contain short selections telling ten ways to improve test-taking skills, time management, concentration, etc.  The Myers – Briggs or similar tests are administered.  The student is told of all of the college’s student support services that he or she should use to become a master student.

Lab Kit Approach -- The lab kit approaches can be divided into two periods: traditional and modern.  The traditional lab kit approach emphasizes using cards in a lab kit. First, the student reads the information on the card and then answer the questions about the information.  After answering the questions, the student checks his or her answers and records his or her score on  a student record sheet.  The student has no way to determine why an incorrect response to a question is wrong.   The emphasis is progressing through reading selections in the kit to new selections that claim to be of increasing levels of difficulty.  These levels of difficulty sometimes are referred to by grade level or by different colors.   (The objective of the course is to become a purple power builder.)

The modern lab kit approach uses computer-assisted instructional programs.  The student reads a very brief selection on the monitor and then answers a question about the passage just read.  The response the student receives to an incorrect answer varies from “wrong answer – try again” to a brief explanation of why one of the other responses is the correct answer.  The student is usually not told why his or her answer is incorrect.  In other words, what is his or her learning problem?  The emphasis in this approach is having the computer track how much time each day the student spends in the learning lab, what lessons are covered, and the student’s score on each brief exercise.   Some colleges require the student to spend a predetermined number of  hours in the learning lab in order to pass the reading course.  When the students have completed the required number of hours, they usually do not continue working in the learning lab.  This is because the students feel they have “served their time.”

Skills and Drills Approach – The skills and drills approach uses instructor developed handouts, photocopies of lessons from a variety of old reading skills textbooks, and uses a textbook that contains a wide variety of reading skills.  The reading skills are taught in isolation.  There is never any attempt to determine if the student already possesses the reading skill being practiced or if the reading skill has any connection to learning the information in a college textbook.

Elementary Approach – The elementary approach emphasizes learning all of the phonetic rules and exceptions.  It assumes that if you can pronounce a word, you will know the word’s meaning and be able to understand and remember the information in a college textbook that uses the word.   Try using the phonetic rules to determine the pronunciation and meaning to the term “omphalos.”  Some instructors who use this method refer to their students as children or immature young adults.

Dictionary Approach – The dictionary approach requires the student to study and learn the information in the front part of a dictionary.  The students have to pass a test on this information in order to pass the reading course.  The students are required to purchase a dictionary or sometimes the college provides a class set of dictionaries for use in class.  Most of the class time is spent answering questions on handouts about information found in a dictionary.

Eye Training Approach – The eye training approach uses devices to flash words or numbers that must be recalled.  Sometimes “Christmas tree” reading exercises are used.  A Christmas tree reading exercise is where the first line of a reading selection has one word; the second line two words, etc.  Sometimes the student reads on-screen words in sentences that move from left to right across the screen at increasing speeds.  In the past students used controlled readers and tachistoscopes.  Today, computer software is available that simulates controlled readers and tachistoscopes.  The practitioners of this approach believe that you will improve your reading comprehension by effectively moving your eyes, increasing your rate of perception, and using your peripheral vision to read more words at one time.  Some optometrists use these techniques with students who have medical insurance that will pay for this training.  It was reported in the news that this approach was used on a prior United States President’s daughter who had a reading/learning problem.

Current Events Approach – The current events approach uses weekly news magazines that come with a teacher’s guide which contains questions about the articles.  The student reads about and discusses current national and international events. 

Speed Reading Approach – The speed reading approach attempts to have the student read thousands of words a minute.  Various suggestions are given and practiced for attaining this reading speed.  On an infomercial seen frequently on television the person is told to use his or her finger to make a “z” on the page.  By tracing a “z” on the page with one’s finger, the infomercial demonstrates that a person’s mind automatically remembers all of the information found in the whole book.  A variation of this method is to teach the same skills presently taught in a regular reading class -- just call it “speed reading!”

Thinking or Critical Reading Approach –  The thinking approach tries to develop the thinking skills required for college success.  A textbook(s) is used that has the words “thinking” or “critical reading” in the title.  However, the skills in these textbooks are similar to reading skills developed in textbooks that do not have these terms in the title.  This approach, like the speed reading approach, appears to teach the same skills that are taught in a regular college reading class – just call it “thinking.”  (This writer once attended a reading conference session entitled “critical thinking.”  The instructor making the presentation demonstrated how to use the SQ3R method to read a textbook -- WOW.)

Propaganda Approach – This propaganda approach instructs the student in how to recognize the different propaganda techniques and logical fallacies used by the Soviet Union.  Since the Soviet Union has collapsed, local speeches made by politicians and magazine advertisements are analyzed for propaganda techniques and logical fallacies.

Change The Textbook Approach – When there are many complaints from the students, faculty, or administration that the reading program is not successful or doing what is expected of it, the reading program sometimes is analyzed and studied by a committee.   After studying the reading program, it is decided by the committee the textbook should be changed.  This is because the committee finds the textbook is the cause of the complaints -- the blame is put on the textbook or “the textbook is the culprit!”  Every semester or year the textbook is changed in the search to end the complaints about the program.  However, the new textbook is usually very similar to the old textbook.  The only thing that has been changed is the textbook’s publisher or the edition.

Content Approach --  The content approach uses watered down material taught in other classes as the information to learn in the reading class.  In this approach you find subjects taught such as Chinese history, word processing, introduction to computers, etc.

Smorgasbord Approach – This smorgasbord approach uses bits and pieces of all of the above approaches.  The instructor waits until a day or two before the reading class period to determine what is going to be the “approach of the day.”  Instructors who use this approach many times feel a semester is too short a time to learn all of the skills they need to introduce.  This is because over the past twenty years the instructor has collected a very large assortment of handouts he or she wants the students to keep busy answering.


The approaches used in college reading classes are much like the story of “The Blind Men and The Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe. Like the blind men, reading instructors have a different description of the skills required in a college reading class.  In some colleges these several different approaches are used by different instructors teaching the same college reading and study skills course.  In other words, the instructor who teaches that specific section  of reading determines the approach and skills a student does or does not receive.  Here are the last two parts of the poem “The Blind Men and The Elephant” with three terms substituted for terms used in the poem: reading instructors for men of Indostan, men and women for men, and reading skills requirement for elephant.

And so these reading instructors
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his or her own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

The Moral:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about college reading skills requirements
Not one of them has seen!


In order to determine what learning skills are required in a college reading and study skills class, the five phases of instructional systems design should be used.  The five phases are as follows: analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation.

The analysis phase first identifies all of the learning tasks that a student must perform in order to be successful in college class.  Then, each task must be analyzed to determine all of the elements or steps required to perform the task.  As part of the task analysis, it is necessary to describe the conditions under which a task will be performed and must by what standard it will be measured.

When analyzing a task, there are two types of standards: a course standard or requirement and a reading class standard requirement.  A college course standard determines the criteria or skills that are required to learn the information in a regular college class.  A college reading class standard is to develop the skills required to learn the information or knowledge required to become successful in a college course.  In order to develop the reading/learning skills required in college courses, the student must be taught and practice using the following skills. 

An analysis of the learning tasks required for college success reveals the following learning abilities a college student will have to possess in order to be successful in ONE average fifteen week college course:

1.    Read one or more textbooks with over 500 pages of information.

2.    Read, on short notice, outside reading assignment. 

3.    Learn between 400 and 1500 new vocabulary terms.

4.       Recognize, for each new term introduced, the following:

a.  examples not given in the textbook

       b. cause and effect

       c.  similarities and differences from other terms that share the same classification

5.       Know the study skills that enable one to learn information in the most effective and efficient 


6.       Know how to predict the different types of test questions that are used to measure knowledge

      of  the facts, concepts, and principles given in a college course.  

7.       Know which facts must be memorized and which facts can be looked  up in reference


8.       Know how to organize and condense the information in a textbook chapter into an outline that can be used for review.

9.       Know how to develop a study or review system that will identify what information is learned and what information needs additional review.  It is a waste of time to study or review information learned.

To analyze your reading program you need to become a quidnunc.  A quidnunc would ask the following two questions:

1.       What skills are not developed by each approach that are required to successfully learn the        information in a wide range of college courses from accounting to zoology?

2         What skills should be developed in my college reading class that are required to successfully learn the information in college courses from accounting to zoology?


I would be interested in your comments on this article.




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