What is College Level Reading?

I am participating in a program run through CUNY’s At Home in College Program and the New York City Writing Project called Bridging the Space. It brings together high school teachers and college professors to forge a common definition of college readiness through a deeper understanding of what  happens in our respective work places. There are 14 of us, evenly split between high school teachers and college professors (community college and 4-year schools), and we meet every other week for two hours during one semester. We all work in either the NYC DOE (Department of Education) or within CUNY (The City University of New York system).

Last week we tackled the question,”What is college level reading?”

First we brainstormed our own responses and did a think:pair:share with a partner next to us. I have been thinking of my ideas for about a week now.

My idea of college reading is based largely on reading skills. I think any text  is a college level text. The text could be a challenging piece of literature (for example, Faulkner) or theory (for example, Foucault or Fanon) or it could be an easier novel (like the novel Girl in Translation that we are reading currently) that is used as an entryway for more difficult theoretical concepts (we are studying immigrant assimilation theories as well as Bourdieu’s concepts of capital through this text). I didn’t feel the need to rate books as easy, medium, or hard and only select what one might define has a difficult book as college level reading. I feel that a Young Adult novel could be college level reading if you approach it through the lens of psychological study or literary analysis.

Therefore, for me, college level reading is not about texts, it’s about SKILLS. Skills that can transfer across any reading material.

What are these READING SKILLS that a student must have to tackle a challenging text?

This brings me back to my first year of doctoral coursework at Teachers College. I started in a PhD program in Anthropology & Education (I later transferred out to an EdD program in Curriculum & Teaching), but for that first year I took a course called Anthropology Colloquium. This course had us reading one foundational anthropological text per week, students were charged with being the class discussion leaders for the entire 90 minute class, and the professors (4 of them) sat there and did nothing while we bumbled through an awkward two hours of class (insanely frustrating as a teacher, let me tell you). We read Durkheim, Marx & Engels, M.G. Smith, Wallace, Farmer, and–one of my favorites now but then it was my personal hell–Bourdieu.

The first time I sat down to read Bourdieu I literally cried. I cried because I was reading it and I HAD NO FREAKIN’ CLUE WHAT IT WAS SAYING. I sat at my desk, frustrated as hell, and I started to feel like an absolute failure. I told my husband there had been a mistake: I should not have been allowed into this doctoral program, I was most definitely not smart enough, I was a farce, and I should drop out. He probably did something wise like get me a cup of coffee and a cookie–he’s good like that–and let me work through my feelings of insecurity. After my meltdown, I went back to reading the book–what else could I do? (This is called reading stamina in terms of reading skills–at least I had that going for me.)

This is the passage that threw me into a hysteria:

Chapter 2: Structures and the habitus

A false dilemma: mechanism and finalism

The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g. the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which was be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience of rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them, and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of orchestrating action of a conductor (Outline of a Theory of Practice, Pierre Bourdieu, p. 72).


After my freak out, I went back to reading with a sense of determination. I read. I annotated. I looked up words. I tried to write out what I thought Bourdieu’s big points were in my own words (paraphrasing & summarizing) in my notebook. And I read some more (stamina). I used green tabs to locate places throughout the book where big points were made (combination of annotation & identifying main ideas in larger texts). I wrote main ideas on the side periodically to keep myself focused (again, annotation & identifying main ideas, this time by paragraph). I wrote “yes” next to things I agreed with and “no” next to things I didn’t agree with (arguing with the text), and I wrote connections that I could make in the margins (annotation illustrating text-to-text connection).


Scouring through this book right now, I see that I needed these skills to survive while reading this text in college:

Identifying main idea of paragraph, section, chapter, and text

Annotation skills (underline big ideas, circle unknown words, write connections in margins, write confusion in margins)

Look up unknown vocab. that impedes understanding, circle unknown words to define later if necessary

Paraphrasing parts of the text for deeper comprehension

Summarize parts of the text for deeper comprehension

Ability to understand the text enough to establish a basic argument with it

Ability to make connections to the text (text-to-text, text-to-self, text-to-world)

Reading stamina (the ability to keep reading when it’s freaking hard!)

I often bring this passage from Bourdieu into my classroom and share my experience with my students. I read it aloud and they–like me years ago–respond with a glorious WTF?!  I can read Bourdieu quite easily now. What happened in the past 9 years that increased my reading skills so greatly that now I can pick up a text and read it whereas before it reduced me to tears? I read a lot. I read books and articles that challenged me. And I wrote. More and more and more.


When I think of what it takes to be *ready* for college, I think largely of skills. College level reading is not a set canon of texts–it’s the ability to read anything a professor might give you and to extract meaning from it using a practiced set of reading skills that can come to your aid when a text is above your reading level. That’s how you become a stronger reader. Through struggle. College readiness is being ready to engage in that struggle because you have the reading skills to tackle any text.

And, I think it’s important for all of us who work in this field and who can read anything quite easily to remember that we weren’t always this fluent. That our dedication to reading and writing as a profession has built this ability, and that maybe, at one point, we struggled, too.

6 thoughts on “What is College Level Reading?

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