Paul T. Wilson, Ed.D., teaches College and Professional Reading at the University of Findlay, a course that provides students who need it with additional reading instruction to better prepare them for college-level work. He earned an Ed.Sp. (1977) and Ed.D. (1984) in teaching reading and writing from the University of Virginia, and a B.A. (1969) and M.A. (1971) in English literature from the University of Toronto.
Why did you decide to become a teacher?
In the mid 1950s, when I was in fifth grade, partway through the year twins joined our class. Jeannette and Harry (English names they were given on arrival) were refugees from Eastern Europe. Jeannette had better English skills; Harry was not so adept. Every week, we had a 20-word spelling test on Friday. As was common then, we traded papers, the teacher showed the correct spellings on the board, and we called out our classmates’ scores for him to record. Jeannette started out well, and got better over time until she became one of the top spellers in the class. Harry started low, 8, 7, 5, and got worse. At first, when his score was called out, he didn’t seem to grasp what it meant. But the week when his 3 was called, he started to cry. For the rest of the year, he got 3s, 2s, 1s and 0s. And he cried every time. I just started feeling that this was so wrong, and that I had to do something about it. I still do.
What is your teaching philosophy?
For my current course, my philosophy is simple: find tasks that students are interested in spending time engaging in, get them going, and help them to do better with what they are already working on. In other words, I favor a strengths-based approach to education. Identify your students’ strengths, then help them to improve at what they are already somewhat good at, and interested in.
How is language best learned?
Up through third grade, kids learn most of their words from the auditory environment. Beyond third grade, they need to be learning from more sources. The most efficient way to learn new words is through more reading, especially nonfiction.
What are some essential college-level learning methods that you teach your students?
Students who do the best in college spend more time talking with their classmates about academically substantive topics. This socially collaborative aspect of learning improves their thinking, and motivates them to do more work. The best students also do more planning, so in ENGL 145 my students learn a lot more about that – how to start thinking about important and useful topics before they start reading. This way, they have a better sense of direction for their work.
What is the most challenging aspect of teaching reading?
Time. Each class I teach meets only one hour per week. That adds up to 13 or 14 50-minute periods, so it is not practical to try to increase the students’ vocabulary size. But what I can teach them are compensatory strategies that cause them to perform better with college-level reading. Their main difficulty is not lack of intelligence. They are smart enough to be here. But they read somewhat slower than the average Findlay student, and they depend on low-level strategies, so college feels like hard work, which is easy to put off. I teach them to go faster by emphasizing comprehension and thinking, not memorizing. It is, however, somewhat difficult to change students’ habits, especially when they are working under stress. I wish I could have the students for 2-3 hours per week, rather than just one.
Which reading materials do you use in class?
We don’t assign a specific textbook. Instead, the students use textbooks and readings from their other classes. That way, this class helps them with their other academic work.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching?
I get a real kick out of it when my students let me know that they have been using strategies they have learned from me, especially when they realize that they are thinking better, and they see their test scores going up.
What is one thing you hope your students take away from your class?
What I’d like for my students to develop is an appetite for detail, a sense of compelling curiosity. “Let me find this out!” Then it becomes crucial for them to discover the information.
What have been some of your favorite reading materials?
When I was a kid I read two different nonfiction series: the “All About” books, on subjects like science, geology, physics, etc.; and the Landmark books about key historical events. I tend to read fiction in binges. Martin Cruz Smith is one of my favorite American authors. Stephen Hunter, a film critic, has a series of novels about Bob Lee Swagger that are startlingly good.