Summer Learning, for Free

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beach scene

Free learning a stone’s throw away

Summer vacation is a great time for students and lifelong learners to read for pleasure; I’ve posted here before on a few good college-prep book lists available online:

Summertime to Read (2012)
Libraries List Books for the College-Bound (2011)
How to Create a Summer Reading List with Teeth (2011)

Another tip: if you’re on the go this season and looking for a great source for e- and audio-books, try Open Culture (billed as “The best free cultural & educational media on the web”). Your reading needs will be fulfilled: the site boasts 550 free audiobooks, “mostly classics,” for free download! It’s also a good place to go for free movies (catch up on your classic films); an impressively long list of free language-learning resources; and even college lectures and MOOCs in a wide array of subjects.

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Should Students Go for E-Textbooks?

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book collection

Decisions, decisions

Word’s out: while e-books remain popular, the regular old print book isn’t going away anytime soon. That can be only good news for college students, who nowadays often have an option to use print or e-textbooks in their classes and who have different personal preferences.

But which format is the best choice for students? Despite the trendiness and convenience of e-texts, is the e-textbook format appropriate for college learning? That’s a great question. A recent Wall Street Journal article addresses where electronic books might shine the brightest:
“Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.” (1)

If this is so, we know college-level reading is not “light entertainment”; in fact, college textbooks tend to be more along the lines of reference and practice guides. The material requires deep thinking, re- and re-visiting, and perhaps saving for test study and essay consideration.

That said, use of e-textbooks as well as open source material is widespread; many professors and students enjoy using e-materials, and it seems they serve their purposes. As a student, I’d wonder whether the text’s medium would impact my learning and retaining material for the class – isn’t that what it’s all about in the end? Well, according to a study in a sophomore-level Biology class, despite students’ expectations and great love for the e-text, the book’s medium actually made no discernible difference in their class performance. (2)

Given all this, my advice to students is to choose whichever book format suits your personal comfort level. My only concern with using e-textbooks as, by definition, they require intense, studious reading, is that you need somehow to actively take notes “in the margins.” Annotating your texts, or “reading with a pencil,” is a vital study strategy. If you can jot yourself notes and mark important passages easily and consistently with an e-textbook, go for it.

And happy reading, no matter which format you choose.

References and further reading:

(1) “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay,” Nicholas Carr, WSJ Online, 1/5/13.
(2) See “Technology Enhancement Tools in an Undergraduate Biology Course,” Educause Review Online, 12/10/12.
*See this interesting infographic from it notes that 88% of those who read e-books in one year also read print books in the same period of time.
*Finally, a notable piece pertaining to open source materials is “To Cut the Cost of College, Start with Textbooks,” Jimmy Daly, EdTech Magazine, 1/7/13.

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Summertime to Read

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beach reading

The beauty and reward of reading

When I’ve asked my community college students what they like to read for fun, I sometimes hear that they don’t have time to read beyond the required “school stuff” textbooks, that they haven’t actually read much for years, or even that they don’t enjoy reading. I sadly realize these students seem to be in good company: a rather bleak study several years ago from the National Endowment for the Arts indicates Americans’ time spent pleasure reading, and reading comprehension in general, are on the decline (1).

Professors can feel that decline chilling the classroom: we witness students’ limited patience with the written word coupled with increased confusion over less sophisticated writing. Though these traits tend to apply most often to students on the developmental-education end of the skills spectrum, evidence of declining reading is clear enough that it’s discouraging (and dev-ed students did, after all, graduate from high school).

But summertime also invites optimism: first, it’s a season in which students who need to read more have time to do so. Further, plenty of students DO enjoy reading already, and many others, I think, simply don’t realize the sheer pleasure reading can bring. Even if they aren’t currently engaged in a book, I believe most students understand, in the abstract, the importance of reading for general intellectual and cultural development. So then the question for students becomes “What to read?”

They may start with what catches their fancy. Here is a recent Inside Higher Ed piece from an instructor at Oberlin College who wisely encourages her students to read widely — excerpt:

“I’ve been encouraging students to consider all types of pleasure reading, anything that might improve their reading fluency and stamina: books, magazines, websites, graphic novels, movie and book connections, and audio books.”

Students also may choose to tackle book lists. Last year, I posted a couple summertime book lists links, and I also suggest doing a broad web search for “college prep summer reading lists.” This search will harvest scoresof possibilities recommended by schools far and wide.

In any case, I send my internet wish for young students to read happily and often, making it a lifelong habit; and may they find in their books a positive and nurturing sustenance.

Do you know of a great book list? Some good titles for students’ summer reading? Feel free to comment!

(1)  A relevant article is “Patterson, Proust, and the power of pleasure reading” (February 2008). From Reading Today, 25(4), 18. The NEA study “To Read or Not To Read” is found here.

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Libraries List Books for the College-Bound

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English: The reading room of the library of th...

Regular readers have an enormous advantage in college. College-level work requires advanced reading comprehension skills, and reading more will help you by

-giving you practice reading and digesting complex works, and
-imparting to you the knowledge and wisdom that books tend to impart.

To enhance your reading, check out these lists from libraries:
“Outstanding Books for the College Bound”
From the Young Adult Library Services Association, this site lists books by academic discipline. The site mentions the list “offers opportunities for independent reading and lifelong learning.”
“College Bound Reading Lists”
From the Arrowhead Library System in Wisconsin, this list includes titles in American Literature, World Literature, History/Biography, Science, Social Science, Drama, and Poetry.

See related posts on creating quality book lists here and here.

Image credit: Wikipedia — “the reading room of the library of the Wisconsin Historical Society, designed by Ferry & Clas and constructed 1896-1900, was restored in 2009-10.”


3 Must-Reads for College Prep Writing

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What’s the best advice I can give to those who’d like to improve their writing skills? Read. Read voraciously. Read material that challenges you. See here and here for more specifics.

For that frequently asked question, particularly by those who have been out of school for awhile, “Do you recommend a good book for general brushing up on my writing skills?”, oh, yes — but make that a handful of books:

1)       Strunk, William Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

A classic now in its fourth edition, this is a slim, concise volume that will help you with any form of college (or professional) writing.  It offers rock-solid advice and is destined to become a frequent reference, but it’s also charmingly written and definitely readable in a day.

2)      Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham, 2004.   

A best-selling, entertaining book that outlines the history and proper usage of punctuation marks in the English language.  If you fear your own punctuation skills may be deteriorating with every text message you send, this book is for you.

3)      A writer’s handbook of your choice.

Two very good ones to which my own English Comp students have responded positively:

Hacker, Diana and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.

Raimes, Ann. Pocket Keys for Writers. 3rd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.

*I’ve listed the most recent editions here…certainly, older editions are still floating around and most of the basic information will be the same.

How To Create a Summer Reading List with Teeth


Reading statue

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You’ve realized since second grade that “reading is fundamental.” You realize reading anything is arguably better than reading nothing.  But you don’t wish to read just anything.  You’re preparing for college, and you need to read (at least some of the time) books that will build your mind muscles. 

In an age of Tweeting, what’s a reader to do?

Create a good summer reading list, of course!  (And then read the books.)

Below are two websites with excellent suggestions:

1)       “101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers” from College Board (they publish the SAT test):
UPDATE 6/5/14: the link above no longer works.  See this page from

2)      “The Big Read” books (literary fiction recommendations from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” program):

…And a final tip:

3)      Visit your local library and talk to a librarian.  (Librarians also are available electronically nowadays, but human interaction is sometimes nice.)  Tell him or her that you’re seeking out classics and/or challenging books.  Explain that you’re preparing for college.  I guarantee you will get a delighted librarian and some great suggestions.

College-Bound? Sweat to the Oldies


The main reading romm of Graz University Libra...

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College reading requires sustained attention and concentration.  If your normal reading habits are heavy on web browsing, social networking, and texting, but light on actual books, your reading skills may need beefing up.

The best way to improve those reading skills is to challenge yourself by seeking out sophisticated material.  I suggest sweating to the Oldies: try literature from the nineteenth century.  (You might start with some frequently taught authors you likely already know, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Louisa May Alcott.)  While you read, have a notebook handy to jot down words you don’t know; look them up, and review the definitions until you do know them (instant vocabulary builder).  In the meantime, the long sentences and florid prose style will increase your reading comprehension and perhaps your reading patience…you’ll need both to succeed in college.

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