Given the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on students’ analysis of nonfiction text, it is imperative that all teachers, not just English teachers, are conversant with some basic, effective and clear strategies to help move students toward deeper analysis of their reading material. The SOAPS acronym, which is widely used in AP Language and Composition circles, is one tool that all teachers should have in their toolbox in this era of informational reading focus.
I began teaching the AP Language and Composition course about seven years ago, first online through Virtual High School and then face-to-face in my own district. While the two courses’ content varied wildly, one consistent aspect of both of these courses was the use of the SOAPS acronym to teach students to read more critically. Having used this tool repeatedly for multiple sections of students per day for the past few years, expanding its use from my AP classes into courses with students in other grade levels and of a range of abilities, I am convinced of its simple power to help students read texts better than they have before they learned the acronym.
First, let’s start with the basics. SOAPS stands for the following:
When staring down a dense New York Times, Newsweek or Rolling Stone article, a student begins with this acronym, usually in a graphic note-taking organizer that I have provided, to make sense of some of the piece prior to reading the first sentence. The student locates the ‘speaker’ of the piece on pre-read by naming the author, but must go beyond that to examine this author’s bio, very briefly. This is my first teaching point with students. Why are there degrees listed, or professional books by this same author, listed after his/her name? What do these degrees and titles say about him/her, educationally, politically, etc.? Seeing where the author may be ‘coming from’ before reading her work can activate much-needed schema in the reader’s mind prior to attacking the text.
Other pre-reading aspects of SOAPS that students must investigate are subject, occasion, and audience. Once we know who wrote a piece, it logically follows that we would want to know what the text will be about—subject; we can find this out by observing the title, subtitles and photos/images that accompany the piece. We can try to ascertain the audience—anticipated readers of the piece—by first determining the occasion of the text’s initial publication/delivery. Is the speaker writing to a very specific audience—e.g. females, teens, Hispanics, Ph.D. candidates? Simply looking at the date, time, and/or location of the piece’s publication speaks volumes—e.g. at a civil rights rally (past=racial equality, present= gay rights), for a Catholic publication, in the year 1845. A text published in The New Republic versus in The National Review will have quite a different bias inherent, and students need to understand that all of these components are what make a text speak to its readers in ways subtle and explicit. At this point in the SOAPS process, students should now be feeling very confident in their abilities to attack the text through a first-draft and second-draft read.
Thus, SOAPS allows me to address many aspects of students’ prior knowledge before they begin to read the piece, which serves several purposes:
- find any gaps in cultural literacy or word knowledge prior to reading
- show students that a text is inherently audience- and speaker-dependent, not just content-dependent
- get them excited, angry or interested in the text because they already have formulated questions about the subject, or the author, or the occasion
The overall goal of using SOAPS is of course to arrive at students’ understanding of the piece—specifically, what is the author’s purpose in writing this text? This is a different question than ‘what was the article about?’ Rather, students being asked to discern the purpose of a text forces not only a summary of it, but one with intent and focus—why the text was written, by whom and for whom, and what is it trying to accomplish?
These SOAPS investigations of the text, both pre- and post-reading, can be applied to historical documents, scientific journal articles, and many more genres of nonfiction text across the curriculum. I constantly have students tell me how they find themselves subconsciously doing a SOAPS analysis while they read for their other classes, and how much such reading helps their comprehension. If that isn’t critical reading, I don’t know what is.
Pascack Valley High School, NJ