Academic Reading Skills

Reading academically

Academic reading requires skills beyond what are necessary to read for information or entertainment.  Many students enter community college knowing how to read and write but not knowing how to read and write academically.  These students can be seen “straining at the boundaries of their ability, trying to move into the unfamiliar, to approximate a kind of writing they can’t yet command” (Rose, 188).  Academic reading asks the student to do more than read the words, it requires the reader to comprehend the text, identify and remember key points, and think critically about the text.  As with any practice, the more a reader reads, the better they become but simply reading is not enough.  Students need to be taught skills in academic reading; to enhance their reading comprehension and to improve their writing skills or they will not be able to succeed in college level courses.

Active reading skills

Academic reading instruction can be broken down into seven essential skills: “understanding vocabulary in context, recognizing main ideas, identifying supporting details, understanding transition words, recognizing patterns of organization, making inferences, and evaluating arguments” (Langan, v).


Students in remedial reading do not generally possess a large academic vocabulary and it can be difficult to comprehend texts even at the level of individual words.  Skilled readers encounter unfamiliar words in texts without much problem.  They mentally bypass the word, look it up in the dictionary, or know how to find meaning through the context.  When students do not possess these skills, encountering new words can be frustrating and instead of reading improving their vocabulary, it reinforces their aversion of reading.  Since understanding vocabulary is essential to comprehension, academic vocabulary is explicitly taught as part of the curriculum and learning vocabulary through context is the first skill introduced to students.

Learning words through context is beneficial for a variety of reasons.  It saves the reader time and frustration since they are not stopping to look the words up in a dictionary.  It helps to increase their vocabulary simply by actively reading because once a word is understood in context, it becomes a part of the reader’s working vocabulary.  Finally, it helps give the reader shades of meaning.  Unlike dictionary definitions which show the actual meaning of the word, context shows the subtle implied meanings beyond the definition.

Vocabulary is not typically learned from referencing dictionaries; it is learned through the context in text and speech.  Skilled readers automatically absorb new vocabulary as they read but remedial readers often must be taught this often-unnoticed skill.  New vocabulary can be learned by looking for examples, synonyms, or antonyms within the sentence but, when those are not present, readers can look for clues in context to give meaning to new words.  With example, the author will use the new word then give at least one example of the word, like dwelling might have the following examples in the same sentence: hut, igloo, mansion, and cave.  When an author uses a synonym, they will use a new word and a word that is like that word in the same or adjacent sentence.  This technique is often done to give variations in speech, but it is also a helpful tool for learning new words.  A third way is the use of antonyms, it is just like synonyms but it with an added step.  The sentence or sentences used with an antonym will use the new word and a word that is its opposite and often include a reversal transition word like but, however, unlike, or yet.   The last type of context clue is to use the general sense of the sentence to figure out the unknown word.  Langan writes “sometimes it takes a bit more detective work to puzzle out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  In such cases, you must draw conclusions based on the information given with the word.  Asking yourself questions about the passage may help you make a fairly accurate guess” (31). This is any context clue that doesn’t fall into the first three of the categories.  Since using context clues is a form of inference, I feel it is natural to extend the practice to larger readings and introduce making inferences next in the curriculum.

Making Inferences

“An inference is a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known.” S.I Hayakawa

Making inferences is a formal way to say to read between the lines. “When you “read between the lines,” you pick up ideas that are not directly stated in what you are reading.  These implied ideas are often important for a full understanding of what an author means” (Langan, 273).  Skilled readers practice inferencing, or draw conclusions, in conversations and reading naturally but for some struggling readers, this skill must be taught, practiced, and routinely applied.  Making inferences can be done using three steps: first, use information from the text, next, use prior knowledge like background information and experience with the topic, and finally, don’t go with the first inference – investigate other possibilities before deciding on the conclusion.  For the last step, it is good to explain how differences in prior knowledge or reasoning can result in differing conclusions.  This helps students to understand how learning builds on more learning and how different perspectives can create differing results when reading.

Key Words – List, addition, and reversal shift words

The third skill addressed in the reading curriculum is to learn to identify key words and utilize them to gain understanding.  There are three types of key words that can be helpful for students to identify: list words, addition words, and reverse shift words.  List words signify that a list of details is coming and include words and phrases like: a few advantages, several reasons, three outcomes, or various kinds.  List words are important to identify because they often inform the reader of the main idea and what to look for with supporting details.  With the sentence “There are three ways to trim a spruce tree.”  The reader is made aware that the sentences following this one are going to be about three ways to trim a spruce tree.  They can make a title for the notes “ways to trim a spruce” and confidently know they are looking for three supporting details.  By identifying the list word, the reader can identify the main idea of the paragraph and can anticipate what material will be relevant for their notes.  The second type of key word is an addition word.  Addition words signal the addition of a supporting detail and include words and phrases like: another, finally, third, or furthermore.  Addition words are helpful for finding major details but also show students how to make their own writing easier to understand.  The last key words are the reversal shift words like yet, but, or however that signal that the writer is going to modify or reverse the previous idea.  Many times, when a main idea sentence appears in the second or third sentence, it will include a reversal transition word.  Many students struggle with identifying main ideas and supporting details and teaching them about key words before teaching them to find main ideas and supporting details is a way to help them identify these important elements.

Identifying the Main Idea

The most important skill to learn for reading comprehension is finding the main idea.  The main idea of a text is the topic and point; “the general comment or point the author wants to make about the topic.  It’s the overall message readers are expected to take from a reading” (Flemming, 184). To find the main idea, the reader should first look for the general statement, next they should figure out the topic to determine the point, and finally the reader can look for key words like list words to find the main idea and addition words to identify major details.  To look for the general statement, the reader needs to look for the statement that is vague enough to cover the rest of the paragraph.  If the sentence is supported by the rest of the paragraph, then it is the main idea sentence.

Although there is an emphasis in looking for a topic sentence in many of the texts I have encountered, the practice isn’t as beneficial for understanding as identifying the topic and point and rewriting the main idea.  The topic is what the passage is about and can be expressed in few words.  Finding the topic can help a reader to assess what point the author is making about the topic and the main idea.  Another way to find the main idea is to look for key words.  List words signal to the reader that a list of items will follow.  Sentences containing list words should be carefully looked at to see if they may be the main idea sentence.  Also, if the main idea sentence includes a list word, that list word is often a clue to finding the details that support the point – the supporting details.

Rewriting Topic Sentences

It is important for the students to rewrite the notes so that they process them and understand them better.  Looking for a topic sentence is passive reading, determining the main idea is active.  Another reason a student should practice rewriting the main idea instead of relying on finding a topic sentence is that not all paragraphs contain a main idea sentence.  When the main idea isn’t directly stated, the reader must infer the implied main idea.  “Inferring implied main ideas is a two-step process.  First, you need to understand what each sentence contributes to your knowledge of the topic.  Next, you need to ask yourself what all the sentences combine to imply as a group.  The answer to that question is the implied main idea of the paragraph” (Flemming, 326).  If students are already in the practice of thinking of the main idea as a general statement that includes the topic and the point of the paragraph instead of looking for the main idea sentence, the transition to implied main ideas will not be as difficult.

Implied Main Ideas

When paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence, they have implied main ideas, meaning the reader must determine the main idea for themselves.  There are five types of paragraphs that are likely to imply rather than state the main idea.  These are paragraphs that list a bunch of facts but leave the conclusion open for the reader, paragraphs that open with a question and the main idea is the answer to that question based on the support of the paragraph but isn’t stated, paragraphs that offer competing viewpoints and neither viewpoint is made to be more important than the other, paragraphs that offer compare and contrast for two topics, and paragraphs that describe a study or several studies and leave it to the reader to determine the meaning of the research results.  Since there is no topic sentence, the students may question themselves or try to make one of the sentences work for a topic sentence instead of focusing on topic, point, and understanding the main idea.

Supporting Details

Once the main idea is found, the next step is to see how the author supports that idea for comprehension but also to determine if the argument is logical and relevant.  Supporting details are the facts, examples, reasons, steps, results, or other evidence that develop the main idea. With supporting details, relationship is introduced, the main idea is explained with the major details which are clarified even further by the minor details.  Introduction to this relationship between the ideas is a good time to show students how to take notes so they can access the information for class.

The Langan texts teach the students to take notes using outlines, mapping, and summarizing.  With outlining and mapping, the students are taught to pay attention to key words and focus on the relationship of the main idea and supporting details and with summarizing the focus is paraphrasing but both are ways of processing the information.  It is important to teach students a variety of note taking strategy including specific techniques for texts depending on their patterns of organization because not all note taking should be the same and not all students process text in the same way. Determining the relationship between the ideas and the patterns of those relationships helps the students to gain comprehension, remain active with the text, and gives the student the most efficient way to take notes.

Patterns of Organization

Looking at the structure of a text is a beneficial for understanding it and knowing how to take notes. “Recognizing the structure of prose is a great aid for students in comprehending and recalling text material.  Students who can perceive the structure that binds the ideas in text will understand and remember ideas much better than if they are viewed only as separate entities” (Readence, Bean, and Baldwin, 147).  There are many patterns of organization, or ways of presenting the material.  The type of relationship can help the reader identify supporting details and aid them with knowing what note taking strategies would be most effective.  There are six basic patterns of organization students will most likely encounter in their textbooks.  These patterns are definition and example, time order, basic list, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and classification.

The first pattern of organization, definition and example, is probably the easiest to identify.  With this pattern, a specific word is introduced, defined, and examples are given.  The first sentence usually introduces the word, gives its definition, and is the main idea of the paragraph.  To take notes on this form of paragraph, it is important to write the term with its complete definition and include any of the details that are helpful for clarifying the definition.  The main idea is to write and understand the word in the context of the larger text.

The second pattern of organization is time order.  One of the most important things to remember about time order paragraphs is that order matters.  These paragraphs usually show a series of steps or a sequence that must be followed in a specific order.  To take notes on paragraphs that use this pattern of organization, the reader needs to list and describe the individual steps that make up a clearly identified process.

The third type of pattern is a basic list.  With a basic list, the order doesn’t matter, only the main idea and supporting details.  To take notes on this form of writing, the reader simply needs to state the main idea and any supporting details that clarify the main idea often as a list.

Compare and contrast is the fourth pattern often seen in textbooks.  Paragraphs can be comparison, about how are two topics are the same, contrast, how are they different, or as more often seen, a mixture of compare and contrast.  The best way to take notes for this pattern is to write the things being compared and/or contrasted and list their similarities and/or differences.  A t-chart or box divided into four boxes are often effective graphic organizers for these paragraphs.

The fifth common pattern of organization found in textbooks is cause and effect.  Cause and effect relationships show how events cause other events.  To take notes for this pattern, the student needs to show the specific causes and effects from the paragraph and how they are related.  An efficient way to do that is to use bubble maps with the central cause or effect surrounded by the results or as a chain of causes and effect events.

The final common pattern for organization found in textbooks is classification.  Classification explains how a larger group is broken into smaller subgroups and gives information about those subgroups.  To take notes on this pattern, the reader should include the name of the larger group that is going to be broken down, the names of the subgroups, and a brief description of each subgroup.

These are the six most common patterns students will encounter while reading academically.  Identifying the relationships within a text will help readers have a better understanding and take notes more effectively.  The intertextual relationship helps with comprehension but there is another relationship to consider when reading academically and that is between the reader and the text, what I like to refer to as the readlationship.  Relationships in the text help the reader know how to take notes but recognizing the readlationship with a text helps the student to know how to approach and read a text.


Reading academically means to read for a purpose.  The reader’s purpose determines the amount of time a reader needs to take with a text.  The time spent with a text is a relationship between the text and the reader.  The more time spent with a text, the deeper the relationship will become.  I call these relationships with the text, readlationships and have identified four levels of readlationships to guide the student on how to interact with the text.  Each level can be associated to human relationships to aid students in understanding the rules for relationship and each has a different way to actively read.  These are the four readlationships: assistant, colleague, friend, and love.

The first level readlationship is an assistant relationship.   When a person needs to purchase gas or get groceries; they go in, pay, and leave.  Rarely is there anything more than a transactional conversation, there just isn’t enough time.  The relationship is just that of assistance, like when a student just needs to go in, get their information, and get out. Students don’t need to spend as much time with all texts to get their information.  Active reading takes time, but academic reading recognizes that sometimes, readers need to have skills to digest information quickly.  Students learn how to use key words to process texts and find the information they need for class without using additional time.  With effective scanning techniques, students can process less important texts more quickly.

The second form of readlationship is a colleague.  Here, the reader is spending more time with a text, getting to know it by working with it.  This is where the student will need to use the skills taught in the class and practice active reading skills.  Just like coworkers, the students may or may not enjoy the text, but they will need to become familiar enough to work with the text.

After working with a text, a student may want to befriend it and know more about it.  With a friend readlationship, the reader will spend more time with the text and read other materials to learn more.  This is where to introduce how to look for outside resources and to follow the text for more information.  It would also be a good time to visit the library or talk about research for classes.

The last readlationship is more rare, love.  When a person falls in love with a text, they will actively seek to learn more.  Beyond merely seeking outside resources, the reader will want to know anything they can about the text.  This readlationship takes time and internal desire to know more.  Like love with a person, this readlationship transcends the mind and touches the heart, it is beyond academic reading and cannot be taught.  When a person loves a text enough to study it in this way, they become an expert on the text.

By understanding the various depths of readlationships in reading, the skilled reader will know how to approach a text for class.  Learning how to approach the text is almost as important as knowing how to process it as far as efficiency. The skilled reader knows the level of engagement necessary for each text, knows how to comprehend the text, knows the relationships of the text, and the final skill, how to evaluate the text.

Critical reading

After all the basics are covered for academic reading, the final skills to introduce are how to read critically and evaluate an argument.  To read critically, the reader needs to think beyond the text to the author’s mind as it was written.  To evaluate the text, the reader can determine the author’s purpose for writing, the tone, possible biases, soundness of arguments, and look for any errors in reasoning.  Taking these steps will lead the reader to go from an active reader to a critical reader.

Tone and Purpose

            The tone is the feeling of a text and purpose is the reason it was written.  Skilled readers can identify these elements to see beyond the words on the page and into the mind of the writer.  Whether it is angry, interested, or matter-of-fact, the tone will show the feeling that the author is attempting to convey.  Tone can be tricky since there are so many possible answers, but it is important to get at least a general sense of the mood of the writing.  Determining the tone helps uncover the author’s main purpose for writing and possible biases.

Writers have a purpose for writing, either to inform, persuade, or entertain an audience.  When a writer’s purpose is to inform, the information presented is simply to give the reader knowledge on a person, issue, or idea.  Nothing is being promoted or argued, information is being transmitted.  In persuasive writing, the writer openly expresses their biases but supports their argument with well-chosen facts.  The purpose of persuasive writing is to sway the reader into the opinion of the writer.  The last purpose for writing is entertainment; some writers simply write to entertain readers.  Of these types of writing, it is important to look more closely at persuasive writing to evaluate the argument.

Evaluating an Argument

In college, it isn’t enough to understand and remember an argument.  Academic reading requires that the student think critically about the text and evaluate the author’s argument, both for organization and content.  When evaluating an argument, the first thing a reader wants to do is make a judgement or take a position in the argument but the first thing a reader should do is evaluate the argument.  To evaluate an argument, the critical reader can identify and evaluate the author’s biases and identify and evaluate the elements of the argument.


The author’s opinions about a topic are their biases.  It is important to identify these opinions to see if the author’s biases are well tempered and solidly supported.  In an academic argument, it is acceptable to point out errors in the opposition’s reasoning but not to become so emotionally charged that the opposition isn’t even represented as an acceptable option. For an argument to be sound, the opinions need to be solidly reasoned through strong support.

Elements for argument

When learning the essentials of academic reading, the students learned to identify the main idea and supporting details of a text.  In an argument, these elements need to be looked at critically to evaluate the soundness of the argument.  A good argument will have the author’s position clearly stated as the main idea and the support will be both relevant and adequate.  A well-written argument can be admired even when the reader does not agree with the author’s conclusion of the support.  However, when the support isn’t relevant or enough, the author has made a poor argument.

There are three ways an argument can be inadequate: the support can be lacking, the author can be trying to manipulate the reader, or they can simply have errors in their reasoning.  When the support is off topic or lacking, it causes the argument to be weak.  Irrelevant support takes up space on the page but doesn’t contribute to the argument while hasty generalizations or lack of support can also cause the argument to fall short.

Authors sometimes use propaganda techniques in their arguments to manipulate the reader.  Critical readers need to learn about these practices in order not to be misled into falling for them.  There are many ways authors will manipulate the audience.  Advertisers use these methods in a much more obvious way which makes ads a good way to teach propaganda because it’s easier to spot and incorporates visual aids and everyday life.  An example of a propaganda technique is glittering generality.  This is when the author says something that sounds great but isn’t saying anything of substance.  A popular example for this is the motto for the rainbow-colored candies, Skittles, to “taste the rainbow.”  It sounds good, a bit exciting and whimsical but it doesn’t really mean anything.  It is pretty fluff made to entice the reader without providing any reasoning or fact. Propaganda techniques all ignore the issue and try to use emotional appeals instead of solid reasoning.

There are two types of errors in reasoning, those that ignore the issue, like propaganda, and those that oversimplify the issue.  Propaganda is an intentional form of ignoring the issue but some of these errors are unintentional.  An example of an error in reasoning that ignores the issue is circular reasoning.  With circular reasoning, the author tries to use the point as the support.  For example, a person might argue that they need a raise because they are not paid enough.  An unskilled reader may agree but the skilled reader sees that the author is not giving a reason.  To make an argument, the author can’t just restate their position in different words, they must give support.  Arguments that oversimplify the issue are a bit more difficult to spot because they contain elements of the issue.  A common error that oversimplifies the issue is offering false alternatives, “either/or.”  Issues are rarely binary, but many authors present only two alternatives and try to win the argument by default instead of sound support while ignoring the possibility of other alternatives.  By recognizing the author’s purpose, tone, biases, and critically examining the main idea and supporting details the skilled reader will be prepared to take their own position on the text.  Also, by examining reading so critically will strengthen their writing skills and ability to present an argument.

Teaching students to read academically will improve their ability to succeed in almost every other class.  The skills may need to be practiced and relearned to be mastered but mastery of these skills is crucial to get the most of the out of the academic college experience.  To get the most out of the transformational college experience, there is another side to this curriculum which is the focus of the next chapter.

Works Cited

Flemming, Laraine. Reading for Results. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998. Print.

Langan, John. College Reading Essentials. Townsend Press Book Center, 2018. Print.

Readence, John. Bean, Thomas W., Baldwin, R. Scott. Content Area Literacy: an Integrated Approach. Kendall Hunt, 2017.

Rose, M. (1989), Lives on the boundary: The struggles and achievements of America’s underprepared. New York: Free Press.  

Creek on a winter day

Brisk gusts of wind

danced over the water

picking up its icy chill.

The sunlight peeked through

the clouds and streaked the air;

soaked the ground with its warmth.

Icicles dangled in the rushing

waters – threatening to pull stems,

twigs, roots, and small plants deep

into the swirling rush.  the winter creek

Leaping, the earth-colored dog chased

her stick, she saw it   there on the other side

she watched it as          water threatened to wash

it away, with                  trepidation, she watched

and planned how                   to reach the other side.

Down she dashed to         reach the other side.

Retrieved, relieved, she returns.

To repeat.  The grass, dry and brown.

The ground, a bed of pine needles,

dry and drying leaves, and icy dew.

In the sun, the ground became warm

inviting, firm but not unyielding.

Line stretched, taut – also unyielding.

Bait, left untouched, pole left forgotten

with enthusiasm, surrounding area discovered,

havens uncovered. Return, lunch eaten, and icy

winds returning, the sun retreating, and

day ending.  A tired and happy dog leaps

into the car, head out the window, sun

peeking through the pines. Car packed,

and gratitude for the creek, the pines

the mountain day, the dog, and life.

Some days are lived, remembered, magic

Some places are felt, reverberated through

the soul, through life, through rocks and

under logs, through roots, over sticks.

Never stopping, never faltering, the water

always changing but steady, never wavering.

More powerful than stone, the water, persisted.

The water would not cease and only gained strength

from the rush over and through the rocks of life.


Blood Moon Embrace


Standing with the cold on her skin
watching the eclipsing moon
He found her
Held her safe and warm
Gazing at the morning sky
Wondering at the universe
The moon hid from the sun
They felt peace and calm
with the joy of now
and optimism of tomorrows
Locked deep in the loving embrace
that steadies as it pursues the new
The world has opened and awaits
as the moon quietly returns.

Tracy Marrs

Blood Moon Independence

Standing with the cold on her skin
watching the eclipsing moon
She gazed at the morning sky
Wondered at the universe
The moon hid from the sun
She felt peace and calm
with the joy of now
and optimism of tomorrows
Independent but not alone
Steady as she pursues the new
The world has opened and awaits
as the moon quietly returns.


Mythic expeditions

Texting a friend from school
Across so many miles and months.
They both felt restless
Trapped in lives that just seemed to stand still
He spoke of upcoming travel
“I’m off to Mediterranean weathers”
How lovely a thought
“After the mountains”
She felt the yearning
The mountains inhabited her soul.
She thought of the upcoming winter
She was restless and lonely
Winter was coming
long months of ice and snow
Broken, slippery, dangerous ice
She like the ice, was breaking free into herself
‘Her husband’ finally saw they had separate lives
Separate lives for too long
They had grown use to living apart.
She reconciled herself that she had her mountains.
It was fall,
The air was crisp and leaves of varied colors
Sat in the stillness
She responded, dreading the impending winter
“I have mountains but they will be cold soon”
She had found her mountains
Surrounded herself and children with love
Sad that he had changed
He said he hated the mountains
Sad he no longer wanted her,
And would forever be gone from her life.
But she dreamt of some ‘mythic expositions’ His words hit that void in her soul
She had her mountains,
A quite conspicuous trait
Mountains upon her heart and chest and under her feet
She lived in, carried, and loved her mountains
And they would be cold soon.
Not soon, but this life doesn’t last forever
And then the mountains would be gone from her; cold and covered in icy snow
Her mountains would be cold soon
And her world would be frozen
She knew how to build a fire
They would still have their mythic expeditions
He hadn’t gone with them anyhow
Off for some mythic expeditions
Keeping each other warm through the storm.
On forward to live life to the fullest
Before the snow covers the mountains
Before the snow touches her soul.

By Tracy Marrs

So, I decided to write a casual blog …

Image result for fear of failure

Recently, my students read Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” for their class novel.  In talking about the book, I began to remember my dream from childhood.  It’s not that I really forgot my dream, it’s just I let it get dusty because I am afraid.  Fear is the thing that is holding me back – really nothing else, fear and time.  I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid – even before I could read and write, I wanted to write books.  There, I’ve said it, it’s out there and I won’t take it back.  I want to write and not just that, I’d like it if people actually read what I wrote.

So, what to write? I don’t want to get too personal, just want to start writing for now.  I was thinking I could do holidays – that only requires a once a month commitment – but then I missed April Fool’s Day, Easter, and May day – I totally did research for them, just didn’t get the writing out.  I did exactly what I told my students not to do – I got started, I got fired up but I let it fizzle with my inner doubts.  Why write this? No one will read it and my time can be better spent ______ fill in the blank (cleaning, studying, playing with the kids, learning guitar).  This time, I’m not going to worry who will read this because I just want to write.  This is not polished (obviously) and may be a bit unclear but that is my process – get it out there and then make it better in a future version and look back at this to see how far I have come 😉 hopefully, right?  Oh, and I did manage to get a piece out for St. Patrick’s Day – I think I called it snakes and clovers – something like that – it’s here on this site if you’re interested.

Writing this made me think of where I am right now in my life and it sort of scares me.  I am in transition – more specifically, I am in the conclusion phase of much of my life.  My three long years of monthly trips to school are over with my trip next month and I will have time off until I start my dissertation writing in the fall.  My students are in the midst of finals and I won’t be working for about five weeks.  My son will be starting school in August (AUGUST 1st!!).  I even realized that I am ending my training at the gym in two weeks.

What will I do with myself?  I’m not sure exactly but I’m planning on going inward. I will focus on my home, my family, and myself.  I plan to sleep in late (or at least lay in bed late), play with the kids, plant a garden, make my husband smile, and practice my guitar.  It’s not that I will have nothing to do, I just won’t have anything scheduled.  Like I told my brother, I am incredibly busy doing nothing all the time.  And hopefully, I will also do some writing – something besides the two papers due for my classes 😉

As always – I thrive off of feedback so I would love to get some comments on this or any of my writing.

Among Snakes and Clovers

Growing up in Southern California, to me, Saint Patrick’s Day meant wearing green, pinching people, drinking excessively, being Irish, and people eating corned beef and cabbage.  It wasn’t a big deal but now that I am older, I really like Saint Patrick’s Day.  It is a day of metaphor and stories.  Saint Patrick was a real person that died on or around March 17, 461.  He was born in Britain to a wealthy family.  At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and spent the next six years as a slave in Ireland.

During his captivity, he was a lonely shepherd and became a devout Christian.  Because Patrick was a writer, we know that he had visions, heard voices, and was guided by his dreams.   God spoke to Patrick in a dream and told him it was time to escape Ireland.  In a second dream, an angel told him he should return to Ireland as a missionary.  Following this guidance, Patrick entered religious studies for the next fifteen years.  He did not actually introduce Christianity to Ireland but he did popularize it.

Saint Patrick is not only falsely credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland, he is also credited with driving out the snakes.  Ireland is one of the few countries were snakes have never been native.  During the Ice Age, the island was too cold for snakes and later it was too far for snakes to swim. This myth was most likely a metaphor for what Saint Patrick really did, he helped Christianity to prevail over paganism in Ireland.  Metaphorically, for Christians, serpents are evil creatures.  They are low, they slither on the ground, and of course, it is the serpent that tricked Eve into eating the apple and introducing evil and suffering into the world.  In reality, the biggest obstacle to Christianity in Ireland was the established Celtic and pagan religions and celebrations.  Instead of trying to eradicate these traditions, Patrick decided to incorporate them into his lessons on Christianity.  By doing this, he helped popularize Christianity and thus banished the snakes (paganism) from Ireland.

What can we learn from Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick’s most popular stories are false but his true history has much to teach us today.  Patrick listened to his inner voice and followed his dreams.  As a shepherd and slave, he dreamed of his escape, return, and conversion of the Irish people to the Christian faith.  He knew the importance of his dreams and he not only recorded them but he allowed his life to be guided by them.

Saint Patrick’s true success came from his ability to compromise.  His goal was to bring the Christian faith to the people of Ireland. He was not the first missionary to attempt this goal but he was the most successful because he knew the Irish culture.  Instead of just trying to convince others to believe the way he believed, he learned about their beliefs and incorporated them into his own.  These incorporation made the Christian beliefs more acceptable to the pagans of the day but also more interesting and rich for those of us that celebrate these holidays today.  Think about Easter without the eggs, Christmas without the tree, or Saint Patty’s Day without the green beer (our modern day compromise of turning a religious holiday into a secular drinking event).  I like to think that it was Saint Patrick’s example of incorporation that led to these other rich traditions of merged cultures that have become our new cultural traditions and old historical rituals to discover.

America has often been called a melting pot.  In a melting pot, all of the original ingredients are melted down into one new creation.  This new substance is usually most characterized by whatever element is most prevalent within the mix.  America isn’t and shouldn’t be a melting pot.  We can take our example from Saint Patrick and instead make a nice hearty stew of incorporation.  In a stew, all the elements retain their unique characteristics adding to the flavor, complexity, and beauty of the whole.  Carrots on their own taste great but when cooked in stew, the flavor remains but it is enhanced by the savory warmth and flavor of the meat and gravy.  Our country is great because it is not a melting pot, it is a hearty and ever changing stew.

Rachel and Leah – Wife and Mother

Rachel is the wife that wants to be a mother and Leah is the mother that wants to be a wife. Both women fulfill their archetype but are unfulfilled by their archetypes.

We are all balancing our archetypes
The story of Rachel and Leah has helped me to find some compassion for myself and others as I realize that the only way to fulfill an archetype is to abandon all other roles and in turn be an unfulfilled self.

Source: Rachel and Leah – Wife and Mother

From Wife to Mother to Married Mother


Rachel and Leah, sisters married to the same man and in eternal competition with one another is not the most action-packed or exciting story in the Bible but it is one that speaks to me in a profound way.  There are some parallels between the sisters’ stories and my own but not enough to explain the draw that I feel to this story.

In order to understand why this story became so personal for me, I turned to the archetypes.  By looking at the story on an archetypal level, I was able to recognize Rachel and Leah as wife and mother archetypes that are in eternal competition within soul of every married mother.  The lessons I learned from writing that paper are helping me find some balance and to be more compassionate for myself and others as I realize that we are all struggling with balancing our archetypes.  By looking at the archetypes through another lens, I hope to further my understanding of these archetypes and create a new, more attainable archetype for married mothers because they are not and cannot be only wives or mothers and need to find balance.

The Story

The story of how Jacob came to marry both Rachel and Leah and the fallout from this action is really tragic for the women involved.  While in search of a wife, Jacob saw and fell in love with his cousin, Rachel.  Jacob agreed to work for Rachel’s father, Laban for seven years in order to marry her.  He “served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen 29:20).  On the wedding night, Laban sent his older, less attractive daughter, Leah, to Jacob.  The following morning, Jacob realized that he was tricked into marrying the wrong sister.  Laban dismissed his trickery as custom and agreed for Jacob to also marry Rachel.  With this act, Leah became doomed to live the rest of her life as an unloved wife.  Not even a second choice, but only wed through deceit.

Things did not fare much better for Rachel.  Although she was loved, she was also infertile.  She wanted a son.  Leah had son after son hoping that each birth would finally gain her favor with her husband. All Leah wanted was for her husband to love her and recognize her contributions to his household.  “The names that Leah gave her sons reflected her hope that Jacob would come to love her because of the sons she was bearing him” (Otwell, 52).  With each birth, Rachel grew increasingly desperate. “When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob became incensed at Rachel and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Gen 30:1-2).  Rachel’s discontent threatens her only archetypal role as wife.  In the end of the story, Rachel does have sons but she does not really get to experience archetypal motherhood. She died in childbirth with her second son.

On an archetypal level, Rachel represents the Wife.  She is able to devote herself entirely to her marriage and her husband loves and desires her.  Leah represents the archetype of the Mother.  Since her husband is not interested in her as a wife, she is able to devote herself entirely to her children.  The problem occurs because these women are not archetypes, they are people.  Rachel is a wife that wants to be a mother and Leah is a mother that wants to be a wife.  Both women fulfill their archetype but neither is fulfilled by their archetype.

 Interpretation and Lenses

The stories of Genesis are specific and at the same time, they are general enough to be open to a variety of interpretations.  They are archetypal, both personal and universal.  In this story alone, the range of interpretations is vast.  For example, some critics see Rachel as a sympathetic character, desperate to become a mother and contribute to her husband’s lineage.  Others have viewed Rachel as a once-beloved wife that becomes intolerable in her single-minded desire to best her sister in a competition for sons that in the end, kills her.  My interpretation is personal.  I see Rachel and Leah as archetypal mother and wife in competition with each other because I identify with the struggle of these archetypes in my own life.  Like many mothers, I was first a wife and the shift between archetypes is a struggle I live daily.  This is the reason I was so drawn to this story, I identified the sisters as the archetypes within myself and other married mothers.

So many women fill the dual archetypes of wife and mother without realizing that they are separate archetypes. There are subtle differences between these roles, shifts that are made that need to have balance.  In order to gain balance, the archetypes need to be understood.  Archetypes are tricky because they can be so personal in interpretation.  For this reason, I used Craig Ballard Millet’s book In God’s Image: Archetypes of Women in Scripture to look at the archetypes of wife and mother in the original paper.  Her archetypes are based on the scriptures and on modern women.  Her lens gave me an understanding of the archetypes but I wanted to go deeper and understand more.  To do this, I will attempt to look at these archetypes through another set of archetypes.

Simply by choosing a set of archetypes to use as a lens, I am making specific and personal decisions that will color the findings of this research.  For this reason, I will acknowledge why I chose to look at the archetypes of wife and mother through the lens of individuation.  Along with the roles of wife and mother, I am also a doctoral student and community college teacher.  It is in these areas that my interest in archetypes meets my interest in individuation.  For my dissertation, I am working on a curriculum that includes literature to encourage individuation.  This is what sparked my interest in Carol Pearson’s Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World.  To further understand both wife and mother archetypes, I will use the lens of the archetypes from Pearson to see where the shifts occur and where the need for balance comes in for the creation of a new, more realistic archetype for women balancing wife and mother.

Millet writes, “The archetypal wife is not simply a mirror reflection of her partner.  She is a woman who innately has within and who intentionally cultivates skills of intimacy, commitment, and love.  These are difficult skills to cultivate and difficult ones to exercise.  They require constant attention and constant work, but the rewards are also generous” (78).  These are some of the very same skills required for motherhood but the attention and focus for these skills are changed.    Wives and mothers contain elements of all of these, some more than others.  This lens is my own and is therefore limited by my knowledge, experiences, and interests.

The Journey

In her book, Pearson divides the hero’s journey and the archetypes as follows: the preparation for the journey – innocent, orphan, warrior, and caregiver, the journey – seeker, lover, destroyer, creator, and the return – ruler, magician, sage, and fool. “The journey of the Ego (preparation) teaches us how to be safe and successful in the world; the journey of the Soul (journey) helps us become real and authentic as we encounter the deepest mysteries of life; and the journey of the Self (return) shows us the way to find and express our authenticity, power, and freedom” (Pearson 27-28).  While a mother and wife can contain the elements of all of these archetypes, I argue that she is most likely in the second stage – the journey.  As a person, she may develop and experience elements of the return but as the archetypal wife and mother, her role is dependent on relationship with others and Soul, not of Self.  It is important to keep the distinction between the archetypal wife and mother and the “real” wife and mother.  For this reason, I will not include the last five archetypes in this paper and will conclude with our most complicated aspect in a life, love.

Married Mother

Not all married women are mothers and not all mothers are wives but those that are inhabiting both of these roles know that there can be direct conflict of these archetypes.  In fact, Millet never mentions children in the chapter on wives.  Children automatically change a woman’s role to include the mother archetype so she can no longer be a pure wife archetype. If a married mother tried to be a wife archetype, her children would suffer and that would not be good for the marriage just like a mother completely switching to the mother archetype is not good for a marriage.  In order to give married mothers an archetype that is more about balance, I identified a third archetype, I simply call it the Married Mother.

The Married Mother realizes that in order for her husband to be happy, she needs to be a mother and in order for her children to be happy, she needs to be a wife, and most importantly, in order for her to achieve her own happiness, she needs to find self-awareness and balance. The Married Mother needs to balance the relationships and archetypes.  A mother simply cannot spend the amount of time and attention on keeping the house clean, making meals, having relationship time with her husband, maintaining her appearance, or on any of her many former activities from her wife archetype days.  In reality, this balance is not possible but this is the ideal. The Married Mother is one that has managed to attain this balance.

When the wife becomes a mother, the husband also becomes a father.  She can easily lose herself in her new archetype to the point that her husband feels unloved and uncared for.  He has also had a transition of archetype to deal with and has his own new needs.  He may become angry or frustrated at the situation and since he loves his new children, he takes his anger out in other ways which harms the marriage.  Both parents are dealing with the loss of their old archetype but they are also dealing with the loss of the other’s archetype.

This disconnect from the former archetypes of the new mother can lead to problems with the other areas of her life, like it did for me with my classes and marriage.  I became so immersed in the Mother that I let the other areas and relationships slide, to a point, this is expected.  The problem is when the mother does not return her attentions to her former archetypes that she risks losing those roles.  If the mother does not realize that she has lost her wife archetype, she becomes at risk of losing her husband’s affections (like Leah and even at one point Rachel).  She may lose the relationship that creates the archetype and would simply live without that part of her Soul.  Some people lose other archetypes when taking the new role as mother, many quit school or work, and some, often not by choice, quit the archetype of wife.

How do we avoid losing our archetypes when we take on new roles?  It is all about balance. This is the question for every person, no matter what archetypes they are living.  To balance school, work, motherhood, family, my need to create, and all of the things that make me who I am will be a constant struggle for balance.  I will never be able to fill any of my archetypes without feeling dissatisfaction with my performance in other areas of my life.  This is true for everyone, it is archetypal.

The idea that we can balance the two archetypes, the idea that Rachel and Leah can unite, and the idea that any person could or should ever BE an archetype are not realistic but we can hope for clarity.  To do this, I will look at seven archetypes as applied to Wife, Mother, and Married Mother.  Some of the archetypes are important for the roles of wife, mother, and married mother but other archetypes have more to do with the lack of balance that can occur when a married mother attempts to fill either the role of wife or mother alone.  For these second, more crucial elements of the mother and wife archetypes, it will benefit us to look in depth at the interplay between the archetypes within the described role and how they apply with subtle differences across the archetypes.

The Innocent

“The Innocent is the part of us that trusts life, ourselves, and other people.  It is the part that has faith and hope, even when on the surface things look impossible” (Pearson, 71). This archetype is important for wives, mothers, and married mothers but doesn’t change profoundly as a woman transitions from wife to mother and optimally, to married mother.  Love takes trust, it takes a level of innocence, of hope and sense that the impossible can be possible.  Innocence is not forever and in order to grow and mature, some innocence must be lost.  Traditionally, in order for a marriage to become legitimate, sex must occur.  Sex is a loss of innocence.  The innocence is lost but it can be something wonderful and more beautiful than the original purity.  In order for a wife to become a mother, sex definitely has to occur and the innocent, uncomplicated love the couple enjoyed without children becomes something different.  Once a woman has a child and enters the mother archetype, there is no going back – the love shared with the couple will always be different – not less or more, just different.  The new love is more complex, it is deeper in many ways because it is shared with children and complicated because it requires balance.  “When Adam and Eve choose knowledge over innocence, they open to receive life in all its fullness, which includes both pleasure and pain” (Pearson, 109).  The Innocent will maintain the balance of hope, love, and trust but as a woman becomes wife, mother, or married mother – she steps away from the world of maidenhood and innocence.

The Orphan

The Orphan also experiences a “fall,” a loss of innocence but it has a different effect.  “The Innocent uses the experience to try harder, to have greater faith, to be more perfect and lovable, to be more worthy.  The Orphan sees it as demonstrating the essential truth that we are all on our own” (Pearson, 82).  The Orphan seems, to me, inappropriate for our archetypes.  It is in direct conflict with the idea of relationships which is the basis for these archetypes.  There is no wife, mother, or married mother without others, without relationship.

The Warrior

“The Warrior within each of us calls us to have courage, strength, and integrity; the capacity to make goals and stick to them; and the ability to fight, when necessary, for ourselves or others. … Warrioring is about claiming our power in the world, establishing our place in the world, and making the world a better place” (Pearson, 95).  This one gets tricky and must be looked at through our archetypal lenses.

Warrior Wife

As a warrior, the Wife expresses these traits in her marriage.  “Part of the problem in discussing the archetypal wife is that we tend first to think in terms of stereotypes, and the stereotypical wife is very different from (the archetypal wife).  The little woman who sacrifices her name and herself to her husband’s every whim, and who cannot know herself apart from his reaction to her, is a negative and destructive picture of what should be an archetype of considerable power” (Millet, 77).  An archetypal wife is powerful and it is an important part of her role that she have the strength to care for her husband, household, and marriage.  The wife must also be a challenge for her husband.  The partners need to challenge each other over time in order for growth and maturity to occur.

Warrior Mother

The Mother as a warrior has profound differences than the wife.  The mother will fight for what is best for her child(ren) above anything else.  This includes fighting with the husband and thus abandoning her role as wife in favor of mother.  Just like Millet’s chapter on wives does not speak about children, her chapter on mothers does not mention the father until it gets to the shadow side of the archetype, in other words, what happens when a person loses themselves in the archetype.

Warrior Married Mother

The warrior mother will at times need to assert herself with her husband in order to do what she feels is best for her children but she will also need to be firm with her children in order to protect her marriage.  She will know how to balance the two as to not harm the relationships with her husband or child.  Not all battles are worth fighting and as a warrior, this married mom knows when to battle and when to strategize.

The Caregiver

“The ideal of the Caregiver is the perfect, caring parent – generative, loving, attentive to noticing and developing the child’s talents and interests, so devoted to this new life that he or she would die, if necessary, that it might thrive” (Pearson, 108).  This archetype is clear for the role of mother but how does it apply to wife and married mother and how does the shift effect the relationships?

The Wife

A caregiver is more than an ideal parent, it is an ideal giver of care.  As a caregiver, a wife takes care to the needs of her husband.  She shows him love and takes care of his needs.  Unlike with a child, the husband can thrive on his own but like with a child, her support can aid in the success of the one receiving care.  The caregiving wife puts the needs of her marriage above all other needs.  If it is in jeopardy, she will give it what it needs to thrive; including time, energy, and love – even at the cost of other relationships or self.  This is ideal for the archetype but not for the mother or the self.

The Mother

The caregiving mother, apart from being ideal for the child, is not ideal for the husband or self.  Pearson says the caregiver would die in order that her child could thrive.  By extension, it can be assumed that the caregiving mother would allow relationships to die in order for a child to thrive.  Since the mother is only concerned with her child, she only cares for her child.

Married mother

As a married mother, the caregiver expresses her dual role with balance.  She is able to give her marriage and her children the proper amount of care.  Not too much care as to smother them and not so little that they don’t feel loved.  There will be times that the needs of the child and husband conflict but the ideal married mother knows how to balance these needs.

The Seeker

“The Seeker seeks to find a better future of found a more perfect world” (Pearson, 124).  There are many ways in which the wife, the mother and the married mother are seekers but there is no real conflict between the archetypes and what is being sought.

The Destroyer

“Seeking is active; we feel like we choose it.  But initiation, especially under the reign of the Destroyer, chooses us” (Pearson, 136).  Like the Seeker, the Destroyer is also an important part of Wife, Mother, and Married Mother.  It is what allows for metamorphosis and growth.  The creation of the new roles, from mother, wife or married mother is also a sense of destruction.  The wife archetype is destroyed by creation of the mother archetype and the adoption of the married mother is to destroy the attempt toward mother or wife.

The Lover

“Without love, the Soul does not engage itself with life” (Pearson, 148).  It is love that makes us human, it is love that makes us complicated, and it is love that brings us our deepest sorrows and highest levels of bliss.  “We know Eros is at work when our connection with something is so strong that the thought of losing it brings intolerable pain.  Without Eros, we can be born but never really live: our Souls simply never fall to Earth.  It is Eros – passion, attachment, desire, even lust – that makes us really alive” (Pearson, 149).  Love is so complicated and so personal. Within the archetypes the Lover is easy to see.  As the Wife, the lover loves her marriage and her husband.  As the Mother, the lover loves her child(ren).  And as the Married Mother, the lover shows love to both her husband and child(ren) equally.  It is love and our very humanity that complicates this archetype.  Humans express love in different ways and they interpret loving actions in different ways.  Husbands can feel unloved if the wife spends more time or affection toward their children and children may feel unloved if the mother spends more time or affection with their father.  It is only the Married Mother that can find this balance.  We are not archetypes and we cannot so easily maintain balance in any of the archetypal elements but hopefully by looking at them more closely, we have discovered ways to help us maneuver that delicate dance.

Works Cited

Artwork –

Millett, Craig Ballard. In God’s Image: Archetypes of Women in Scripture. San Diego: LuraMedia, 1991. Print.

Otwell, John.  And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977. Print.

Pearson, Carol. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Print.

Plaut, W. Gunther, Bernard J. Bamberger, and William W. Hallo. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981. Print.