Students across the attainment spectrum struggle with wider reading. However, the challenges facing them are varied. For some students, simply motivating themselves to read beyond the classroom just seems too much of an obstacle. For others, the reasons are a little more subtle. Here are some strategies for you to try with your own students, to encourage the use of wider reading. This is vital if we are to tackle the depth and breadth of content required for KS4 and KS5 courses, as well as alleviating the burden on teachers of delivering every piece of content in the classroom.
When I’ve quizzed my own students about their wider reading “habits”, they look at me, puzzled. Normally when asked about wider reading, they just tell their teachers that they search for the information on the internet, or pick up an extra textbook. But my question wasn’t “where do you get your wider reading materials from?” I asked specifically about their wider reading “habits” and it’s the “habits” bit that throws them. Some students don’t find this easy at all.
Establishing and encouraging wider reading is more than simply directing your students to the odd article here and there. For it to make the greatest difference, it should be built into a regular routine that students have ownership of. This means that they should, in an ideal world, be reading beyond what you give them as a teacher, frequently and using a range of sources. The challenge, however, is that this is a skill that you must teach explicitly. Even most of your higher attaining students won’t pick it up on their own.
In order for students to read widely, they need to know, first of all, what types of information they should be seeking out. This means that they need to have some sort of overview of the course content. With KS4 and KS5 exam specifications being made publicly available, this can be fairly straightforward. The issue here, of course, is that sometimes you might want to narrow down what could be researched, as the depth and breadth of what should be learnt aren’t always apparent from the specification document itself.
For non-exam-based subjects, or even for individual topics, you might want to give students access to the titles of the subtopics being taught over the course of a term, so that they can conduct their research independently.
Secondly, you need to show students examples, both of the types of wider reading they should seek out and the types they should avoid. After all, if they just type a broad topic area into a search engine, they’ll be faced with millions of results and little ability to filter them. What I’ve done with my students is to give them a Wider Reading List at the beginning of the year, with specific and appropriately-pitched books, authors and online articles that I’ve sourced over the years. Each entry on the list has a little check-box next to it, so that students can keep track of which ones they’ve used during the course. This also helps me to identify whether or not the wider reading is actually happening.
The proof, however, is in the pudding and this is strategy number three. There is little point in the wider reading taking place, unless it makes an impact upon the work that the students themselves are able to produce. With this in mind, I ask my students to include evidence of wider reading in their essays (particularly at A-Level) and to highlight it before handing it in. This, of course, could lead to random quotations being lifted into students’ answers. But at least if those quotations are relevant and understood in context, it’s still better than if they had done nothing at all. It also proves to the students that they can do it, which in my experience, has been the most significant barrier to them completing wider reading in the first place.
The next stage is to reward the use of wider reading in a meaningful way. This can work differently in different contexts. For some students, a running tally of who has used wider reading and who hasn’t can be motivational or de-motivational, depending on the students. Another tactic is to give out or withhold marks in assessments, depending upon the use of wider reading. This can be especially powerful when teaching some students who hate to drop marks when completing high-stakes pieces of work. Do what works for your students and remember that each class is different.
Wider reading shouldn’t just happen in isolated subjects either. A whole-school approach is needed if students are to take it seriously. By departments working together and promoting wider reading in all subjects, not just their own, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Students who see wider reading as an essential part of “studying” as opposed to essential only in “Geography” will be much more likely to buy into it and create habit-forming routines.
Finally, wider reading should be encouraged for all students, not just the high attainers. It’s natural to expect that the students with high prior attainment will complete more wider reading than the low attaining students. However, it’s vital that we don’t settle for that. When we allow academically weaker students to opt-out of challenging activities, we increase the attainment gap between them and their higher-attaining peers. The longer we allow it, the more difficult it is for those students to catch up. It also sends the message that we expect less of them than the others, hardly a positive or motivating signal.
Not only that, but when low prior attaining students routinely complete wider reading, it makes a greater difference to their performance in assessments than it does for the high prior attainers. In my opinion, this is as much a moral issue as it is a pedagogical one. High expectations should be set for all students, especially for those who need more support in reaching them. After all, we’re there to push them all to reach their potential, not just the ones we find easiest to teach.