Engaging Students in Wide Reading

November 24, 2012


This is the third and final post in a series exploring ways of engaging students in literacy learning. The first post emphasised the importance of understanding the strengths of students and the communities in which they live. In the second post, I discussed ways of using that understanding to teach literacy in ways that really matter to students. In this final post, I will explore why reading for pleasure is important and suggests ways of promoting reading.

Why Wide Reading is Important

The 2009 PISA report concludes that: ‘In all countries, students who enjoy reading the most perform significantly better than students who enjoy reading the least’ (p13). Furthermore, ‘In all countries, boys are not only less likely than girls to say that they read for enjoyment, but they also have different reading habits when they do read for pleasure…[the gender gap in reading performance] could be predicted to shrink by 14 points if boys approached learning as positively as girls, and by over 20 points if they were as engaged in reading as girls.’ (p13). And finally, the report concludes that ‘While factors such as predisposition, temperament, peer pressure and socialisation may contribute to boys having less interest in reading than girls, boys could be encouraged to enjoy reading more and to read more for enjoyment.’ (p14)

So, it is clear that encouraging students to read fiction and non-fiction for pleasure is important. Moreover, with a good understanding of students and their communities, the many possible barriers to reading for pleasure can be overcome.

Practical Strategies for Promoting Reading for Pleasure

While working with Shawyn Jenkins (2009), a 9 year old, African American male third grader, drew up the following recommendations for his teachers:

  • Teamwork helps my dream work, i.e. it helps when there is a group of diverse and trusted adults all working towards helping students achieve their goals
  • Build on my past successes
  • Connect book reading to my world
  • Allow me to help select books, topics and activities
  • Provide me with a variety of texts on a single topic.

This set of recommendations is derived from a very small sample, of course. However, much of what this student suggests is echoed in more extensive research. It’s easy to see connections with Jeff Wilhelm‘s research, for example, and it also resonates with the work of Parris, Fisher and Headley (2009:157-167) who recommend that engaging reluctant readers involves:

  • selecting student texts on the basis of students’ interests and needs
  • building relationships between students and adults
  • giving students choices through such strategies as literature circles, sustained silent reading, and alternative assessment methods
  • making text relevant
  • connecting fictional experiences to students’ lives
  • establishing inquiry-based literacy projects
  •  frontloading students with background knowledge and comprehension strategies
  •  modelling good reading and thinking behaviours through read alouds and think alouds.

These last two points are vital. There is a substantial body of research that demonstrates the lack of effectiveness of sustained silent reading by itself (see for example Hattie 2009: 138). Where this strategy is employed in isolation, the reading comprehension ability of reluctant and disengaged readers do not improve. Therefore, any wide-reading program for enjoyment needs to be run in parallel with explicit teaching of reading comprehension skills and strategies (see Rose and Martin 2012 for a particularly effective pedagogy), i.e. frontloading.

In short, we are talking about teaching reading comprehension explicitly, but also establishing a school culture in which reading is valued by all members of the school community. This involves all teachers across all subject areas (and other school personnel) working alongside students as fellow readers and writers. Moreover, any reading program needs to make the most of the social world of students: opportunities need to be provided for students to share their reading (and writing) with other students. My own experience is that students pay most attention to other students when it comes to reading recommendations. In addition, schools could try:

  • providing students with access to books at home, including conducting ‘summer’ reading programmes
  •  publishing brief interviews with members of the local community about their reading and writing habits
  •  exposing students to real writers through writer-in-residence programs
  • conducting and participating in reading and writing competitions and festivals – by the way, give out trophies as prizes (just like a sporting competition)
  • publishing student writing, e.g. through readings on assembly; posting work on bulletin boards in the school office, the school website, yearly anthologies, mini-books for class or class library, ebooks and audiobooks.

The ubiquitous nature of technology affords an enormous range of outlets for celebrating and sharing reading and writing. So, be creative!


Literacy is one of the greatest gifts that we can give students. The suggestions in these three posts have contained ideas on how to engage students and help them appreciate the power of reading and writing in their own lives. However, the lives of most teachers are extremely busy and they need help keeping a focus on promoting literacy. This post, in particular, points to the need for someone in the school whose central role is to promote reading and keep students and teachers informed of new opportunities for reading and writing. Sounds like a teacher-librarian to me. And yet, in a short-sighted move to save money, the role is being phased out of many schools. In the medium to long-term, this will have a negative impact on school’s ability to promote and improve literacy. There is no doubt that technological advances have changed the role of librarians and libraries. However, schools (particularly state schools) need to take a long hard look at universities and public libraries where the role of librarian is still recognised as crucial. Why, then, are schools eliminating the role?


Jenkins, S. (2009). How to maintain school reading success: Five recommendations from a struggling male reader. The Reading Teacher. 63(2). pp. 159–162.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

OECD (2010). PISA 2009 results: Learning to learn – student engagement, strategies and practices (Vol III). http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264083943-en.

Parris, S., Fisher, D. and Headley, K.  (eds) (2009).  Adolescent Literacy, Field Tested: Effective Solutions for Every Classroom. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Literacy teaching so that it matters

November 12, 2012


This is the second of three posts about engaging students in literacy learning. While this is a big topic, the first post focussed on the power of knowing students’ strengths and understanding the ‘funds of knowledge’ embedded in communities. In this second post we’ll examine how to use these understandings to teach literacy so that it matters to students, is connected to the their world.

The suggestions in these posts are about engaging students, getting them interested, nurturing motivation. Unless students are engaged, the best pedagogy in the world is not likely to make much difference to student results. However, student engagement is a starting point only; by itself it is not enough. In the final post in this series, I will explore this point in more detail.

Literacy teaching so that it matters

Jeff Wilhelm (2007) describes five actions required for transformative teaching:

  • Teach so it matters: what is a real problem worth solving and connects to student interests and concerns?
  • Help students how to think and act like experts
  • Shift your stance to show-how (as opposed to know-how)
  • Recast yourself as a co-collaborator
  • Teach for understanding

For the moment, we will focus on the first of these.

Like others, Wilhelm argues for connecting school learning and the teaching of literacy to concerns in the world of the students. One way of doing this is to organise units around ‘big’  enquiry questions. So, for example, when teaching Romeo and Juliet, Wilhelm and his students seek to find answers to a question such as: What makes good relationships and what screws up relationships?

Other such questions (for a variety of curriculum areas) might include:

  • What is the significance of Barack Obama’s presidency for Australians?
  • Why does it matter that aborigines are not recognised in the Australian constitution?
  • What can we do to help people in need (e.g. victims of drought)?
  • Do voters elect the Australian Prime Minister?
  • Why was the World Cup important for South Africa?
  • Why do organisms die?

I once visited a high school in central Queensland that was located in a very small town. Facilities for students were virtually non-existent. In the planing stages for a persuasive writing unit in Year 10, the English teacher asked his class what would make a difference to them as teenagers. The general consensus was the building of a skate bowl in the local park. Through a bit of research, the students discovered that this would require agreement from the local shire council. As a result, the ‘big’ question for the unit became: How can I convince the shire council to take my views seriously? To cut a long story short, this was an extremely successful unit with a real life focus that really mattered to the students. And while the outcome might seem trivial, it involved students in developing a deep understanding about the workings of democracy, using language effectively to promote change, and communicating with those who held more power and whose value systems were not necessarily aligned with their own. As a part of the unit, they made an official presentation to the full shire council and ultimately the skate park was built. So, while the unit started from the students’ interests, it led them on from there, developing deeper understandings about the world and their place in it. In this sort of transdisciplinary unit, of course, for English teachers the trick is to keep the focus on language, literature and literacy outcomes.

Once a ‘big’ question is in place, all the reading, writing, viewing and so on in a unit is focussed on discovering answers to that question (and related sub-questions). In other words, literacy tasks in the unit come to have a clearly defined purpose. An understanding of purpose is an important element in students’ reading and writing success (Beuhl 2009, Fisher, Frey and Lapp 2012 and Hattie 2009).

‘Teaching so that it matters’ is evident in other approaches used with disadvantaged students. For example, my wife encouraged me to watch a movie called Freedom Writers. It’s the type of inspirational movie that Hollywood does so effectively. If you look past the simplifications and keep your cynicism in check, however, it is based on the true story of an English teacher, Erin Gruwell, who gave disadvantaged students a second chance through encouraging them to tell their own stories, and through the promotion of diversity. There was also a strong focus on projects with tangible, real- world outcomes. The Freedom Writers Foundation which she established still operates today, promoting her positive and inclusive approach to internal motivation.

Gholnescar Muhammad (2012) also reports on the success of a program in the United States designed for black adolescent girls: ‘The instruction was designed to charge the girls to use their pens in powerful ways. We wanted the girls to tell their stories to ensure their voices are heard’ (p204). One girl, Iris, speaks of ‘how the writing institute provided a safe space where she could openly express ideas without judgement’ (p209) and this contrasted with her school experience where writing instruction ‘that could help nurture her identities lacks depth or complexity of thought’. Muhammad goes on to observe that: ‘Often, teachers may select literature or writing topics that are relevant to the ethnic identities of students but fail to respond to other strands of their lives, such as their home life, culture, environment, language, or economics’ (ibid).


These examples demonstrate the importance of connecting school learning with students’ lived experiences, of teaching literacy in ways that truly matter. Moreover, the tasks undertaken and the text used must go beyond a superficial notion of relevance. This is not some simple, magic bullet approach and may require lots of persistence and sensitivity. Finally, as these examples also make clear, teachers may need to start where the students are, but it is important to move students on, to show them how to develop sophistication and independence in their use of language. With effective, mutually-respectful relationships in place, this can be achieved much more easily.


Beuhl, D. (2009). Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Fisher, D., Frey, N & Lapp, D. (2012). Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Muhammad, G. (2012). ‘Creating spaces for black adolescent girls to “write it out“‘. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56(3). pp203-211.

Wilhelm, J. (2007). Engaging Readers and Writers with Enquiry: Promoting Deep Understandings in Language Arts and the Content Areas with Guiding Questions. USA: Scholastic.

NAPLAN Persuasive Writing Preparation: Built-in or Bolt-on?

November 9, 2012

When it comes to the NAPLAN writing task, what is best: to build preparation into the normal curriculum or bolt it on as an added extra? My answer is that a bit of both is required.

Learning how to write persuasively is part of the Australian Curriculum: English. For example, listed below is just one relevant content descriptor from each of Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

  • Year 3: Examine how evaluative language can be varied to be more or less forceful (ACELA1477)
  • Year 5: Plan, draft and publish imaginative, informative and persuasive print and multimodal texts, choosing text structures, language features, images and sound appropriate to purpose and audience (ACELY1704)
  • Year 7: Understand that the coherence of more complex texts relies on devices that signal text structure and guide readers, for example overviews, initial and concluding paragraphs and topic sentences, indexes or site maps or breadcrumb trails for online texts (ACELA1763)
  • Year 9: Understand that authors innovate with text structures and language for specific purposes and effects (ACELA1553)

Although the last two are not specifically about persuasion, they point to the need for students to be able to write well-structured and linked paragraphs and being able to move beyond a generic formula such as the ‘five-paragraph essay’. All of these descriptors indicate that students need to be learning the skills required for the NAPLAN writing task as a normal part of their day to day classroom learning. In other words, the majority of preparation needs to be built-in.

On the other hand, there are aspects of the NAPLAN test which would not necessarily be a normal part of lessons, especially for younger students. A sample list might include:

  • producing extended writing under time pressures and to a previously unseen topic
  • generating ideas for arguments using images as stimulus
  • needing to substantiate arguments without access to resources such as books and the internet
  • knowing that when they are invited to write for ‘a reader’, they will receive better marks if that reader is more distant and less familiar (i.e. not family and friends).

No doubt there are further items that could be added to this list. The point is, students do require particular instruction to make them test-wise and this instruction needs to be bolt-on preparation that students recognise is specifically aimed at helping them with NAPLAN. As a part of this bolt-on preparation, students also need to review learnings from the normal curriculum that are relevant to persuasive writing.

So, should preparation for persuasive writing be built-in or bolt-on? Students need explicit, built-in preparation that includes plenty of joint and collaborative writing. However, in addition, they require an intensive burst of bolt-on preparation that makes them test-wise and keeps relevant learnings from the normal curriculum fresh in their minds.

Improving Writing (and Reading) Part One

November 3, 2012


Currently, I am conducting workshops about how to improve student writing. In some cases, strategies for doing this have been developed to a high degree of sophistication; Reading to Learn and Scaffolding Literacy are two outstanding programs. One of their strengths is the way they integrate and relate the teaching of reading and writing. Both, for example, use special approaches to structured, explicit guided reading as a precursor to writing similar types of texts. Both approaches also seek to re-engage students by providing them with success in literacy rather than reinforcing and perpetuating literacy failure.

Whatever approach schools decide to adopt, there is no doubt that (re)engaging struggling and reluctant students is essential to success. Although this is a multi-faceted issue, in the next few posts, I will explore some of the research in three areas related to engagement and success:
• challenging a deficit approach to student improvement
• connecting teaching to the ‘real’ world
• the importance of wide reading for enjoyment.
In this first post, we will explore problems with the deficit approach.

A common way of approaching literacy improving is to identify student weaknesses and problems. Then, various school personnel set to remediating and fixing the student problems. This is the deficit approach. Some researchers have sought to challenge the assumptions underpinning this approach. Luis Moll and others, for example, have proposed the metaphor of community “funds of knowledge” and Pat Thompson the metaphor of “virtual schoolbags”. These metaphors were used as the basis of work carried out by Barbara Comber and Barbara Kamler (2005) in developing teaching methods aimed at ‘turning-around’ student failure and disengagement. ‘These positive metaphors’ the researchers say, ‘allowed [teachers] to see their students as resourceful.’ (p5)

Funds of Knowledge

According to the metaphor of ‘funds of knowledge’, all communities have resources that often remain invisible and under-valued in the school context, e.g. knowledge of mechanics, building, gardening, natural medicines, animal husbandry. Communities often have networks of practice that allow them to manage and solve such matters as care for the young and the old, financial assistance, transport, management of everyday life with meagre income and assets, organising and running large scale events (e.g. netball carnivals). According to Comber and Kamler, ‘if teachers knew more about communities’ funds of knowledge, this might inform teachers’ curriculum designs, build their respect for the community and thereby enhance children’s educational experience. Consequently, ‘an important first step [is] teachers learning to be ethnographers of communities in order to learn about the specific cultural resources of communities and how they functioned.’

Take two minutes now to write down everything positive about the local community in which you teach. Include such things as:
• available resources (human, knowledge and material)
• networks of practice.
Now consider:
• How did you go?
• What use could you make of the resources and practices that you’ve identified?
• What more do you need to do and/or find out?

Virtual Schoolbags

The second metaphor is that all children come to school with ‘virtual school bags’ that are full of various cultural and linguistic resources. However, only some children get to open their bags and make use of what is inside while many children’s knowledge, experiences and practices remain invisible and unused at school.

For example, a literacy researcher once told me about professional development that she and a colleague were conducting in a school. After a while the staff had become quite restless and inattentive. The presenters were forced to stop and discover what the problem was. “This is completely unrealistic and won’t work in our school”, they were told. So, knowing they were to return again in a week or so, they set the staff a challenge. “Who is the dumbest kid in the school?” they asked provocatively. With very little effort, the staff were unanimous in naming a particular student (let’s call him Josh). “Okay, our challenge to you is to find out as much as you can about Josh before we return. That includes visiting his home and speaking to his parents.” A week or so later, the view of Josh had completely turned around: the researchers were told that he was actually gifted and talented. His father was a jazz aficionado and Josh (in the time before ready-made blogging software and YouTube) had developed a comprehensive, on-line database about 1950s jazz, including biographies, discographies and the like. The problem wasn’t so much that he was dumb, it was that nothing at school connected with his life away from school, nor made use of his skills.

An interesting finding of Comber and Kamler’s work was that ‘Many teachers observed that when they reworked the curriculum to re-engage alienated students, their entire class became more motivated and committed to the newly negotiated approach. The turn-around effect extended beyond the ‘targeted’ students.’ (Comber and Kamler, 2005)

The success of this assets-based approach has also been demonstrated in other projects. One very interesting one occurred in the Central Community Development Center (USA) with their positive youth development program (Wright & Mahiri 2012). At the end of a real-life project involving disaffected and troubled youth from local schools, Pepe (a 13-year-old, second generation Latino boy) who could not even decode simple words such as date and age, was interviewed:

Dana (researcher): I noticed that, in the beginning, you didn’t read out loud at all, but then it seems now you read out loud. Why is that? Is that because you’re getting help outside of here, like at school?
Pepe: No, it was because of this project.
Dana: is it? Do you have a tutor, though, at school? [Pepe shakes his head no.] Do you read or write with teachers?
Pepe: No. Well, I write, but read? Not really.
Dana: OK. So, you say that it was because of this project that you read out loud more. Why do you think that is?
Pepe: Here, I learned to not be scared and [not to] hold in your voice – to just speak out.

As a result of their experiences, the researchers recommend that student success relies on:
1. create a safe space for learning.
2. using engaging team-building strategies.
3. using pedagogical approaches that identify and build on youths’ assets
4. employing youth literacy-development apprenticeships by adults and by young people.
5. connecting learning to the real world.

To get started on this approach:
What to look for: evidence of children’s capacities, interests, strengths and cultural investments
How to find it: speak to students, visit classes where s/he excels, watch him/her playing sport, visit home, make time to see parents after school
Then, think about how this information can be used to design ‘pedagogies to connect them to the literacy curriculum’.


Comber, B. & Kamler, B. (2005). Turn-around pedagogies: Literacy interventions for at-risk students. Newtown, NSW: Primary English Teaching Association.
Wright, D. & Mahiri, J. (2012). ‘Literacy learning within community action projects for social change’. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 56: 2. pp. 123-131.