Engaging Students in Wide Reading

November 24, 2012

Introduction

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!

Conclusion

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?

References

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.

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