Five Ways To: Weave Reading into the Curriculum

In my travels to various schools, one of the variables that I’m struck by is the emphasis placed on reading. I included this description of the range in a previous post on seven variables between schools:

  • From extensive reading across subjects, quality texts, established reading routines/norms; high daily volume
  • To:  Reading volume thin, class reading rare outside English except question papers and worksheets. Textbooks rare

It’s uncontroversial – uncontested – that reading fluency is a key component in students’ wider learning capacity and confidence and yet it is actually possible for some students to go through a school day or week without doing very much reading at all. How does that happen? It’s a combination of factors:

  • most information in most lessons is presented by the teacher via powerpoints and verbal explanations – so there’s no reading to be done beyond engaging with what is on the screen. This is absolutely dominant in some settings.
  • reading is collective so the texts are being read in the class – by the teacher or a series of student readers – but students do not necessarily have to read along and are predominantly engaging with the content by listening rather than reading.
  • individual reading opportunities are not accountable – ie reading material is given and reading is expected but it is possible not to actually read. Students can sit with a book or sheet in front of them and not read.. they just wait until the time is up and wing it, picking up on what is being said without having actually made sense of the text themselves. (I find that adults do this too in sessions where they are asked to read a passage to discuss).
  • there is reading to be done but really only in the form of questions for writing tasks, rather than extended prose to be read and understood – except of course in English lessons. In some contexts, in many subjects reading the questions is the only reading students actually have to do.

With these things in mind I would say it is a big win for schools to look at this area, aiming to make reading a significant feature in the daily curriculum diet, not an add-on or an ad hoc element that is strongly dependent on individual teacher preferences. It’s probably a better way to expend curriculum design energy than many other fiddles and tweaks in a curriculum sequence. Here are five ways to weave reading into the curriculum:

1. Present information via text rather than powerpoint

Simple eh?! But it needs to be done! It’s important to be conscious that unless you actively decide to present information via reading text, students will be relying on your presentation materials to engage with the ideas. They won’t be developing their capacity to read for meaning, to rehearse reading strategies – like scanning – or reinforcing their skills in reading the specific text formats from articles to textbooks or even summarised revision resources that they’ll need to access in any independent study scenario.

I’ve seen too many lessons where the teacher powerpoint – with its amateurish graphics and dodgy font selection – has been a depressingly poor way to encounter ideas, especially from the back of the room. The absence of text (with or without images) for students to read themselves puts them at the mercy of a teacher’s presentation flow; words are spoken or clicked through all too rapidly, they can seem transient and hard to grasp and there’s no chance to practise reading for meaning.

Review your powerpoint addiction! Where could you switch and mix things up so that students are given text to read instead? Then do it! Make the switch; take pride in how much you make your students read. Make it a badge of honour; make it ‘the way we do things here’.

2. Buy textbooks or prepare workbooks with embedded reading activities

To make planning easy, source or create resources that embed the reading material well in advance. This ensures the materials are relevant to your curriculum, of high quality and makes lesson planning more about how you engage with the reading and weave it into an instructional teaching sequence rather than seeking out bits of text in a piecemeal fashion.

Textbook selection will be a key factor – it’s so great when you have a textbook you know and trust and can distribute responsively during lessons, knowing you can use it as a platform for exploring ideas in class. Textbooks are still dismissed way too readily for my liking – look again! Keep searching. There is no ideal but there are plenty of good ones.

Alternatively – or in addition – make it part of your planning to construct booklets with embedded reading opportunities. Where this is in place, the extent of reading and teachers’ confidence with reading routines shoots up. The KS2 booklets from Reach Academy Feltham are superb examples of this excellent approach:

Alongside the text there are images, key definitions, comprehension and extended writing tasks. If you were to teach these units, you have a rich resource to hand and every child has this in front of them. It’s just far superior to many powerpoint-driven alternatives.

3. Develop accountable reading routines

An important challenge to recognise and to tackle is the fact that many students can appear to be reading without actually doing it. They even kid themselves, mentally drifting, eyes gazing at words on a page without actually engaging with the meaning. Some level of accountability is often necessary to push students over this mental hurdle – they need to expect to have to do something meaningful with the content of the text to force them to make the mental effort needed to get properly stuck in. This is true of adults as well as children; switching into reading mode is effortful and we need motivation to do so.

Accountable reading at a simple level means anticipating that the content of the text will provide answers to questions that will follow. There are lots of variations around this:

  • unseen questions: reading first, then looking at some questions. This encourages reading of the full text without skimming
  • search questions: using a text to find answers to specific questions: This helps develop scanning techniques
  • summarising: this develops ‘reading for gist’ which can be important for longer pieces.

If students have to undertake a combination of these questions then the reading has purpose and, as with everything in teaching, if used routinely, students form habits around the whole process. Planned well, if students can answer the questions it means they’ve done the reading. They learn that this will happen; no short-cuts. The tragedy is that this experience is so rare for some students that they are almost affronted when the teacher dishes out the reading material.

4. Develop oral or echo reading routines to boost fluency

An idea I’ve picked up recently – explored variously by Alex Quigley and Christopher Such – that I’ve seen done well and tried out myself to good effect, is the practice of getting students to read back a text that has been read to them. The process is this:

  • The teacher reads a short section of text aloud, explaining words and concepts as needed.
  • Students in pairs then read the same text back to each other, simultaneously, perhaps alternating lines or paragraphs or each repeating the same text again.

The value of this is:

  • The reading of the text is be modelled explicitly first – the teacher shows how key words sound and can emphasis meaning as well as model the prosody of reading – the rhythm, flow, intonation – and the pronunciation.
  • Then every student gets to read the text themselves. They are not merely following the text with a finger or mentally, they are not just hearing it being read. They all doing the reading, following the version modelled by the teacher.
  • Because the text is read at least twice, there are more opportunities for meanings to be explored in each student’s mind.. there is repetition and reinforcement.

If you want to be certain every student has read the text, this is the way to do it. It can be noisy but routines around reading quietly to your partner can be established. As student habits around accountable independent reading develop, you can do less of it orally in this way. It’s a kind of collective scaffold that makes reading explicitly a shared learning activity.

5. Set accountable reading tasks for homework.

Finally, harness the time students have between lessons to extend their reading. I meet an awful lot of students who tell me that they only read at school and they are not given reading to do for homework. It’s a wasted opportunity. Usually students don’t read at home because they either don’t know what to read or there is no purpose to the reading – because, as above, the teacher will explain it all anyway.

The trick is to weave the accountability in. Set a task to read a text – obviously that needs to be a text students can take home! Embedded in that task should be the anticipation that students will need to process the meaning in the text in order to complete a task – either as part of the homework or on returning to class. Doing this routinely as part of a healthy diet of homework (see Mode A: Mode B Homework ) makes it normal and forms habits and expectations. There’s no point saying ‘there’s no point, they just won’t do it’. Of course they won’t if you don’t try or if you don’t really expect it. You need to truly demand it of students – they have to do the reading and then be accountable by completing related tasks. A useful form of task would be making notes – so the note making needs to be modelled and checked – or writing a summary in class.

I’ve seen this done superbly well.

  • Teacher sets a reading task for homework e.g. 2-3 sides of an article, a textbook section or a book chapter
  • In class, teacher asks students to summarise the key ideas in the text or answer some substantial knowledge check questions based on the text as a starter activity.
  • Students then share answers and the teacher probes and checks for understanding.

Students who didn’t do the reading are immediately exposed and they learn that it pays to make the effort next time. As with all homework it pays not to succumb to the lowest common denominator response; you focus on those students who engage, normalise that and bring the others up to the standard of the best.

Above all, just make it a goal to create a classroom culture and a curriculum diet where reading is prominent and significant.

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