This blog was co-authored by Ann Wilson and Caroline Havery, with contributions from Deborah Nixon and Joseph Yeo.

In a recent piece in The Conversation Sandris Zeivots opened with the provocative claim that 80% of university students don’t read their assigned readings. He identifies four key reasons: language deficits, time constraints, lack of motivation and underestimating the importance of readings. He asks us not to blame students for this state of affairs but to develop “more flexible ways for students to interact with the literature”. 

While not disagreeing with Zeviots’ reasons, we would add a fifth reason: unfamiliarity with the norms and practices of reading in particular disciplines. Zeviots’ reasons focus on student deficits, but there is much that academics can do to help students adapt to the reading demands of their degrees.

Required readings, be they journal articles, policy documents, or something else, are often written in discipline specific academic language that may be unfamiliar to students. They may also reference sociocultural and/or political concepts that may also be new. 

Academics assign readings and expect students to approach the readings in a number of ways, often with little guidance. Students, for example, often need to:

  • extract key information and apply it to new situations
  • summarise overall arguments of a text
  • look for bias
  • differentiate between high quality and poor quality literature
  • synthesise evidence from a range of sources

These activities suggest a range of sophisticated and nuanced approaches to reading, that we as academics have developed over time, and immersion in the culture of a university that treasures the printed word.  Many students have low reading confidence, and lack the knowledge or skills in how to approach different readings.

Zeivots believes that blended learning offers us some opportunities to explore approaches to readings with our students. Before class he suggests some polls or quizzes to tease out understanding, and explore when skimming or review might be better choices in a reading strategy. If you want some ideas as to how you can help students adopt different reading strategies, HELPS has some useful workshops and reading guides.

In-class, Zeviots suggests that we can build stronger connections between the readings and the content, applying the readings to practical examples for instance or building reading groups to explore the readings in a collaborative way. But there is also a role for academics to think carefully about the kind of readings we give to students, as well as the guidance we provide to help students read effectively. Some questions you could ask yourself before assigning readings to students could be:

  • WHAT kind of reading is it? (e.g. journal article, government report, policy document)
  • WHY do you want students to read it?
  • HOW do you want students to read it?
  • WHAT do you want students to do with it?

Thinking about these questions can help you scaffold students’ reading by selecting simpler readings for new students and designing activities that can help students understand more complex readings and develop critical reading skills. For example, if you are teaching first-year students and this is the first time they have come across a policy document, students might benefit from discussion as to the purpose of these documents.

Contact IML’s Academic Language and Learning team if you would like some advice on developing engaging reading activities in your subject. 

Feature image by Kwa Nguyen

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