Moving from “Why Aren’t They Reading?” to Creating a Culture of Reading

Textbook imageby Elisabeth Hedrick-Moser, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

Skeptical that your students did the reading?  Chances are you’re probably right to be.  Studies show that on any given day, about 1/3 of the students will have read the assignment (Hobson 2).  Eric Hobson’s IDEA paper*, “Getting Students to Read:  Fourteen Tips,” offers a diagnosis of student resistance to reading and suggests strategies for motivating them to read.  While Hobson focuses more on “compliance” than engagement, his tips for encouraging reading can provide a mid-semester boost for both students’ and teachers’ engagement with course readings.

Why don’t students do the reading?  Hobson, distilling many studies on the topic, finds that students often do not do the “required reading” because they assume, often correctly, that doing the reading is not really required for their success in the class.  Because faculty often “require” reading that students will not be held accountable for or that will be covered in class, students become “consummate pragmatists” and choose not to read when it is not necessary for their success (3).

Hobson also locates students’ failure to read in teachers’ false assumptions about student reading abilities.  He argues that teachers believe that their students are able to read and write at a higher level than their actual ability.  They are often unaware of the difficulties that students encounter in comprehending assigned texts.  Also, they often do not view teaching the skill of reading as their responsibility.  However, Hobson contends, “When reading becomes a focus emphasized in the course structure and across course activities, helping students improve their reading skills should be the responsibility of every college-level teacher” (4).  Learning to read effectively within a discipline is part of learning to think in that discipline.

Hobson offers fourteen tips for improving students’ reading compliance.  Several of these tips focus on course design, which is not particularly useful post-midterm (unless you are planning for next semester).  Here are some tips to improve student reading that can be incorporated at any time of the semester:

  • Explain reading assignments’ relevance

Make the “implicit explicit” by drawing connections between assigned reading and other course material and requirements. “The more connective the web between course reading and course learning goals, the more likely students are to see the course’s reading assignments as relevant and worthwhile” (5).

  • Preview the reading

Give them an “intellectual reason” to complete the assignment by bringing the reading into class activities before they are required to read it (6).

  • Use class activities that increase compliance and effectiveness

Provide reading guides, study questions, and short writing assignments to aid students in engaging actively with the reading material.

  • Use class time

Have students read brief but important sections of assigned texts in class to reinforce the material and prime them for activities.

  • Require prior reading

If you expect students to participate in class discussion that relies upon prior reading, that reading must be required.  One way to hold students accountable to being prepared for class is through random questioning.  Expecting student volunteers to participate only perpetuates the tendency of some to not be prepared for class.

  • Test over reading material

Although this can be seen as a “punitive” tactic, faculty advocates argue that testing over reading material is often the only way to ensure students will read that material (6).

  • Teach reading strategies overtly

Hobson argues that “Any teacher who includes reading assignments in a course should also ensure that students have the reading tools they need to use that material for the purposes intended” (7).  Even basic skills, such as “text marking,” need to be taught to students to explain the purpose, technique, and benefits of such close-reading.  Consider modeling your own reading practices for students, as a way to bring reading material into class and to teach effective reading strategies.

Hobson concludes that the work of teaching reading for college courses is nothing less than developing a culture of reading, a mindset where students view reading as a necessity for “higher-order thought, rational action, and fulfillment” (8).  This goal, Hobson argues, requires faculty to undertake teaching reading, not merely assigning reading, as a crucial aspect of their responsibility.

While this IDEA paper sometimes sounds like getting students to “comply” is the goal of assigning reading, Hobson’s focus really is more nuanced than that.  He does include many tips to ensure that students simply ‘do’ the reading.  Yet, the rest of the article makes clear that ‘doing the reading’ is not an end in itself.  Student reading is only one rung on the much broader scaffolding of a learning experience.  Yes, they do need to do it.  But they need to it within a context that teaches them what to do with the words they read and helps them build the skills to read as a path of discovery.  Rather than simply blaming students for not reading, Hobson challenges teachers to reconsider our aims and strategies in teaching reading.  Shifting the focus from getting students to complete the task of reading to teaching them to think through the reading can bring fresh air into the stale routine of homework.    Hobson’s practical strategies can help us work steadily toward the lofty vision of building a culture of reading—a daily discipline of reasoning through words.

Hobson, Eric H.  “Getting Students to Read:  Fourteen Tips.”  IDEA Paper No. 40, Manhattan, KS:  The      IDEA Center, 2004.

*IDEA is a non-profit organization that seeks to “improve learning in higher-education.” Their website provides full access to a treasure-trove of IDEA papers like this one—short, research-based “resources for faculty evaluation, reflection, and improvement.”  See http://ideaedu.org/research-and-papers for more.

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