How do I get them to read?

On the day before Thanksgiving break, a science teacher at my school brought her students to the media center computer lab to complete a webquest. She had curated texts and websites related to an upcoming unit and created a multiple-choice reading check question for each source. Students were expected to visit the links, read the texts, and then answer the questions.

When I walked by during 6th period, she called me over in dismay, “They’re not reading! They’re just finding the answers and not reading the articles. How do I get them to read?”

If only I had the answer.

I don’t think anyone does, but here are a few ideas that might help:

Go for Quality, not Quantity.  When her students opened the webquest and saw 25 questions, each with a separate link attached, they did what anyone with 40 minutes would do, they skimmed and scanned, used Ctrl-F, or Googled key words to find the answers as quickly as possible. They didn’t have time to read, so they used short-cut strategies to complete the work.  To the students, the grade is what matters, not the content.

If it’s the content that truly matters, we need to select one or two of the best texts and design our lessons around those texts. Decide which texts to share by reflecting on the most important or most challenging topics in the unit.  By assigning fewer articles (and questions) we remove the students’ anxiety over finishing and allow them to actually read the texts.

Choose Interesting Texts.  A future chemist may have been genuinely interested in the history of the periodic table, but for the average 10th grader, this excerpt from a textbook holds little value. If she can skim and find the three bold-faced words to answer the question, that’s all she will do.

However, the article about the teen who looked up the ingredients in Gatorade and discovered that it contained bromine (an element used as a disinfectant and flame retardant, already banned in Europe and Japan) was much more interesting.  It was a topic the kids could relate to, and a little scary, too. Stories—especially true stories about teens—will be read. If you can connect these stories to your content, your content will be remembered.

Allow Student Choice. Another option to increase interest in reading is to offer choice.  Identify four or five content-specific, high-interest articles.  Then, allow students to read the two that interest them the most and write a response to only those two.  This helps in a couple of ways—first, individuals feel they have some control (and teens like to feel they have control), and even though each student is only reading two articles, chances are, every article will be read by at least one person in the class.

For example, when the chemistry class gets to the section of the text on halogens, the teacher can ask for the students who read the Gatorade article to explain the connection—thereby exposing all of the other students to that article.  If the link is still posted on her website, someone else may be inspired to go back and read it as they scan the ingredients in their Monster energy drink.

So, choosing the right text is part of the answer to this million-dollar question, but, of course, there’s always more. The way our students approach the text depends on what we ask them to do with it. Fact-based multiple-choice questions encourage skimming and scanning; thoughtful open-ended tasks require more reading (and thinking).

A few weeks ago, I blogged about some writing to learn activities you can use after any text—these are a good start.  With a little more just a little more planning, we can write specific text-based questions, targeting the knowledge we need them to take from the text. In my next blog post, I’ll show you how to do just that!



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