Cassandra Webb

How to get college students reading for pleasure

Finding that students resitting English GCSE faced barriers to their learning, Cassandra Webb set about trying to create a culture of reading for pleasure at her college. As well as having dedicated reading time, learners are surrounded by words – with lyrics and inspirational quotes displayed around campus

How to get college students reading for pleasure

When 16-year-old Sam picked up his GCSE results from his secondary school last summer, it was no surprise to him that he got a grade 2 in GCSE English and had not passed. He had always struggled in English lessons. The main barrier was his reading: he did not read books in or outside of school and his lack of enthusiasm for reading meant that in lessons – and in the exam itself – he struggled to fully access the reading material.

Little had changed in his view when he arrived with us to study GCSE English and resit the exam. But he was not alone: we have many students like Sam. When they arrive at our college in September, they lack self-confidence, motivation and a positive attitude towards GCSE English.

So how do we turn around students like this? I knew the key was a positive reading culture – I just needed to understand how best to create it.

So I applied for project funding from the Education and Training Foundation’s Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment scheme and set out to explore how a reading culture could be created and promoted widely and explicitly at the college. My hypothesis was that by encouraging a love of reading and facilitating reading for pleasure, students like Sam would gain confidence in reading, find the exam texts more accessible and, ultimately, go on to pass the exam.

I also hoped that embedding a reading culture in college would reduce the impact of the social and educational disadvantage that is part of many learners’ lives – not just among the GCSE students but others, too.

So how did we approach it?

There are three hours of delivery a week across the college for English, and we tried a variety of activities. My favourite was a “Drop Everything and Read” model that is popular in some primary and secondary schools. I purchased class sets of engaging books, and tutors read to the learners in the last 20 minutes of their third lesson every week. The key was for the tutor to do the reading and for the learners to follow it, so that they could listen to the emphasis on punctuation and word pronunciation.

Usually, when you ask learners to read out loud, they focus only on the paragraph they will have to read, practising it to themselves. They don’t listen to the rest of the text and so miss what it’s about. We wanted them to relax and engage in the actual story.

Unfortunately, this approach didn’t work. The books did engage our learners, but if they missed the lesson when the reading took place, they completely lost the plot and context of the story. Engagement for those students dissolved as a result.

We had a few false starts like this before I settled on something that worked much better. It was a series of creative approaches that would involve the whole college and ensure that the impact was as big as possible.

At our Cambridge campus, there were two points of focus.

The first was to promote reading more generally among our learners, and we undertook the following activities to do this:

  • We have a glass bridge that most students have to use. On this, staff put up pictures and wrote out quiz questions based on the driving test: students had a good reason to pay attention to them!
  • Lecturers were asked to produce colourful, eye-catching posters with the title of a book they were reading (for example, “Cass Webb is currently reading ...”) and put them up around the college.
  • My team and I bought a variety of books and magazines and used them to stock a shelf in the student lounge.
  • A Christmas writing competition was held on the topic of climate change.
  • My team and I lobbied for a popular area of the college called the “WigWam area” to be decorated with inspirational quotes so that learners are surrounded by words.
  • The science department put up articles of topical interest on a new noticeboard for students to take away and read.
  • In a garden allocated to students in our alternative provision, staff created “plant markers” with quotes and song lyrics to reflect seasonal celebrations.
  • In the training restaurant at Christmas, learners were asked to display seasonal song lyrics and topical texts on the table number holders.

The second focus at the Cambridge campus was to support a small cohort of alternative-provision learners, allocating time for reading and creating a dedicated reading room.

Tutors initially assessed learners, who are all aged between 14 and 16, using the New Salford Sentence Reading Test, so that their progress could be monitored. Tutors also had informal discussions with students about their particular struggles with reading. Some of these learners had been homeschooled and were not used to college life, so they were all dealing with multiple changes.

My team and I worked with the students to create their own reading room and encouraged them to invest time in decorating it themselves, so they felt they had some ownership of it. Learners have used it to read books, magazines and textbooks or to listen to audio books. We have also provided and actively encouraged the use of reading pens.

Meanwhile, at our Huntingdon campus, the focus was on one small group of functional skills English students, and we dedicated a part of their weekly lesson to reading. Over the academic year, they were asked to read the novel One of Us is Lying by Karen M McManus. Reading was done in dedicated 15-minute windows at the start of a session and students were encouraged to review the book as they went along.

Reading the room

Did it all work? Well, no project like this is without its challenges. In a college where we are already short on space, finding a room that we could just dedicate to reading was tricky. The room needed to be easily accessible but not near the English teaching rooms – it needed to have its own identity. Thankfully, with the support of our senior management, we were able to source a room.

Motivation to keep going was another challenge – while it was a passionate topic for my team and I, it wasn’t necessarily for everyone else in the college. Teachers already had heavy workloads, so keeping it on topic and ensuring it became a focus for the whole college was tough. If other colleges are looking to introduce a college-wide reading strategy, I’d strongly recommend that it is on the head of the department’s agenda along with English and maths every week.

But I’m so pleased to say that a wide range of vocational areas have embraced this project and are promoting it in a variety of ways. Strategies to improve reading are brought up in heads of department meetings and course reviews, and vocational lecturers regularly talk with me about the different ways in which they feel they are able to contribute to the project.

Staff are now much more aware of the level of reading ability of their learners in their lessons, particularly if they are on a level 3 course but the learner is working at a lower level for reading.

Stronger links have also been made with our international and English for speakers of other languages (Esol) team in order to share resources to support our learners where English is a second language. And we have successfully recruited our own English higher-level teaching assistant, who will work with specific learners in order to help them improve their reading skills.

As a direct result of this positive action research project, incorporating more reading into the English lessons will take place in both campuses next academic year and going forward. We are also looking at having staff recordings of specific engaging texts so that the learners can listen to them prior to lessons and be more prepared, which would provide a more inclusive approach to reading.

The end goal would, of course, be that every single college student takes pleasure from reading. We aren’t there just yet, but we are well on the way.

Cassandra Webb is programme manager for English at Cambridge Regional College

This article originally appeared in the 21 August 2020 issue under the headline “You can create a love of reading, mark my words”

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