Ten tips to get students reading more outside class

Trying to motivate your students to read more outside class?

While there are numerous studies on the benefits of extensive reading in language learning (Krashen, 2004; Waring, 2006), comparatively few give practical suggestions for teachers on how to motivate students to read.  As we all know, while a few students are always enthusiastic about reading, most are reluctant to do it regularly.

Four years ago, we started a formal extensive reading program as part of university’s mandatory English communication courses.  Over this time, there have been many opportunities to experiment with different ideas to build student motivation towards reading.  Looking back on my own experiences in this program, combined with student reading data and feedback, I’ve come up with a few simple tips based on things that have been successful.

While there were ideas that worked outside the classroom, what has been most successful is incorporating the reading into the course content.  In other words, connecting the out-of-class reading as much as possible with in-class activities.  With these activities, I also found simple activities were the most successful.  After all, extensive reading is about enjoying the books, not remembering all the details.  Find below a brief summary of some of my more successful ideas.  As for the classroom activities, as always, the ones that were the most student-centered and interactive were the most successful.  Hopefully, as teachers, you will find them useful, or they will at least promote some discussion on the topic.

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1. Mingle activities recommending books

These are in-class speaking activities where students repeat 5min interviews exchanging information with different students on a book they liked.  Before doing the interviews, students prepare a few basic points about their book (eg. title, level, why they liked it).  During the interviews, students are also asked to complete a simple check sheet about the students they interview (see Fig.2 below).  After a number of interviews have been completed, students report to a partner about the most interesting books they found out about.  They can also rate their books with scores out of five which can later be tallied to give a class top 10 recommended book list.

Fig. 1 Mingle activity

Fig.2 Mingle activity check sheet

2. Mini-poster presentations

These are project-type activities where students prepare and deliver simple 3min poster-presentations on a book they read.  During the presentations, students move around other students, and in pairs, take turns presenting and listening to other presentations.  They are also asked to make brief notes on selected information they get from other student’s talks (see Fig.5 below).  Presentation content focuses on student’s general opinions of their books (rather than specific plot details etc.) including a giving a book rating.  Posters are also kept simple, with photos of the book cover in the middle surrounded by 3-4 other bullet points, for example, level, number of words, genre (see Fig.4 below).  Having the students print out their posters in a smaller A4 size lets them hold the poster in one hand while presenting. More on setting up mini-poster presentations.

Fig.3 Mini-poster presentations

Fig.4 Example mini-poster

3. Assign reading questions the week before

Give students a single question about a book they are to read for homework each week.  They then come prepared to talk about their answer for 5min with a partner in the next lesson.  The question should a general one and not too specific eg. Who was your favorite character in the book?  Or, what did you like about the book?  Or, were you surprised by the ending?  The questions can be the same every week.  With this, the students don’t have to be reading the same book, but if you can assign the same book to everyone (ie. you’re using an online reading platform), then the questions can lead to more in-depth group discussions.

4. Recognize top readers

While it’s important to be reminding the less motivated students to read more, don’t forget to also recognize the students who are reading a lot.  One way is to send out a group email (BCC of course) to the students every month announcing the top ten ranked readers for that month (ie. the ten students who read the most words).  Not only can this promote friendly competition between students (or even classes), but seeing students get recognition can also have a positive effect on the less motivated readers.  To be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to get the student’s approval to send out these mails at the beginning of the course.

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5. Have students choose their books in class

Use the final 10min of class to have students choose the next book they will read for homework.  Not only does this give students a clearer goal for their weekly reading, it also lets the teacher give advice on selecting levels and books.  It is especially useful at the beginning of a course where students are unsure about the concept of extensive reading and how to choose books (or in the case of using an online platform, how register and use the system etc.).  For print-book readers, this could be where you give all the students a tour of the school reader library.  It’s also good to have students choose their books before a long break between classes eg. choosing 4-5 books to read over summer.

6. Do short in-class reading sessions

This is similar to the point above.  Have students actually do 10min of their reading in the final 10min of class. This can give them a taste of the reading they’ll  be doing for homework.  Also, seeing other students doing the reading can have a positive effect on the less motivated students.  The teacher can also be available for advice and support if needed (eg. helping to change books if they’re too difficult).

7. Mini-book reviews

Have students write short book reviews on a book they read.  As with the mini-posters above, the review content needs to be simple and limited to general opinions about the book.  After writing their reviews, students leave them on their desks and move around the other desks to read other student’s reviews.  As with mini-posters above, students make brief notes on selected information they get from other student’s reviews (see fig 5 below).

Fig.5 Student check sheet

8. Regular words-read deadlines

Making the reading a small part of the course grade is always a good way to get students reading more.  But, rather than having one reading deadline at the end of the course, divide their reading into a number of shorter deadlines.  Not only will this likely get them to reading more regularly, it will reduce last minute ‘cram reading’ at the end of the course when books are likely less available.

9. Hand-made reading monitoring sheets

Have students monitor and log their own weekly reading progress.  Sometimes having them track their own reading data can be motivation in itself.  Even if an online platform can tally all their data, it’s also good to have them physically log and tally it on a weekly basis.  At the beginning of the course, give students log sheets that let them progressively tally their reading totals and make graphs of their progress (see Fig.6 below).  Students submit the completed sheets at the end of the course.

Fig.6 Example log sheet

10. Book recommendations from the teacher

Make an effort to read some of the books in your library.  Always be on the look out for ones your students might be interested in.  Make a habit of making recommendations to the students either in class or by email. Telling them why you liked the book can be also be good motivation.  Maybe you can also recommend books more relevant to your course content (eg. travel, business related topics, or non-fiction).  Maybe you notice many students trying to read books that are too difficult, then recommend more level-appropriate books.

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Krashen, Stephen (2nd edition. 2004 ) The Power of Reading: insights from the research. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Waring, Rob (2006) ‘Why Extensive Reading should be an indispensable part of all language programmes’. The Language Teacher 30 (7): 44-47

More research papers on extensive reading (The Extensive Reading Foundation)

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