How to get students reading


'Extensive reading' is the academic term for simply reading a lot and often to enhance and embed second language skills. It is a hot topic these days and there is much debate about the dos and don’ts of assimilating it effectively into university prep courses and school reading programmes.

Teachers are often left wondering though how to get students reading in the first place. If they do not pick up books outside school, if reading remains a burden to them rather than a pleasure, then discussion about the rights and wrongs of writing journals about their reading, say, is irrelevant. So, this article looks at how we can introduce students to reading anything other than textbooks. First, though, why should students read outside the curriculum?

Unsurprisingly, most research into the effects of reading on educational achievement has focused on primary school children and programmes. The idea, of course, is to address the situation when they are young before it becomes a problem. In an attempt to redress the balance, Slavin et al. (2008) surveyed the literature on the effectiveness of different programmes in US high schools. This was urgent as The American Diploma Project (2004) had already shown that poor reading skills were an obstacle for university students who could not cope with the complex texts they had to deal with. To make matters worse, inability to read comfortably was one reason for these students dropping out of courses. Slavin et al. (2009), looking at high schools, found this affected not only social science and humanities, but also maths.

In other words, reading difficulties were hampering attainment in just about every subject. Alarmingly, Joftus and Maddox-Dolan (2003) concluded that 6,000,000 high-school students were reading significantly below their expected levels and 3,000 kids were dropping out of high school every day due to their inability to cope with their studies. And this in the most developed country in the world!

Findings such as these are an important tool in persuading parents and students that reading is not just an optional add-on to specialised studies at school. After all, educational excellence is seen by parents as a necessary step along the road to secure, well-paid employment.

But, to return to the question we started out with: how to get students reading in the first place? Slavin et al. (2008, op. cit.), having surveyed many, many different reading initiatives in high schools, concluded that the single most important factor in students embracing reading for pleasure was not a particular methodology or high-tech input, but teacher training. Teachers needed to be convinced of the benefits of reading outside the curriculum and to act as reading role models for students.

If teachers carry novels or self-help books around, leave them lying on their desks, and sometimes talk about what they are reading, it motivates students to follow suit. Without trying to influence students’ choices of reading material, if they occasionally ask whether they like a book or not and what they are planning on trying next, it inspires students to read more.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. How can students who have never read for pleasure decide what they want to read? It is not as easy as it seems. The back covers of novels are all littered with praise and teachers’ recommendations are not always trusted either, as reluctant readers recall that it is these very teachers who have forced them to struggle through boring and difficult texts.

One way round this is to ask students who have read something to pen a few words about a book, whether it was interesting, thoughtful or boring; what it was about: science fantasy, gang warfare or romance; and so on. In many countries, book stores ask their staff to recommend works in this way and then display their hand-written cards on the shelves where the books are situated. It is not foolproof but it might be a way in for some.

Just a quick word of warning, though. Some teachers urge students not to choose something that is too challenging. The 'five-finger test' is one way to do this. The student opens a book at any page and holds up five fingers, lowering one every time she encounters an unfamiliar word. If she has not reached the end of a page with at least one finger standing, the book is probably too hard for her.

Failing that, teachers can make very rough notes along the lines of ‘sci-fi, actionpacked, shocking ending, easy vocab’.

Another way is to introduce a DEAR programme (Drop Everything And Read) into school or university, so that everyone stops what they are doing and reads as part of the timetable. Teachers, principals, cleaning staff and students – everyone! DEAR programmes share the following qualities: they encourage as many as half the students who participate to read more outside school; they engender confidence in reading abilities; they offer opportunities to share reading experience with communities of students similarly engaged; and they also impact positively on writing skills (Sheldrick Ross, et al. 2006).

Then there are reading circles. People disagree about whether students should be able to choose their partners or if stronger readers should be matched with weaker ones so they can act as mentors. Whatever the arragement, reading pairs and groups can work well. It is important to make sure each group member has a clearly defined role, though: researcher, leader, presenter, time-keeper, and so on. Students can also start a reading journal and record their thoughts – without these being graded, of course.

There are many other schemes, programmes and initiatives and you can find information about some of them on our blog. We hope that these few ideas are enough to get you on your way though.

Read Listen Learn is a reading service for ESL teachers and learners featuring illustrated English short stories at 5 levels with glossaries and audio. Our graded readers help people learn English through reading and listening for pleasure.


  • American Diploma Project (2004): Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts at
  • Joftus, S. and Maddox-Dolan, B. (2003): Left Out and Left Behind: NCLB and the American High School
  • Sheldrick Ross, C., McKennie, L. And Rothbauer, P. (2006): Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading (Libraries Unlimited)
  • Slavin, R., Cheung, A., Groff, C. and Lake, C. (2008): Effective Reading Programs for Middle and High Schools: A Best-Evidence Synthesis
  • Slavin, R., Groff, C. and Lake, C. (2009): Effective Programs in Middle and High School Mathematics: A Best-Evidence Synthesis