Why I... think we need to help students read those long novels

May 3, 2002

Colleagues often say they despair of getting students to read an entire novel in a foreign language. Germinal in the original? Forget it. In English and history too, it seems, students are now more recalcitrant when faced with bulky reading lists.

No wonder, they say, that students are opting for courses with lower reading requirements: film and media courses, for example. Is it a symptom of the decline of the book, the corrupting influence of modern media or the competing demands on students' time, such as part-time jobs or heavy drinking?

An obvious paradox is that students seem to find no difficulty in reading thick books when they want to, racing through Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or the latest best-sellers. The internet has not killed off the book any more than radio or television did. The problem is more specific: students are reluctant to tackle large amounts of reading for study purposes.

Looked at this way, it is hard to argue that students' attitudes are entirely unreasonable. Are they so different from the attitudes of their teachers towards work-related information? Living in a knowledge-based society, we have all adopted a more hard-nosed approach to dealing with huge flows of information. We need a very good reason to read committee documents beyond their two-page executive summary, and we take much of our information by the screenful, the sound bite and the headline.

Perhaps we should be more hard-nosed about what we ask of students. How much time do we expect them to spend reading? A 300-page book at a fast leisure-reading rate of one minute a page might take a manageable five hours. But if the text is more difficult, contains unfamiliar concepts, offers dense argument or is written in a foreign language, the reading rate will be slower, perhaps much slower. Students may also need to take notes, or consult a dictionary. Zola's Germinal (500 pages) in less than 20 hours?

The challenge for us as teachers is to offer enough support, and a reasonable pay-off in terms of learning for the reading we ask students to do. That means building it in to the way we design our courses, and making clear what purpose we expect the reading to serve.

We can, for example, look at advanced reading as a specific skill to be taught and assessed. It is not only a study skill but also a valuable life skill. Not many of our students have been trained in speed reading, gist reading or in specific reading strategies. We could help them to become expert readers, and make it an explicit course aim.

We can make a point of requiring a variety of types of reading in a course, mixing long texts with short; mixing simple with complex; and mixing texts in different media (print, online, audiovisual). We can also give course time to reflecting on the different types of text and how best to approach reading them.

Since most reading is a solitary task, we can help students by organising them into reading groups to provide support and encouragement. With some ingenuity, it is possible to involve more experienced students in facilitating a group. For reading in foreign languages, Erasmus exchange students can play a valuable role, and get spin-off benefits themselves from doing it.

We also need to ensure that the reading we demand of students is reflected in the recognition we give to it in teaching and assessment. That could mean allocating requisite discussion time in class, arranging group presentations on the reading or making sure they can use it in an exam. If we think there is a problem getting students to read, we should start from what we can do about it. It may be worrying, but it is not a crisis of civilisation.

Michael Kelly
Professor of French
University of Southampton
Director, Learning and Teaching Support Network Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

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