“Read the Next Chapter for Tomorrow!” said every teacher  ever.

You might as well add every day. In response, what do you suppose every student thinks? No homework tonight! And maybe that’s a good thing. Sending students to read without purpose, modeling, and guidance might be counterproductive and lead to stress, frustration, and disinterest—not to mention your exasperation when students don’t comply. 

However, students who read can do better. How do you get all of them to read and all of them to do better? It begins by examining what you really expect when you say, “Read.” 

Reading is Better than Lecture and Telling

Asking students to read can accomplish the same outcome as other forms of passive content delivery—some students learn some of the information. So, um, how is that better? We’ll get to the point where it is much better, but to begin, the students who do read and can learn from reading are the same students who do listen and can learn while you talk, so at least things aren’t getting worse! Now, to the benefits. If students read outside of class, the previous in-class time spent explaining the same information can now be spent on additional learning activities (such as the past homework) to engage everyone. Even if students use class time to read, you can move around the room and help those who struggle rather than watching from the front of the room as they become lost while you tell them what to know. 

There’s also the time factor. Tell students to read and you don’t have to prepare any slides, notes, overheads, and speeches! Take that time to relax! Just kidding. Use the time to prepare strategies that make reading an effective learning experience for every student. This is how reading becomes much better than lecture and telling. 

The biggest hurdle for an educator transitioning from a passive to active teaching strategy is how to replace their passive content delivery, i.e. lecturing, telling, and explaining. Alternatives like creating videos require an investment of time that is magnitudes greater than creating slides and/or using knowledge of your subject to explain information to students in automatic fashion. Assigned reading with interwoven learning activities is a strategy that doesn’t take any more time and can be more effective. 

What do You Mean by “Read?”

There’s no one strategy for reading that should be used for every age level and every subject. However, here’s a approach to find the right strategy for your situation. 

When you ask students to read—and leave it at that—you’re making several assumptions. Conveniently, those assumptions can lead you to an effective strategy! Here they are. When you ask students to simply “Read”, you assume:

  1. Students know what you expect from reading.
  2. Students are able to do what you expect.
  3. Students will do what you expect.

You can decide whether you agree those assumptions are being made after we ride them to specific strategies. First, we need to not only drop those assumptions, but turn them around. Unless some strategy is already in place to cover each one, it’s likely they’re incorrect.

  1. Students know do not know what you expect from reading.
  2. Students are are not able to do what you expect.
  3. Students will will not do what you expect.

Please don’t take the revisions as being harsh on the students. They’re absolutely normal and expected behaviors for people in a new situations that require skills they don’t yet possess (e.g. students). Number three doesn’t mean students are lazy. Not doing something is a result of not knowing how and seeing no purpose. In addition, statements like these three can predict quite well the results of just telling students to read. Only some students do it and only some of the information is learned. They’re the students who already possess success strategies and would probably excel in any situation. 

From Assumption to Activity

Now, remedy those three realities. 

First, identify—to yourself—what you do expect from students when they read. Some expectations might include: 

  • Become familiar with the basic concepts.
  • Read only the important parts.
  • Read every word from beginning to end.
  • Remember the key terms.
  • Become excited to learn about the topic.
  • See how the topic is relevant to your life.
  • Be able to relate the information to…the last chapter…what we discussed in class…your life…a problem.
  • Be ready to apply the skills presented.
  • Explain the information in your own words.
  • Identify the plot, main characters, and conflicts. 
  • Pass a quiz in class.

These examples are very general. Try to get yours even more specific to your subject. Reading is different between science, poetry, and fiction. Plus, more specific expectations make it easier to design specific strategies and activities to help your students. 

Second, design a strategy or activity to make students capable of carrying out out the expectation. They’re probably great expectations, but just sharing them with students won’t get you anywhere, especially if your expectations include pedagogical terms like explain, identify, relate, and understand. Even if they seem obvious, like remembering the key terms, design something that will leave no room for chance and ensure the expectation is met. You could create something new to go with each reading assignment (study guide) or teach a behavior that students repeat each time (take Cornell notes). 

Third, and finally, consider that even if students know what you expect and are able to do it, they might not. This consideration is an extra safeguard and it’s more about removing the barriers than adding pressure. It absolutely must not be a hammer! 

Taking care of the first two assumptions may itself completely solve the problem of students not reading.The barriers of not knowing what or how are removed. What else might demotivate students? Time is a big factor. A very large reading assignment plus activity to complete might cause students who have less self-efficacy to not even begin. Make the reading focused not only in the amount, but purpose. Students can finish and clearly see what they accomplished. Creating more focused initial expectations will help this goal.

Reading can be boring and uninteresting, especially for students who’ve never known a clear reason to do it. Even if relevance wasn’t one of your expectations, integrate it into any accompanying activities. Think of relevance as what students could see themselves doing. Have students answer questions like, “What would you have done?” or “Does this relate to anything in your life?” Or, make the assignment about you doing something for them, such as “Find the the five things that were hardest for you to understand so I know how to help you.” 

Finally, tie it to other events and activities in class so the benefit and purpose of the reading and activities are ridiculously clear. If students take notes, do group note comparison activities and let them use the notes on quizzes or tests. Have problems ready to practice if students were supposed to identify problem-solving strategies. Create an organized activity where students have to share and defend opinions after reading an essay. Try not to evaluate their performance with grades immediately, but later after more practice, feedback, and learning. Using a completion grade is a good compromise for those who need something recorded.

Home or In-Class?

It depends on the age of the student. College and high school can certainly be expected to read at least some outside of class, but it doesn’t need to be exclusively out of class. Spending time in class reading can show you’re serious about reading and also offer opportunity to walk students through your expectations. 

Younger students should read and do the accompanying activities mostly in class. You can still encourage reading for enjoyment at home, but don’t rely on young students having an accommodating home environment or time to accomplish the reading. If success in the class depends on learning from the reading, make sure the reading happens by keeping it in your classroom.

A Specific Example

Let’s follow the steps from above using an example of a environmental science teacher. 

First, what do I expect from students when they read? 

  • I only want students to read what’s important, the textbook isn’t a story they should read from beginning to end.
  • I want students to get the big ideas related to the topic.
  • I want students to be familiar enough with the basic terms from the chapter so I do not need to spend class time explaining them.
  • I want students to have a resource for class activities they can reference quickly.
  • Most importantly, I want students to see that even though the chapter presents a set of facts and concepts, that doesn’t encompass environmental science. It’s about exploring and solving problems, all of which relate to our lives.

Second, my students aren’t able to do these things and need some guidance. What can I do to help? OK, read what’s important…get the big ideas…remember terms…organize everything together…see why the info serves a bigger purpose. I could have a study guide that directs them to specific parts of the chapter, asks them to write down terms, and summarize the big idea of the reading. All of those would also require some modeling and practice in class. Then, to see the bigger purpose, I could pose a relevant problem and ask students to brainstorm how they might solve it. In class they could continue solving the problem with a group.

That strategy could work, but I should start with the big picture and relevance if that’s most important instead of starting with the more tedious facts and concepts. In real life, environmental science starts with questions or problems. I could give students a news article or summary of a environmental-related problem. For example, coral bleaching to introduce the chapter on conservation biology.

Instead of creating a unique study guide for every reading assignment, I can have students use the same outline every time. First, they would read about the problem and list two questions that a scientist might have like, “How do we stop coral bleaching?” or “Why is bleaching occurring?” Better yet, we should do this part in class as an introduction and group brainstorming activity so everyone in the class is pursuing the same questions.

Next, for the reading assignment, students would review each assigned section of the textbook chapter and decide if the section provides any information related to their questions. If it does, they would write a 1-2 sentence explanation that might sound like, “Section 21.2 Threats to Biodiversity could answer which biodiversity threats are happening to coral reefs.” This step would accomplish my expectation of getting the big idea from topics in the reading.

Students would look through the bold or italicized definitions in the section and separate them into three categories: terms that relate to the question, terms that possibly relate to the question, and terms that don’t relate to the question. They would also summarize the definition of each term. 

Third, even though this is pretty straightforward, students might not do it. I need to remove those barriers. Most importantly, we would need to work through this process together several times in class. I would need to show their finished outline shouldn’t be more than a page or two and keep the assigned sections focused to the problem. 

Back in class, I can have students form groups to compare their outlines. Each group would discuss their thoughts and each student would improve their own outlines through the process. I would give each group a set of questions for which they would need to rely on their outlines to answer. Examples might include, “Does the concept of strategic species apply to the coral reef situation? If so, which species related to coral reefs would you give the most attention and why?” or “Order the biodiversity threats outlined in the H.I.P.P.O acronym from most to least threatening to coral reefs.” Questions like these would be designed so answers would automatically pull from their terms. 

Questions on tests would be similar to the practice questions and I would allow students to use their outlines. Answers would require additional thinking and analysis rather than just information copied from their outlines. All of these steps should naturally encourage students to complete the readings. However, while students are working in groups I can move around the room and have conversations with students who don’t have their outlines completed. 


It’s decision time! Do you agree with those assumptions educators make when asking students to read? Yes or no, they certainly work well to create strategies to improve learning from reading assignments. 



1 thought on ““Read the Next Chapter for Tomorrow!” said every teacher ever.

  1. Chris Sorenson says:

    Well done Jason. It’s good to see some of the best practices that we do reinforced in such a concise bit of instruction. It also is interesting to see one or two new tidbits that will help to push me toward more active learning.
    It makes me chuckle to think that most of the instructors who could most use this information did not read it.
    I have found personally that the reward of a brief formative assessment with minimal point value is highly motivating in regards to pre lecture assignments. I do these both in terms of electronic auto graded quizzes and in class full sentence assignment. The full sentence assignments in class also show me which students are struggling most with English writing, reading and comprehension. I can then target those students individually with help outside of class both personally and through referrals to helpful outside sources.

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