Reading: the Ultimate Form of Active Learning?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of visiting Buenos Aires to work with teachers and librarians. While I was there, I was lucky enough to speak at the 2019 ESSARP Conference.

Active learning and reading

There are many strands that make up active learning, but I chose to focus on three core ideas:

The theme of the conference was ‘active learning’ and so I spoke about my own area of interest- the teaching of reading- in the light of this huge theme.

  • That we should strive to help students to be active participants in the process of learning- in an ideal world, they would have a desire to learn and would be curious about the subjects we teach
  • That’s students benefit hugely from the trait of metacognition– a growing awareness of when learning was happening (and when it wasn’t)
  • When learning, students of all ages should be both physically and mentally active: thinking, reading, writing, talking, solving problems, and creating

In my session, I explored two ways these might translate to reading:

  • The power of elective reading
  • The benefits of developing active readers

The power of elective reading

Elective reading, sometimes called reading for pleasure, is the reading that we do because we choose to do it, rather than because we have been directed to do it. Elective reading has a positive relationship with all sorts of educational outcomes: improved reading fluency, wider vocabulary, better spoken and written expression, even increased empathy and happiness in later life. In many ways, elective reading is the ultimate in active learning: through their own self-directed reading, following their own interests, students develop knowledge and language skills that will be useful throughout their lives.

Of course, encouraging students to read widely in their own time can be challenge in the modern world, with so many different activities competing for their time. In the session, we focused on several practical approaches, including:

  • Introducing students to rich and wonderful texts at school, through lessons and the wider curriculum
  • Reading aloud to students every day
  • Build in regular dedicated independent reading time for every student
  •  Building in time to talk about books, promote books, and share books

You can find out more about building a school where reading sits at the heart of things in the free report Building an Outstanding Reading School.

The benefits of developing active readers

Active readers are students who are engaged with the reading process, monitoring their own comprehension to check they understand what is happening and thinking critically about what the writer might be trying to communicate.

While this skill comes through experience, teachers can support it through encouraging children to think carefully about what message an author might be trying to share. This can start with even young children, for example taking two books with a different viewpoint, such as these ones about animals:

Both have a very different viewpoint about the animals they refer to, and teaching children to spot the subtle language use that shares these messages (these wonderful creatures; another problem) means that later when they find themselves interacting with news or posts shared on social media that promote a particular agenda. Hopefully, learning to question the writer behind a text in reading lessons in primary school will be useful when dealing with fake news in later life!

And to finish…

The trip was a wonderful experience. Apart from being introduced to alfajores (the start of a new life-long love!), I met inspiring teachers, knowledgeable and passionate librarians, and committed school leaders all determined to provide their students with an amazing education. I left feeling thoroughly enthused and uplifted.

James Clements is an education writer and researcher. His latest book is Teaching English by the Book. You can find him on Twitter: @MrJClements