Encouraging A Level students to read around their subject

Susan Strachan

What is it that students do to help show that they have read and understood a wide variety of texts?

At A Level, students need to bring in their knowledge of context and wider reading in order to show they have been autonomously reading around the subject. It isn’t enough just to know the set text. Students have to be considered about the knowledge that they gather, gain and process in order to support the understanding they have of the set text. Autonomy is key.

As teachers, we can help in a range of ways.

1. Provide a wider reading list

Provide a reading list with suggestions of books, articles and websites that are useful for reading around the subject. Give this reading list to the students in advance of the A Level course starting and recommend that the students read, make notes and bring this knowledge to the first round of A Level lessons. Students who immerse themselves in extra reading are able to develop their analysis more thoughtfully, as they have the basic knowledge to build upon.

2. Subject Knowledge

We have deepened our own teacher specific subject knowledge by reading around the set text ourselves. When teaching we should use this knowledge to illustrate how students can bring this wider knowledge into their writing.

3. Create a list of context and critic extracts

Create documents that can be used by students to support their interpretations of the text. Time is limited and with the best will not every student will be able to read widely around the subject. Giving students smaller extracts can support their knowledge, while making wider reading more accessible.

These lists need to be supportive and helpful and ideally should have a bibliography attached that shows students where this information has been gathered from. Students can then independently verify the critical link or the contextual reference. Also, they can check the context of the extract that you have given them. This careful focus means that all students are being naturally and skilfully directed to extra reading without it involving a great deal of extra effort.

4. Offer opportunities for discussion-based tasks

Get students in your classroom talking to one other. Imagine your class are studying Shakespeare for the first time. You can give students some homework in advance that encourages active engagement with extra reading, or set up an activity in class where they all read something different. Ask students to discuss what they have learnt from the text that they looked at. The benefit is that students have actively sought and processed a vast amount of information in a short amount of time.

You can capture the knowledge that the class are discussing on the board just by listening. Alternatively, you could write this on a piece of paper for typing up later and then re-share and go back over it. Or, if your group are happy, you could record this and upload it as a podcast to refer back to.

5. Model how to bring the extra reading into writing

Students will by now be knowledgeable and need guidance on how to transfer the wealth of knowledge into their writing. This is where modelling comes in. It can be in the form of pre-prepared teacher written models, co-constructed classroom-based models using the pen and board, or examples from students who have been able to seamlessly embed their knowledge into their writing. We can use the assessment objective top sheets from the exam board in conjunction with this exercise. This gives students the knowledge of what the criteria is asking and allows them to pinpoint how this knowledge can be embedded and critically analysed through exploring the models.

Once the modelling process has been completed, set students a task that specifically encourages them to embed their wider knowledge. Place success criteria at the heart of this task so that students do not see it as a bolt on. Students who see the wider reading as a starting point for their understanding will naturally be better placed to embed this knowledge in a meaningful, thoughtful and critical way.

As teachers at A Level, we can make the mistake of assuming all students will be able to (and know where to) look for information. We can offer too much independence and freedom, often meaning that students feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. They can also feel intimidated by the vast knowledge that you are able to demonstrate as a subject specialist. Students may need reassuring that the subject knowledge we bring to teaching has been honed, crafted and added to through years of the types of autonomous reading that we are asking of them. We need to guide our students carefully, encouraging them to want to know more and be as engaged with our subject as we are. Carefully curating wider reading for the students and skilfully embedding opportunities for them to display this wider knowledge can support us in ensuring that our students have done the extra leg work, without them even realising it!

If you enjoyed Susan’s article, you might also enjoy our article on the importance of independent learning.

Meet the Author

Susan currently works as a Head of English and Drama at a secondary school in Bristol, United Kingdom. She’s passionate about equality of education for all and English. Read Susan’s blog Why I love… or follow her on Twitter @susansenglish