UKEdMag: History and reading by @historytiglet

History is a subject that involves a lot of reading and writing. I have found that those students that read for pleasure generally read and write more fluently than their peers and subsequently do better in the subject. However, many students are reluctant to undertake all but the minimal reading necessary and lack the confidence to tackle “difficult” text such as books by academic historians. Yet, to succeed in the subject they must learn to read with confidence, fluency and understanding. These ideas have evolved from my attempts to get students to read more.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 edition of UKEdMagazine

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1. Reading Races

I use these when I want students to focus on developing their reading skills of skim, scan and detailed (close) reading. Information can either be placed around the classroom and students have to race from one sheet to another or they can be given the information on individual A4 sheets of paper. Students have questions which can only be answer by reading all of the information. The length of material, difficulty of topic and questions are differentiated to suit the students. I also use prompts to help any students who are struggling.

It is useful to first introduce the activity in a lesson on study skills and then sequentially use it as a starter activity to re-enforce the skills.

2. Mysteries

End your narrative or activity on a cliff-hanger and get students to read a difficult text to discover what happened next. This worked well when exploring who murdered the Princes in the Tower and what happened to Henry Tudor after he was taken from his mother at a young age and his ward-ship sold to the highest bidder.

3. Court cases

The idea came from my colleague who originally got students to assess who was responsible for the General Strike with different groups representing Miners, TUC, Government and Owners. Students are presented with booklets of photocopied work by academic historians and primary sources. In groups they must read all the information, select relevant evidence and present a case to the class “court”.

I have since used this activity requiring students to assess a range of historical questions, such as whether Prohibition solved the problems it was meant too. It is time consuming to set up as you must carefully select the primary sources and articles to be included for each group as well as providing scaffolding to help them structure their cases. However, the activity can be reused with different groups and is a great way to get student to develop their reading and research skills. It can also be differentiated by group, topic, resources and prompts.

4. Changing the graphics and layout of information.

Reviewing the data from my Action Research project, I was struck by how much students preferred to read information and place it into different shaped graphics rather than the more conventional tables. Since then I have experimented with different graphic shapes in their work booklets.

A. I have used a house shape with information recorded on “bricks”. This helps to re-enforce the idea that creating a historical narrative involves building an incomplete picture using the available information. The more we read, the more we understand. But some pieces of information “bricks” may be replaced with new information “bricks” as we learn more.

B. Pictures of scales work well when students have to weigh up two sides of an argument presented in the text and come to a conclusion.

C. Flow charts work well for students to chart a series of events examining causation and consequence. This is especially useful when analysing complex sequences of events.

D. Diamond nines or pyramids are good for getting students to rank and justify information.

E. Variations on the traditional mind map are good for looking at multi causation or factorial questions.

F. For questions on why the Weimar Republic survived between 1919 to 1923, I depicted the Weimar Republic as a boat shape and students had to classify information as either buoyancy aids (helped) or shark (hinder) depending on how they affected the stability of the regime. This could be adapted for other hinder or help questions.

This activity can be completed in pairs, small groups or as a whole class; they can be completed at the desk or enlarged and arranged on the classroom wall. It is important to ensure students are not distracted by “fun” elements. I have had students wasting time drawing sharks, so I now pre-print them. It is also important to make sure students add notations to their diagrams justifying their decisions and to ensure they have properly read and considered the information they are studying. Afterwards we discuss the information as a whole class and students must justify their decisions backed up with evidence selected from the text.

5. Using images

Students read the text and complete a table with the selected information. However, the table includes a column in which they have to visually depict each piece of information. This seems especially useful when examining complex series of events in depth at A-level. I always have a box of colour pens for students to borrow. You have to encourage students who say they cannot draw to take part and stop the artist from focusing just on the pictures. Again, it is a hook to get them interested and it also seems to help their recall. As one student said, her doodles were so bad she remembered them because they were funny.

6. Quizzes on homework reading

Students have quizzes based on their homework reading. Getting a competitive spirit can really motivate students to work. I have a box with mini prizes, such as pencils, which occasionally the winning team get to select a prize from. The use of stickers also works well as a form of prize even with sixth formers. However, you need to ensure the teams do not rely on one individual to answer the questions.

Different ideas work better with different classes. So I vary the activities depending on the class and students’ needs. Do you use anything similar? I would love to know.

Debbie @historytiglet is a FE Lecturer, self confessed geek and bookworm. She can be found at

Featured image via: kris krüg on Flickr under  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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