5 Ways to Nudge Students to Engage with Outside Reading

Monday’s post gave 4 factors to persuade teachers to start giving outside reading assignments. I am sure, however, that there are still concerns about the average student’s motivation to complete this assignment and avoid the temptation to cut corners by cheating. I share in those concerns.

Over the years, though, I have come up with ways to steer students to complete their outside reading assignment with fidelity. I still have to watch for apathy and student who insist on cutting corners, but I spend far less energy on that element of the assignment than I used to.

Here are 5 ways to nudge students to engage with their outside reading. 

1. Frequent Visits to the School Library. I kick off the outside reading assignment with a trip to the school library, and let students know that we will be back in two weeks (when the books are due). I tell the students that they must pick a book and they cannot sit down until they have checked one out. If students are struggling to find a book, I send them to tastedive.com, which will give them recommendations on many forms of entertainment, including books and authors. When students aren’t sure about their choice, I remind them we will be back in two weeks.

2. Silent Reading in Class. I have my students read silently in class, three to five days a week. I protect this time with religious devotion. For many students, this is their only time where they are given a quiet space in their day to read. And this is the chance they are given to get hooked into their books. If they aren’t given this time, many will not allow themselves to be taken up into a story they are reading.

If you’re thinking, “you said ‘outside’ reading, but that looks like it’s ‘inside’ the class.” Okay, you caught me. I simply reframe this accusation by declaring their book “outside” the common curriculum. There. Outside. Now have them read during class.

3. Public Book Sign-Ups. The assignment spans six weeks. Three weeks in, I make them commit to a title. They do this publicly on a sign-up sheet I display in class. I give them frequent reminders. I ask them face-to-face, “have you signed up yet?” If they don’t sign up before that three week marker, I start to reduce the amount of points possible they can earn on the assignment (because the more likely they are to look to cut corners and turn in an assignment they didn’t really complete).

4. Informal Writing. One of the other signature assignments in my classroom is the Writer’s Notebook. It’s a place for low-pressure, informal writing and revision practice that I use daily. Every other week, I will have the students double-dip assignments by prompting the students to write about their outside reading book. I might give them something like, “What are the three most confusing things about your book? Explain what is so confusing about those things in one page. And while you’re at it, speculate how this confusion will be cleared up!” The informal writing gives them a chance to stop and think, which they most likely won’t do without being prompted. As they collect their thoughts, they renew their desire to read on.

5. Public Display of Reading Progress. During one period of silent reading a week, I will walk the classroom and jot down page numbers. As I pass each student, I note the page number next to their names. After silent reading time is over, I will announce the reading progress I noted. Most students in the room have no idea the page count of their classmates, but when I say, “two weeks in and five students already past page 150,” they start to get a sense of what’s possible. I also tell the students what page number where they currently should be followed by announcing how many have surpassed that number. It’s usually more than anyone predicts, which causes an urgency in those who have not reached that mark.

I am considering adding small boxes to the book sign-up paper. Maybe 20 boxes, each one indicating “10 pages read” and marking their progress. Then the sign-up can feature how much reading everyone is completing, like a bar graph of progress. If the students are reading beyond 200 pages, then I could simply draw an arrow and publicly celebrate when they reach that mark.

I have found these five ways to nudge students incredibly effective. Also, they give me opportunities to engage with the students around an interest they are developing. The walks to the library are great moments for this type of informal connection. The times in class when I can handout atta boys and atta girls to the students for their page counts is meaningful too. All five nudges working together tend to keep the students on track and completing this assignment faithfully.

Which nudge would influence your students the most? What other ways do you nudge your students to complete their work? We want to hear about it in the comment section below. Also, if you think others would benefit from this post, please share with them or on social media.

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