In my twenties and early thirties I worked in the primary sector of English education. I was a reading specialist. I gave guidance to other teachers about teaching beginning reading and higher order reading skills. I helped them match the reading demands of their reading books and textbooks to the reading ages of their pupils. ‘Readability’ was so important for progress. So when I started working in HE I was very conscious of the reading demands of texts offered to students.
I didn’t start working as an academic historian until late in my career. But I quickly realized that my sports history students were often unused to sustained reading. To do well they had to develop their information literacy, analytical, and writing skills. But I did not know answers to some basic questions.
Did other history lecturers have a single set text for students, as I had seen in America? I wasn’t sure.
What sorts of reading should I offer to them? Textbooks such as those of Martin Polley or Jeff Hill had rather different reading demands, with Polley’s more accessible.
What about the sorts of material I was reading myself? Each year I accessed a huge amount of text, from monographs, peer reviewed articles and primary sources to much secondary internet material. But some of those texts were very challenging and difficult to understand. They were hard for students to access.
Certainly the journal articles I sometimes saw on reading lists were hardly easy to read. I knew that I could assess such texts using a variety of readability tests, such as the Fog Index, Flesch Reading Ease or the SMOG index. Most of these were American in origin. They took in factors such as sentence length, poly-syllabic words or specialist vocabulary.
Most articles in the main sports history journals demanded graduate level reading skills. Only the best of my undergraduate students had higher order reading skills: of skimming, scanning and intensive reading. Fewer still understood the specialist vocabulary. They often relied on journal abstracts to avoid the text. But even the abstracts are relatively demanding of readers. I can illustrate this by comparing five abstracts of two academics that I personally have a high regard for: professors Doug Booth and Wray Vamplew.
Doug’s five abstracts vary in order of difficulty
Geographical Research 53, 4 (2015) age 18-19
Sport in History 26.1 (2006) is for age 21-22
Rethinking History 16, 4 (2012)is for age 21-22
Rethinking History 18, 4 (2014) definitely post-graduate
Quest 65, 4 (2013) is higher still.
What about Wray Vamplew’s abstracts? He tends to have short abstracts. So I have selected longer ones
Sport in Society 19, 2016 post-graduate
International Journal of the History of Sport (IJHS) 32, 15 (2015) post-graduate
IJHS 31 18 2014 post-graduate
Sport in Society 19 2016 higher post-graduate
IJHS, 30,14 (2013) highest post-graduate
Even their abstracts clearly place surprisingly great demands on student readers. So in general whilst my handouts took readability into account and I tried to find secondary reading of a variety of levels, I am certain I did not do enough. The first paragraphs of my text above are deliberately couched below undergraduate level, at a reading age of 15 years. But I’m wondering if academic colleagues do take reading demands into account when working with their undergraduate students and offering reading lists. What do they do? What textbooks, if any do they use? Do they differentiate in their reading lists to offer more accessible texts first? It would be fascinating to find out.