Creating a Reading Culture

Burton and South Derbyshire College

This project aimed to promote greater reading development and attainment for a group of ESOL learners based at a general FE College.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The Learning Resource Centre (LRC) staff and the ESOL team decided to collaborate in order to develop a strategy for enhancing and prioritising learners’ reading skills, thus promoting effective engagement in independent reading. The strategy used a reading challenge to encourage learners to access a wide variety of textual material and construct reflective comments, as well as reviewing the content of the material to clarify their personal perceptions. As the project progressed learners were able to share their insights with greater confidence; this helped them to consolidate their reading skills and move on to the next stage of their learning with greater appreciation of their capacity for reading.


The Reading Challenge, using the Reading Agency’s ‘Reading Ahead’ scheme, has been delivered regularly at the college to learners on a small-scale basis, largely in the curriculum areas of Foundation Learning and ESOL provision. The focus for the research was to make decisions about the validity, relevance and impact of this approach, with a view to improving the reading ability and reading engagement of learners across college.

The project also sought to identify the areas we needed to develop further to enhance the depth and breadth of the programme within wider curriculum areas.


The project leader and the ESOL team collaboratively selected a group to take part in the research. An ESOL level 1 group was chosen, because the reading element that the group were currently completing offered an ideal opportunity to investigate their current practices. The project leader, together with the rest of the LRC team, conducted weekly sessions with the selected group to deliver the reading challenge.

The sessions focused on introducing a variety of reading materials and recording learners’ experiences as they connected directly with their selected texts. This involved exposing them to different styles of text, including fiction, non-fiction, online reading, news items and magazines. Learners participated by deciding the reads themselves; this encouraged ownership of learning and a sense of autonomy. Regular meetings and conversations between the project leader, LRC team and the ESOL course tutor helped them to deliver, develop and monitor the progress of the research project.

Data obtained from semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and diaries was used to record progress and come to provisional conclusions about whether such an approach increased learners’ reading stamina and engagement with texts. Focus groups were held with learners to find out whether participants’ confidence levels had improved. They also provided an opportunity to investigate whether the content and breadth of the programme had actually engaged learners’ interests and encouraged them to read more widely.

Learners’ views were captured online through a Padlet space, where they could contribute thoughts and post reviews about their reading. This innovative approach allowed learners to document their critical responses towards texts as well as share and celebrate their reading experiences with other learners.

Further, tutors reflected on learner progress and engagement; this collaborative process helped them to identify associated forms of inquiry and fostered relationships with curriculum staff and learners, all aimed at improving the quality of the learners’ experience.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

As the Reading Challenge progressed it became evident that learners were keen to engage in more online reading, frequently using their phones to translate difficult words or phrases. The project allowed learners the space to reflect on their online reading habits; many had not considered this to be part of the natural context for reading. As a result, the Padlet was established as a forum for recording learner reviews and testimonies, which made the process of evaluating practice with learners easier and helped them to assess its impact on learning more adequately. This in turn prompted changes to session plans. It became a sustainable tool in promoting the benefits of technology and supporting learners in using digital literacies.

The research process, especially the use of questionnaires and interviews, enabled a closer and more positive understanding of the diverse nature of learners’ cultural backgrounds and their perceived level of confidence in relation to other languages. For some learners it was an opportunity to widen their reading to other languages in which they were fluent, such as French and Spanish, reflecting the physical journey they had taken before settling in the UK. As a result of this project, to highlight the value of reading, learners learned how to set appropriate challenging goals for themselves, while demonstrating greater awareness of reading as a skill which can be mastered, stretched and improved upon.

Using the Padlet, learners were able to identify and post new or tricky words, leading to whole group discussions, an active way to widen vocabulary and build exposure to new expressions. It demonstrated a collective means for overcoming individual barriers to learning and a safe way to identify personal learning needs with the group.
Learners reported improved confidence and self-efficacy through taking part; they felt much better equipped to address their English needs.

Learners recognised that building effective reading habits and mastering good reading skills were crucial for their success.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Supportive collaboration between curriculum and support staff has provided a basis for more effective communication and working practices. The exposure of learners to an additional team and spaces across the college has been shown to reinforce and aid learner autonomy. The recognition that others in the organisation can support the learner journey enriches both learners and teaching staff, and acts as a positive influence on the culture of the college by making learners feel they are part of a wider learning community.

This strengthening of curriculum collaboration has provided groups with opportunities to engage in meaningful research-informed sessions and approaches. The adoption of the Padlet as a tool of engagement has championed new practices, shared with the ESOL teaching team.

Although the strategy may prove challenging, ESOL Entry Levels 2 and 3 are scheduled to become parts of the planned ongoing collaborative process with selected GCSE English, Functional Skills and International groups.

Because the sessions are more interactive and structured, they can easily be adapted for focusing on different aspects of reading skills such as comprehension, inference, improving vocabulary and fluency.

The focus on reading has been celebrated and established through inductions and certificate award ceremonies, and locally and nationally through the college social media, highlighting the organisational commitment to celebrating learners’ achievements in reading.

The certificate award ceremony was sponsored by an international e-textbook publishing company. As a result, new initiatives were discussed for developing provision to support more online reading.

These new and exciting innovations will be embedded into subsequent versions of the reading challenge to recognise the rapidly transforming models of accessing reading materials. These will allow our curriculum to adapt, assimilate and align to new digital literacies.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

The structure of the reading challenge actively encouraged learners to engage with choosing and selecting items they wanted to explore to promote learner autonomy. The structured sessions introduced different types of text and the freedom to select reading material that explored matters of social and cultural diversity. During a session focused on exploring the connection between reading and wellbeing, learners actively selected issues related to their interests. They read magazine articles about home décor, psychology or children’s behaviour. The project therefore allowed the foregrounding of personal interests and reaffirmed their identity.

Learners had the opportunity to discuss their opinions and perceptions with others and use deeper forms of questioning about the texts they had selected. For instance, two learners had chosen different books about Shakespeare; by the social activity of discussion, comparison and critical inquiry they were able to check facts about his life, make sense of information, and develop their levels of literacy.

Learners were positive about the challenge, many reporting that it improved and boosted their levels of confidence in English. The emphasis on learning new vocabulary made them curious to discover and assimilate new words so they could, as acknowledged by one learner, “Enjoy imagining each situation.”

The challenge encouraged many of these learners to explore the connection between reading and their own lives and values. Some wanted specific books to share and read with their families, while others wanted to enhance their learning, especially their writing capacity. By using the practices of decoding and engaging with different texts, many of the learners were able to liberate their thinking and explore what mattered deeply for them.

“I really love this challenge, because this challenge make (sic) me happy and it made me gain confidence. Thank you for giving me this chance.”
(ESOL Learner).

Learning from this project

  • Synergies were recognised that allowed learners to gain the most meaningful and productive interactions with the texts they had read. For example, magazines and online reading proved to be an impactful way to introduce non-fiction to learners. As learners selected material, they were consciously choosing connections with prior knowledge and personal identity, resulting in strong engagement with the chosen texts.
  • Structured sessions provided a key focus on different types and formats of text, including online, print, fiction and non-fiction, Emphasis on different reading strategies assisted learners in text interpretation and decoding. Extensive reading complemented increased learner knowledge and context acquisition.
  • Sessions were structured to address the challenges of independent reading and make learners accountable for their choices. Think, pair, share activities helped learners to verbalise their thoughts and critical assumptions before committing to paper or posting online.
  • Emerging practices for digital reading were identified as a new way to develop reading skills and learner engagement. The development of the Padlet facilitated the effective online sharing of reviews.
  • The active identification of new words and deployment of strategies to decide their meaning ensured that learners were less daunted at the prospect of skipping over words or phrases that appeared problematic. Many learners placed great importance on developing skills to achieve the reading exam and were prepared to commit to further independent reading and decoding to master their skills.
  • It was recognised that some ESOL learners had limited time for additional reading activities outside the timetabled sessions because of familial and work responsibilities. Sourcing relevant accessible online reading may further supplement and improve the frequency of developing effective reading habits.
  • There is an opportunity to explore how writing instruction can be built into the project, such as how writing requirements can be framed so that less confident learners can improve their critical analyses and rely less on descriptive writing. These practices would support lower level learners.