Related texts and wide reading: the power and the problem

Guest blogger: Anna McHugh

NSW teachers of Years 11–12 will be familiar with the scenario: the student who has ignored all your advice to read widely throughout Years 7–10 must now find a related text for HSC or Preliminary English. They recall reading a Harry Potter novel somewhere around Year 8. In desperation, you suggest movies, graphic novels and, finally, video games. It transpires that not only does your student prefer texts with a high body-count, but they don’t seem to know why they enjoy them.

English teachers tend to be the ones for whom wide reading was a joy and a success. As a colleague once said, ‘We’re the ones for whom reading worked.’

But wide reading costs precious time that could be spend cracking through a program. Even I raised an eyebrow at International Reading Association President Richard Allington’s argument that kids must read for two hours a day. I can’t think of a single student who, between sport, music lessons, other homework, family commitments, and paid jobs, could put in two hours of reading a day.

There is a way, however, to connect our duty to promote wide reading with the requirement to get through units of work, and that is the element of the related text.*

Most NSW schools introduce the related text in Year 10 or 11, but, for students who find identifying themes or values in a text challenging, identifying texts that share a theme is daunting. As well as this, at late Stage 5/early Stage 6, students also feel more keenly the gap between themselves and their stronger peers, and are tempted to give up.

Designing units with student-chosen related texts have the following benefits:

  • By introducing the requirement for a related text at the start of secondary English, students become familiar with reading, considering, and comparing texts of their own choice to prescribed texts.
  • It relieves teachers of the choice between a period of wide reading and one that progresses the current unit.
  • It gives a sense of broader purpose to students’ reading and prevents reading periods or prescribed wide-reading homework feeling pointless.
  • It’s easily translated into activities and assessments of different modes, from partner discussions to brief speeches on how the texts relate to the unit theme.
  • As an extension activity, asking able students how their related text and the prescribed text form an intertextual connection is a real challenge that strong Year 10s take to with relish.
  • It develops personal preference in reading and watching, and safeguards against the scenario described at the beginning.

Requiring students to choose a related text means that they must be really clear about what a theme is, and how to identify it in texts of different modes. They must also be aware that themes are present in non-fiction texts (which they should be encouraged to use—wide reading isn’t simply about fiction). They should gradually become able to identify the difference between theme, message, value, and purpose.

Wide reading, which has largely brought us to the job, doesn’t need to feel like the first day back at the gym after Christmas. If introduced early, it can lighten your load and brighten your students.

*For readers outside NSW, HSC English at all levels except ESL requires students to select texts that relate in some way to the module’s theme or approach. For example, the mandatory Area of Study from 20152020 studies the theme of Discovery. Students study a prescribed text from a list—The Tempest has been very popular—but they pair this with one or two texts of their own choice that study discovery in some way. They can be fiction, non-fiction, graphic, multimedia, or film/TV, but must be used to respond to the essay question along with the prescribed text.