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Reading in geography

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‘Learning geography requires students to read widely from a variety of texts and other sources of information. They need to select, compare, synthesise and evaluate information from different sources as well as use other skills to distinguish fact and opinion, and to recognise bias and objectivity in sources. Add to this the fact that geography has its own extensive vocabulary which needs to be mastered if students are to be able to understand and interpret what they are reading.’

Biddulph et al., 2015, p. 157

Topics on this page:

  • Reading in the geography classroom
  • Observing reading in geography lessons
  • Reading and information literacy for older students
  • Active reading strategies in geography
  • Directed activities related to texts (DARTS)
  • Reading

In geography we use a range of different types of literature including explanation, information, argument and instruction. We place quite high reading demands on students and expect them to be able to read text closely to find detailed information as well as being able to scan and skim, looking for key points.

Geography textbooks are usually written in a formal style and geography often uses multi-syllabic words and long sentences which require higher reading ages. Useful articles for geography found in newspapers and on the web are usually written for adult readers. For example, articles in the Guardian or Independent often require a reading age of over 20.

This can be a significant barrier for those with limited literacy skills and we must consider how to give access to all when planning lessons. You must be aware of any difficulties your students face. There are often alternative information sources we can use in geography, such as images, maps, graphs and diagrams which can help. You should draw attention to any visual information that is provided to support text. This is often referred to as ‘dual-coding’.

Reading in the geography classroom

During geography lessons we expect students to read from a variety of written sources – texts, whiteboards, the internet, exercise books. Yet, typically we give students very little time to spend reading during a lesson. Roberts (2003) reports on research that showed that students have very little opportunity for sustained reading in geography and short-bursts of reading were unlikely to lead to the development of understanding.

Over several lessons with different age-groups, focus on the different types of reading that students engage in:

  • Note down the different text types they read and the source of that text.
  • Estimate the percentage of time students were ‘reading’ compared with listening or talking in the lesson.
  • What is the purpose of the reading? What is the teacher asking of students?
  • Do you observe any common difficulties experienced in their reading? How can this be overcome?
  • What challenges are met by weaker readers?
  • What homework was set, and how much reading was involved? 

Discuss your observations with the teachers and discuss the reading expectations they have of their students and what activities they use to develop reading skills.

  • See Textbooks which is section 3.2 in Literacy in Geography. Consider the challenges that the geography textbooks used in your school might present to your students.

Before using a piece of text think how to provide support for students. You might consider reading difficult text out loud or editing it. Check that the vocabulary is known and encourage students to compile their own glossaries of specialist vocabulary. You could also find out the reading age of text you have written – ask the English department how to do this.

It is important that key stage 3 students read for meaning. Too often in geography lessons, students read text without having to think about it at all! Discuss with your geography mentor or geography teachers whether they think comprehension activities or ‘reading around the class’ – both activities commonly seen in geography lessons – actually contribute to reading for meaning.

Having studied the readings, consider carefully what you ask your students to read and how you ask them to engage with and use the text. These are the crucial factors in determining what geographical learning they gain from it. If you ask them to read a long article, consider how to structure their reading by setting comprehension-type questions or providing a framework for notes. Teach them how to skim a source first to decide whether it has information worth focussing on.

Think ‘outside of the box’ when deciding what students should read in your lessons. Fiction, travelogues, and poems all have role, particularly to generate a ‘sense of place’.

Look at these references for ideas:

  • Jouhal, S. (2021) Geography reading in the classroom, PowerPoint from GA Conference 2021.
  • Rackley, K.M. and Owen, C. (2023) ‘Rethinking Wider Reading through the Reteach Project’, GA Conference Presentation, April. (Refer to the slide Why is ‘wider [extensive] reading’ important for learners?)
  • Trolley, S. (2020) ‘Prisoners of Geography? How contextualising a book can develop students’ understanding of geography’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Rawling, E. (2010) ‘The Severn was brown, and the Severn was blue’ – A place for poetry in school geography?, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Taylor, R. (2008) ‘Using Horrible Geographies’, Teaching Geography, Spring.

Reading and information literacy for older students

Key stage 4 and A level students require more advance reading skills that are often described as information literacy. These are associated with the location, evaluation, synthesis, and effective use of information resources.

Read Waller et al (2016) to find out about the importance of information literacy skills in the context of GCSE and A level curricula and the transition to university. It includes teaching ideas to encourage students to engage with a more diverse mix of sources and undertake independent research reducing their over-reliance on course textbooks.

Finn (2022) encourages geography teachers to help to foster a culture for post-16 students where reading can be part of ‘fitting in’ by giving time and space to talk about what students are reading for pleasure and new perspectives.

Finn also discusses how teachers should help A level students to read with purpose, and in particular to use the SQ3R approach. This is to:

  • Survey (S): initially, skim and scan looking for relevant material
  • Question (Q): generate questions about the content and ask ‘how could this text be beneficial for me?’
  • Read (R1): use the work done in the two previous steps to help focus when reading the text
  • Recite (R2): recite the answers to their initial questions, using their own words (in oral or written form)
  • Review (R3): after the reading is completed, repeat back to themselves what the main ideas of the text were, by using their own words.

Finn is writing from the perspective of a university tutor and he consider two key ‘shifts’ he has observed in students’ reading when they move to a university setting. The first is shifting from ‘reading for information’ to ‘reading for arguments’.

The second is when students’ shift from trying to understand everything on first reading, to seeing themselves as joining an ongoing ‘conversation’ and reading to fill in the ‘backstory’. He advocates giving post-16 students opportunities to approach reading in this way prior to their university study.

Active reading strategies in geography

Harris (2017) explains the importance of involving students actively with texts in geography lessons, rather than passively ‘skim reading’. Students need to engage fully with the information they read and make connections with their existing knowledge if they are to learn. 

He suggests practical approaches and recommends geography teachers to use a ‘predict’, ‘question’, ‘clarify’ and ‘summarise’ sequence to encourage students to ask questions, research for information and dissect and analyse the text.

Explore the different active reading strategies to encourage students to engage with text and read it more closely for geographical meaning. These include card sorting activities, highlighting words and phrases and to use information from texts to create bullet points, diagrams or complete a chart. 

There are also ‘cloze’ procedures you could use. Discuss these, and other suggestions, with your geography mentor or other teachers and read about different options in the following readings:

  • Active reading in section 3.3 in Literacy in Geography.
  • Harris (2017) suggests several techniques to get students to engage with text and read effectively.
  • Walshe (2017) describes the stages of the EXIT (extending interactions with text) model to engage with geographical texts.
  • To support weaker readers, see Resources for poor readers and Westoby (1996). Both give practical advice on designing and writing worksheets that are easier for students to read and similar principles can be considered when selected published texts to use.

Directed activities related to texts (DARTs)

DARTs are set of strategies frequently used to engage students in reading and understanding text. Biddulph et al (2021) summarised two types of DARTS that are used in geography:

  • Reconstruction DARTs – text is altered in some way so that pupils can reconstruct it, perhaps by printing it in sections on card. Sequencing text and diagram completion are other examples of this form of DARTs, where students complete a task after focusing on detailed reading of the text.
  • Analysis and reconstruction DARTs – the text is presented as a whole with activities designed to enable pupils to analyse its components (by underlining, highlighting or labelling). The text is then reconstructed into a simpler form (in lists, tables, flow diagrams, and annotated maps and diagrams).
  • See Roberts (2023) Figure 20.1 for details of analysis and reconstruction DARTs and Figure 20.2 for examples of instructions you can use. Read chapter 20, which provides further details about DARTs activities and advice on how they can be used in geography classrooms.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge, pp 119-121.
  • Finn, M. (2022) ‘Reading for a degree: transitions to higher education’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 8: Literacy in geography.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom, Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 5.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography through Enquiry: An approach to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association.  Chapter 20: ‘Directed activities related to text (DARTS)’.
  • Waller, R., Adams, C., Miller, G. and Schultz, D.M. (2016) ‘Encouraging students to read beyond the core text’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 15, pp 207-10.
  • Westoby, G. (1996) ‘Making reading easier in geography’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.