This post is the first in a series of three reviewing the literature on academic reading by Rachel Bartley (UCL, Active Online Reading project student researcher).

In reviewing the literature on student reading practices in higher education we begin with a post that examines the basic core of academic reading. In pursuing more effective strategies to read online and in digital spaces, it is crucial to reflect on what academic reading is, what it should look like, and why it can be so challenging. Reading is frequently neglected in curricula and rarely taught or examined explicitly. However, its close connection to academic success and complex, discipline-specific nature means research is increasingly stressing that it is worthy of instruction and further enquiry. This blog post brings together key studies and discussion points around the purpose and practice of academic reading.

Academic reading forms a crucial part of academic study and can be distinguished from general reading by various criteria including the type of text read, the process of engagement, and the desired outcome of the engagement process. It is discipline-specific, purposeful, and critical. Academic reading therefore constitutes a distinct skill that can be learnt, requiring effort, practice, and guidance.

British Library digitised image from page 51 of "Drawing-Room Plays. Selected and adapted from the French by Lady Adelaide Cadogan. Illustrated by E. L. Shute, etc"
British Library digitised image from page 51 of “Drawing-Room Plays. Selected and adapted from the French by Lady Adelaide Cadogan. Illustrated by E. L. Shute, etc”

The key purpose of academic reading is the acquisition and construction of subject knowledge, however, it also plays a much broader role in academic development and success. It helps students to interact with and make connections and judgements between texts, question contributions, and challenge inherent biases and arguments. In this way, academic reading is linked to the development of critical thinking. In a survey of academics from UK universities on the purpose of academic reading for students, one participant put it bluntly: ‘If they don’t read, they don’t think and learn’ (Miller and Merdian, 2020).

Research into learning and teaching practices has also identified academic reading’s significant role – alongside critical thinking skills – in the formation of students’ authorial identities. Academic reading and writing are intrinsically linked, with the former serving as an enabler for the latter. In a study by Maguire et al (2020), students reported that, quite simply, without academic reading, they would have nothing to write about. Furthermore, it was only through sustained academic reading that they developed their own views and abilities to interact and engage with their texts. Maguire concluded that academic reading is a vital part of students’ development into ‘active, engaged and purposeful learners and meaning makers with deliberate textual identity’.

Yet, despite the importance of academic reading to students’ development and engagement, the skill is often taken for granted in higher education. Lecturers generally expect students to arrive at university and be able to read proficiently, but studies suggest that this is not always the case. Many students entering higher education are not equipped with the academic reading skills needed for effective study. Although academic reading forms a core component of university teaching, it is integrated through modes such as reading lists and class discussions. Teaching sessions are rarely specifically dedicated to development of the skill. Reading experts agree that competency in academic reading is learned, yet students receive very little explicit, discipline-specific instruction (Howard, 2018). Gourlay has even argued that contemporary models of student engagement tend to emphasise forms of student activity that are more interactive and observable, such as group work, and risk constructing solitary reading as passive, or even problematic, leading to its exclusion from the curriculum.

To help address the neglect of academic reading in degree curricula, research suggests that tutors should seek to provide a greater level of support to students to help develop their academic reading capabilities. Studies have found that despite academics’ belief in the value of academic reading, they are often reluctant to teach it, owing to assumptions that it is the responsibility of other programmes, such as personal tutorship or the library, a lack of confidence in their own ability to teach academic reading skills, or a failure to realise it is necessary. Lecturers also emphasised the difficulties of assessing and rewarding students’ engagement with academic reading, as current assessment structures, such as essays, can allow students to attain success in assignments despite non-compliance with most of the reading (Miller and Merdian, 2020).

The issue of students’ non-compliance with reading is indicative of a broader question of students’ desire and inclination to read. In Miller and Median’s survey of academics (2020), all reported that their students read ‘too little’. Students also report reading too little, citing issues such as time constraints, unpreparedness, and a lack of motivation as all reducing their engagement with readings (Maguire, 2020). It would seem that students tend to underestimate the importance of academic reading and, as a consequence, fail to prioritise it. However, academics surveyed also reported struggling to prioritise reading within their workload, leading Miller and Merdian (2020) to conclude that it’s possible this implicit messaging may be passed on to students. Therefore, alongside skill development, it is important that students also receive clear communication from faculty about why and how academic reading is valued.

Students’ tendencies to read only enough to attain desired grades have led researchers to question whether students have moved from ‘intrinsically driven aspiring scholars’ to ‘extrinsically driven degree hunters’ (Miller and Merdian, 2020). In rethinking how university assessments value academic reading, we must also leave room to think about how skill development can encourage students to immerse themselves within a subject without the pressure of heavily goal-directed reading. Whilst the current research is unanimous in stressing the importance and value of academic reading, the question remains as to how tutors and lecturers can successfully incorporate skills instruction into the curriculum, assess and reward academic reading, while also encouraging students to read for its intrinsic value and for grade attainment.


Works Cited

Goulay, L., 2021. There is No ‘Virtual Learning’: The Materiality of Digital Education. Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research, 10(1), pp. 57-66.

Howard, P., Gorzycki, M., Desa, G. and Allen, D., 2018. Academic Reading: Comparing Students’ and Faculty Perceptions of Its Value, Practice, and Pedagogy. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 48(3), pp. 189-209.

Maguire, M., Reynolds, A. and Delahunt, B., 2020. Reading to Be: The role of academic reading in emergent academic and professional student identities. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 17(2), pp. 58-70.

Miller, K. and Merdian, H., 2020. “It’s not a waste of time!” Academics’ views on the role and function of academic reading: A thematic analysis. Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 17(2), pp. 20-35.

2 Replies to “The Purpose and Practice of Academic Reading”

    1. There are another couple of posts to follow in this series, which will contain further references.

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