Historians love reading!

Historians love reading! Every year that I work with new history teacher trainees, I expect them to say that everything they do is online, in short, easy-access format, and that books are ‘old hat’. I expect someone might say reading for pleasure is an outdated idea. It hasn’t happened yet. Every historian seems to love books, and what we mean by books is expanding, but books will remain. Books may be those things with pages and spines and covers, or they may now be online on various devices. What history teachers love is reading history, and at length. Of course, we read the work of historians to keep us up-to-date and engaged with our subject, but there is also such a pleasure to be gained from reading the work of a very good historian and learning about a new debate in history, or having your views about a debate altered. We love great narrative histories, and well-written historical biographies. We love comparative histories, highly analytical texts and really good historical fiction. Naturally, we have our favourite topics and our own particular interest areas, but what unites us all is a love of reading history. Reading is integral to the discipline of history. The more we read history, the better we become at doing history ourselves. Reading history builds our historical thinking.

So how do we communicate this passion to our students? How do we enable them to find out for themselves the power of reading history? How do we support them to find the confidence to engage with history books?

Here are some of the ways that we have found helpful:

The History Room has lots of books in it and they are used
There are lots of history books on the shelves in the History Room. Some of them are our own. They are linked to the curriculum and are clearly already read; some of them are really quite tatty as they have been read so much. Sometimes we use lengthy extracts from these books as a central focus to lessons. More often, we grab a book from the shelf and refer to it in the introduction to a historical enquiry, or to illustrate a point in mid lesson. Hopefully students notice that we are always reaching for books. Hopefully they start to associate exciting historical thinking with books.

We assume a reading culture
We assume that everyone is excited by books. We expect that people are reading and that they want to read more. We mention books all the time. When we are marking work, we might suggest a good book that would broaden a student’s historical thinking. We love it when students bring books into school and always acknowledge this sharing of historical thinking.

We share our own reading
All of us have busy lives and wish we had more time for reading, but we share all that we are reading. My College students know I have been re-reading ‘Visitation’ by Jenny Erpenbeck. Have you read it? It’s a really interesting piece of historical fiction, set hauntingly before and after the Second World War near Berlin. It’s also less than 200 pages; always a plus at this time of year! Not known for her short books is Hilary Mantel. Today I learnt that some of the class had read ‘Wolf Hall’ and I read from a piece of her novel ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ as it fits well with our AS History course. Book reviews are often on our ‘History in the News’ wall. That way we can start hunting out good books to read in the holidays when we have more time.

We use the school library
We are fortunate to have a wonderful school library; both in terms of atmosphere and stock. Our librarian is an inspiration, and is always suggesting new books we might have missed. She has helped us to compile ‘History Reading for Fun’ lists for all year groups (you can find them on this blog). They contain lots of ideas, both fiction and non-fiction, for extending historical thinking through reading around enquiries pursued in class. Yesterday a student and I had a happy few minutes in the library thinking about books that could compliment the topic she is currently studying. We often refer to the library in class and take students to its books, or vice versa.

We link up with other avid readers
Most obviously we link with our English Department. They are great readers and we often coordinate mentioning books to students in both sets of lessons. They often get guest authors into school and we then work on the historical context to the showcased books. Other links include going into A level English lessons to talk about the historical context to their set texts. We have analysed historical fiction in both our lessons and entered the Historical Association short story competition after working out what makes really good historical fiction by reading some.

We encourage older students to read academically
We visit the York University library so that students know where it is and how to use it. Our A level historians have ‘proper history books’ as well as textbooks. We use them in class and nudge the under-confident to read parts of them. This is supported with help on how to develop a wider range of reading strategies. We maintain a subscription to History Today and expect students to use it for their A level personal studies. Every A level topic is accompanied by an extensive reading list and many of the books are in the school library.

These are some of our ideas. Do you have any great ideas about how to encourage our young historians to love reading? We would love to hear from you!

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