February 17, 2018 10:22 pm

Norman Eng

Read chapter 9 for next week’s class.

Be prepared to discuss the handout tomorrow.

List 3 things you learned from this article and share on the discussion board.

A lot of professors assign readings like these; i.e., students read a piece of text, respond to it in some way and/or come prepared to discuss it in class. Yet over half of students don’t do the assigned readings, and often it’s because professors assign too much. (1, 2)  

Maybe it’s time we stop assigning readings. 

Perhaps we should instead start assigning tasks.

Picture this: You’re teaching about gender inequality. You want students to read a handout on this topic, but you're concerned they won’t read it or that they’ll only do so superficially. Instead of telling students, “Read this handout and write a one-page response,” you might assign the following task:

Research the pay gap between men and women in 3 different industries/jobs. Explain why you think these jobs pay unfair wages. 

Here’s a meaningful task students can focus on, rather than on some handout. But for students to report on unfair wages, they need to read up on the topic, right? That’s where you recommend certain sources:

To help, I’ve provided two handouts and a video. Refer to at least three ideas or supporting details from any of these sources in your write-up.  

See how the readings play a secondary, almost incidental, role? 

This is the case even if the reading comes from a textbook. Let’s say you teach Introduction to Biology, and this week you need to cover chapter 35, titled “Vascular Plant Structure, Growth, and Development.”

You could assign Chapter 35 and hope students read and digest all the terms covered. Or you could focus on one particular area—the structure of leaves and their functions—and turn it into a task/assignment:   

Collect 3-5 different kinds of leaves (yes, actual leaves!) and analyze them. Tape them onto a piece of paper and label as many parts as you can that are visible. The more you’re able to do so, the better. Chapter 35 will help you do this. Come prepared during class to discuss what each part does. 

While there are many (perhaps better) ways to ensure students understand plant structure, the lesson here is the same: don’t make reading the main thing, even though we know it’s a necessary part of the assignment. 

So, why might a task-based approach to reading motivate students more?

Essentially, it mirrors the way we read in real life. Aside from reading for pleasure, we read because we want to get better at something or know more about a topic. Books such as How to Build Your Baby’s Brain, The Self-Driven Child, and Raising Kids Who Read have provided me, for instance, with incredible insights into raising my twin infant girls. Yet I would never read such books if it didn’t support my larger parenting goals. 

Intentional reading also changes the way we read, turning us from a passive reader who “proceeds from the first word to the last word of a text at a rate predictable by the text’s structure, to one of a purposeful information-seeker who adapts the way they read to achieve that purpose.” (3) With my parenting books, I have selectively skipped paragraphs, sections, and even whole chapters that I considered less relevant. Why wouldn’t we expect students to be just as discerning?

A task-based approach can work even for literature classes or courses where students read fiction text. Compare two ways to approach Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man:

Old Way:

Read Chapter 1 and come prepared to discuss the roles that the narrator is forced to play during his class speech. [Here, the reading is the main focus.]

New Way:

Think about the last time you were forced to “play a role” you didn’t necessarily want to play. Post a short paragraph describing this role and why you felt this way. Make sure to include how it compares with and differs from the narrator’s experiences in Chapter 1. [Here, the reading serves the larger task/assignment.]

Of course, reading literature has a generally different purpose than reading nonfiction text; in fact, oftentimes reading here is the goal. Students in a literature circle (which is kind of like a book club for students) or a graduate research class, for example, are analyzing texts for their own sake. 

For most of us, however, readings serve as the “information transfer” phase of learning. 

The next time you plan readings, consider the larger goal you want students to reach, the task you want them to complete, or the skill you want them to develop. Then provide the resource(s) to help them get there. It might include not just readings, but also videos and other primary documents. 

Let’s break down a task-based approach to reading into four steps, each with an example: 

STEP 1: Decide the goal/task AND the readings (ideally, you want to make sure the reading is essential to doing well in the task). 

ObjectiveThis week, I want my education students to be able to teach adding and subtracting with math manipulatives.

ReadingThey will read Chapter 9, “Estimation and Computational Procedures for Whole Numbers.”

STEP 2: Frame the assignment in terms of the goal or task ONLY. Ignore the readings in this step (it will be incorporated in Step 3).

Your goal this week is to figure out the best way to teach addition and subtraction using base-ten blocks. (Add details if necessary.) 

STEP 3: Add the readings as a recommendation (to help students accomplish their task/goal).

Use the strategies from chapter 9 to decide which works best for you and write a 2-paragraph plan.

STEP 4: Tell students how the information will be used (and how they are held accountable).

Next week in class, you will share your plan and decide which ideas work best!

Put together, here is the fleshed-out assignment that students see, packaged around a hypothetical scenario: 

Meet Julissa.

She’s eight years old and in third grade. But she has trouble multiplying two-digit numbers. Conceptually, she knows that multiplying has something to do with groups. Yet the traditional algorithmic way to multiply is too abstract for her. 

How would YOU teach Julissa? Your goal is to figure out the best way to teach multiplication using base-ten blocks. Consider the strategies from chapter 9 and decide which resonates most with you—and which you think would actually help Julissa.

Write a 2-paragraph plan explaining/justifying your instructional choice. Next week in class, you will share your plan and come to a group consensus.

See how I embed the reading without explicitly assigning it? This task would be impossible to do without reading the chapter. No quizzes, “gotcha” questions in class, or reading responses are necessary to compel students to read. 

Just make sure you hold students accountable for doing the assignment. In some cases, the simple act of having them share their thoughts in class is enough. Other times you may decide that the task is worth a certain number of points and/or that students have to post their responses on the online discussion board.  

As you can imagine, it’s not always necessary to use a task-based approach. Some readings, such as an article on how to land a job interview or a chapter about the impact of social media, are inherently purposeful and motivating for students. Using task-based approaches depends on you and your goal. 

Perhaps the real promise of task-based approaches to reading comes when we can stop dictating the sources. Students would be the ones who must figure out what texts to read and what videos to watch. All we have to do is come up with the goals or tasks. That’s when students become true self-directed learners. 

For now, let’s start by positioning reading where it should be—in service to the goals and tasks we assign. This would be a significant step to helping students see reading as useful, rather than as simply something they must do. 

Let me know if this approach to reading helps - leave a comment or question below!



(1) Hoeft, Mary E. (2012) "Why University Students Don't Read: What Professors Can Do To Increase Compliance," International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: Vol. 6: No. 2, Article 12. https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/ij-sotl/vol6/iss2/12/

(2) Cynthia S. Deale & Seung Hyun (Jenna) Lee (2021) To Read or Not to Read? Exploring the Reading Habits of Hospitality Management Students, Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Education, DOI: 10.1080/10963758.2020.1868317

(3) Durik, A. M., Britt, M. A., Rouet, J. (2017). Literacy beyond text comprehension: A theory of purposeful reading. United States: Taylor & Francis.


I write like a fifth grader. And I’m proud of it.

I probably shouldn’t be, being in academia and all. But one thing sales copywriters get that professors often don’t: The harder you make it for audiences to “get” what you’re saying, the less likely they’ll buy into it.

Students are no different. Yes, they’re in college. Yes, they’re supposed to think at a higher level. But they have jobs. Siblings to take care of. A burgeoning social life. Extracurricular activities.

So don’t make it harder for busy students to understand you. Have you ever thought about the words in your lecture, your syllabus, or your assignments?

If not, then start by figuring out your F-K score.

The Flesch-Kincaid score shows what grade level you’re writing at. A score of 12 means you’re writing at a 12th grade reading level. If your score is 14, you’re writing at college level.

It’s calculated by words per sentence, syllables per word, and a few other factors. The New York Times, for instance, is written at a 10th grade reading level.

The lower the score, the easier your writing is to understand.

So, what level should you be at? That’s debatable, but I recommend 8th grade or lower, which is where most Americans are at. Chances are, they’ll more likely read, understand, and/or share your writing.

Look at Pulitzer- and Nobel-Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway. His timeless novel, The Old Man and the Sea, was written at a 4th grade level. Yet it was powerful enough to shape 20th century fiction.

One of the top-ranked articles on LinkedIn was written by Gretchen Rubin, author of a New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. Her article scored at a fifth-grade level.

Of course, there are plenty of “advanced” books that do well too. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is written at an 11th grade level. But today’s millennial generation, who grew up on the internet, are scanning for information. They’re not reading books cover to cover. If your message doesn’t grab them, they tune out.

So let’s test your writing.

Copy and paste a few paragraphs from one of your writing assignments into the website below:


It’ll spit out your readability level, by grade.

The details of my fieldwork assignment from this term scored at a 5th grade level. Same with this very article.

Just for fun, I took five recent research articles from the online science journal, PLOS One. I know the audience is different, but it can be telling. The readability level? 17.7. That’s graduate level stuff.

No wonder the general public ignores what scholars say. Well, to be honest, there are many reasons why, but writing in “academese” probably doesn’t help.

The reality is, the masses gravitate to messages they understand quickly, according to marketing consultant Donald Miller. Like Barack Obama’s message when he ran for president in 2008 (“hope”). Like Donald Trump’s message in 2016 (“make America great again”). Same with George H.W. Bush in the 1980s (“No new taxes”).

But does anyone remember what the losing presidential candidates stood for? Like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or ex-Florida governor Jeb Bush? Probably not.

Now, I know. The F-K index will likely draw the ire of the academic community, because it seems to suggest we dumb things down, right?

Maybe it’s time we really think about communicating clearly and simply. Not just as researchers, but as teachers. That starts by removing any “friction” in our writing—the big words, the abstract language. That’ll go a long way in engaging students.

I’d love to hear about your F-K score, and how it may help your teaching.

  • I tested one of my assignments – a paper assignment – and it came back at 8th grade level. Might try to make it even easier to understand. I’ve been really thinking about simplifying my communication both in writing and lecturing. Thanks for the article!

  • No problem! I’m religiously thinking of ways to make my writing accessible to my audiences–whether readers, students, or researchers.

  • This is a great tool! Thanks! It is important to expand students’ vocabulary…one of the comments I often get on my teaching evals is appreciation from students for introducing them to new words…but I am intentional about it. I ask them to keep a list of words I use that they don’t know. I am willing to stop mid-lecture to define a word. We talk about the etiology of words. But I don’t want them to struggle to understand their assignments! It is hard enough to get quality work without them having to guess what I want from them!

  • I submitted something in French (my teaching subject) that I had written for my high schoolers; it came back as anywhere from 9-11th grade level depending on the scale used. Given that those are the grades I teach, I think I’m on target. Aren’t we supposed to be using language that is sometimes challenging – so they acquire advanced vocabulary – as well as being comprehensible? I would argue that we can do both. Thanks for your interesting posts – keep up the good work!

    • For me, writing like a 5th grader is more than just being comprehensible (which ironically might suggest my writing could have been clearer!). Writing simply can often incite action. For example, the posts that are shared online the most are often the ones that are written simply (i.e., easy to get–and of course has something meaningful to say). That’s why protest slogans like, “Hell no we won’t go!” or advertising taglines like Nike’s “Just Do It” or promises like “Read my lips: No new taxes!” moves people to action (protesting, buying/exercising, voting, etc.). I guess that was my real point behind this post. Being comprehensible is a given, but moving others? The evidence suggests that being simple does that better than being dense and clear. Thoughts?

  • I just wrote something off-the cuff and did not review it. It came back 11th to 12th grade level. I’m going to review it and see how I could simplify things just a tad.

    • Siam, I hope this test was helpful; more importantly that it helps you reflect on how you communicate—to students and your other audiences!

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