Rethinking the reading list

In 2016, University for the Creative Arts (UCA) set up a project on inclusive practice to look at areas such as mental health and transitioning into FE and HE, buddy schemes and best use of technology to support teaching and learning. As part of that initiative, the author undertook research into reading lists, which will be an ongoing project in the university, with staff contributing video links, skype sessions etc. demonstrating good practice. The recommendations have been adapted for publication.

Published on 25th October 2018 | Written by Ray Martin |Photo by iam Se7en on Unsplash

‘The reading list is dead’ (Stubley, 2002: 54).

The key aim of this paper is to embed more user-friendly ‘reading lists’ or, as Stubley (2002: 54) suggests, ‘resource lists’, into teaching practice that recognise diversity in all its forms. These lists will acknowledge the challenges that SpLD students and those with different cultural and language backgrounds may face with the academic written word.

They will seek to alleviate the stress reading lists can cause students, particularly some with mental health problems, and they will acknowledge the increasingly wide range of reading skills in our HEIs (Miller, 1999); they will exploit the increasingly valuable online material that comes in videos, animations and discussions, which can introduce more challenging academic texts. They will also recognise the challenges faced by Autistic Spectrum students (and others) who may read everything and then have problems (a) sifting the material they have gathered in, and (b) meeting deadlines.

They will, where possible, demonstrate a concern for cultural diversity, reconsidering the reading list that favours ‘pale, stale, fe/male’ thinking at the expense of alternative voices, which is at the root of the issue. They will support the development of cross-cultural competencies introduced by UNESCO in 2006 and reiterated by subsequent theorists (Killick, 2015).

The paper is also part of an ongoing response to the HEA’s view that ‘research-based study’ should be embedded in undergraduate courses in order to ‘cultivate awareness of research careers, to train students in research skills for employment, and to sustain the advantages of a research–teaching connection in a mass or universal system’ (Ramsden 2008: 11 cited in Levy and Petrulis, 2012). It also supports Fung’s (2017) views on the interconnectedness of teaching and research.

The paper will open with a survey of thinking around reading lists before summarizing relevant research by Stokes and Martin (2008) on student and tutor perceptions of the reading list, and Piscioneri and Hlavac’s (2012) exploration of the minimalist reading list. It will then offer recommendations for building reading lists at arts-based institutions that recognize the findings of research and support the development of lists that fit with notions of good inclusive/diversity practice.


Very little research has been undertaken into course reading lists (Stokes and Martin, 2008: 113), despite their longstanding importance in undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The design and use of reading lists appear to have been seen as ‘an unproblematic given’ (ibid:124) and, say Stokes and Martin (2008: 113), ‘In particular, in teaching and learning literature … there is a notable vacuum.’ The area continues to be little explored either among academics or librarians or between academics and librarians. Four years after Stokes and Martin’s research, Newman College findings (2012: 1) suggest, ‘the reading list can be a highly contested or deeply misunderstood device. The creation and use of reading lists contains a whole range of unprobed assumptions.’ Fairbairn and Fairbairn go so far as to say, ‘In our view reading lists are often a waste of time’ (2001: 88, cited in Piscioneri and Hlavac, 2012: 425).  Stokes and Martin’s researches suggest these reading lists often have no internal coherence (2008:118), and items may have been included from a range of influences including, simply, personal preference (ibid: 121). It is also claimed that managing reading, particularly at transition stages, ‘appears to be singularly lacking in any well-considered pedagogical rationale’ (Piscioneri and Hlavac, 2012: 432).

Stubley sees the reading list as ‘a key tool’ in student development and asserts that ‘less well organized [lists] can be a source of confusion and frustration’ (cited in Thompson et. al, 2004). It is clear that rethinking the reading list is important for student success.

Validation of programmes

It might be suggested that the validation process would be helping to improve the quality of reading lists, with the introduction of strict rules for all aspects of validation. Swain (2006: 18) says ‘lecturers who had relied on blowing the dust off the same old lists for each fresh intake of students had to spring-clean their recommendations’. Stokes and Martin (2008:115) are less optimistic, and suggest that the validation process invites ‘little in-depth discussion of the principles, or discussion of the perceptions and assumptions, which underpin such debates.’ They also point out that reading lists are often created for validation for courses which will be taught by someone who has not engaged in their development. They can then act as a ‘straightjacket’.

It would thus be useful to consider to what extent validation procedures managed by the Quality Assurance department help to improve the quality of the reading list or does responsibility for this fall into a no man’s land between Quality Assurance and Educational Development.

Information and communication technologies (ICT)

More important, perhaps, to new thinking around the reading list are first, the rapid increase in student numbers, who cannot all access the limited number of hard copies; and second, the growth of ICT and the growing range of good online material. This brings its own difficulties, and Piscioneri and Hlavac (2012:429) claim, ‘In general, scholarly debate over the place and effectiveness of ICT in HE remains very much alive at present and shows no sign of abating.’

Stubley (ibid.) claims lecturers are concerned that when everything can be accessed on desktop, students will avoid the library. They may well be right in the case of weak readers, who tend to be those with library anxiety (Jiao and Onwuegbuzie, 2003; Stokes and Martin, 2008: 114). Stokes and Martin also think that the ‘one-stop’ techno shop may discourage reading around a topic (ibid). They say, ‘For many students, electronic access often leads exclusively to the Internet’ (ibid: 118). At the same time, Piscioneri and Hlavac (2012:429) say 80% of the students they surveyed preferred hard copies; some students reported discomfort reading online (Peterson et al., 2009 cited in Piscioneri and Hlavac, 2012: 429).

Stokes and Martin (2008)

Stokes and Martin point out that such research as there has been around student reading has focused on how students read rather than how they use reading lists. Discussions have focused on ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ reading strategies (Marton and Saljo, 1984 and Ramsden, 2000), which Mann (2000) claims are too simplistic: her researches showed that how students read depends on a wide variety of factors, such as background, etc. etc. Stokes and Martin point out that these findings are at odds with ‘the normative characterization of literature as “neutral” or “pleasurable”’ (Stokes & Martin, 2008: 115).

Stokes and Martin explore the differences between tutors’ and students’ views of reading lists and establish that there is wide disparity between the groups. Long-held tutor views of students as ‘self-starters’ and ‘highly motivated’ bear little relationship to reality, and an idea of students needing reading/research support only in the early stages of their studies then moving towards prowess cannot be supported. The Stokes and Martin research findings showed that where tutors were expecting students to read widely, 67% of students in first year who claimed to use the reading list said they used a maximum of four entries; 47% said they looked at two or three items (ibid: 119) (‘Anecdotal evidence’ suggests students choose material ‘in fairly rigid ways’ – and ways that may include starting from the top of the reading list and working their way down, Thompson et. al, 2004)

Piscioneri and Hlavac (2012)

Piscioneri and Hlavac (2012: 424) considered the trial of a minimalist reading model ‘intended to rethink pre-lecture reading requirements and conventional approaches to designing reading lists at the tertiary level’, principally at transition times. Their model ‘emphasizes active reading and ideally is designed to stimulate students’ curiosity, helping students to contextualize a text’s main themes and treating knowledge as something open to ongoing investigation and even contestation.’ They wanted, in essence, to create an ideal of student reading – and were surprised to find that not all students found the model useful.

The model was composed of short passages from the main reading list, with questions to help understanding and ways into other key concepts. There were glossaries to help in understanding highlighted key terms and, where possible, links to translations. There were complaints that the minimalist reading list demonstrated a ‘dumbing down’ of learning, which Piscioneri and Hlavac put down to misunderstanding: their minimalist reading list was never intended to supersede longer, standard lists. Also, students were choosing to use the hard copy and thereby missing out on hyperlinks, glossaries, etc. that the online choices offered.

Reading lists are an important part of inducting students into the discourse communities of their chosen subject. Reading in a subject is important for this induction but reading lists can be scaffolded to develop students’ academic reading approaches and use of language.


It is clear that rethinking the role and construct of the reading/resource list is overdue and that, if we are to develop the research skills of a very diverse student community and initiate their development as global graduates, we need to do more than shake the dust off old thinking. We need to do some radical rethinking into more valuable ways to develop lists and to check their efficacy, exploring the ‘unprobed assumptions’ (Newman College (2012: 1) that underpin reading lists. It will not be enough, necessary though that is, to introduce a more diverse range of authors: we need to consider the increasing importance of a global perspective and ‘intercultural capability’ (Killick, 2015).

Reading lists could usefully be scaffolded to support the development of reading and language skills. The latter is likely to require whole institution engagement since academics are unlikely to have experienced such an approach when they were students and will thus have no resources to call upon. Nor will they have any experience of introducing students into the research community systematically.

As part of a whole-institution approach, it would be valuable to explore the roles of the Quality Assurance and educational development departments and ask whether reading lists currently rest in a no man’s land between the two. Such an approach would undoubtedly contribute to a positive student experience that would support the drive towards Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework.

‘When those who have power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing’  (Rich, 1986: 199).

Recommendations for creating and exploiting resource lists

Be very clear about what you want your resources list to achieve and make this explicit to your students, e.g. which chapters/sections/paragraphs need to be considered pre-lecture. Maybe refer in lectures to relevant sections of chapters, blogs and highlight their importance. Stubley (2002) claims an effective list is augmented by how the entries have been chosen and how they fit into the course. Thompson et al (2004) research showed almost 84% of students would either ‘definitely’ or ‘be inclined to’ use an item from the reading list if a lecturer had drawn attention to its value.

Bear in mind that you and your students are unlikely to share ideas about the development of reading skills and independent research, and not only in the first year. They need to be taught the importance of research skills at the outset. If you need to divide the reading between core/essential reading and recommended/wider reading make clear your aims. (Many students will take no more than four items from the core reading list, some fewer, and ignore the wider reading (Stokes and Martin, 2008))

Where possible, create resource lists that include writers and artists from across the world. Among other things, this acknowledges the changing, more international role of higher education. It also supports inclusive practice and our responsibility for creating global citizens who feel comfortable in the international environment.

Make sure that your resources include LGBTQ+ authors and artists and that texts respect gender difference and sexual orientation.

Use a variety of resources including TED Talks and videos, so that those who have difficulty with the written word have access through other channels first. The short Open University video on Goffman’s The Interpretation of the Self, e.g. gives a clear overview of Goffman’s thinking. This is useful too for holistic thinkers, e.g. many students with SpLDs, who find it difficult to access ideas if they do not have the big picture first (Cooper, 2009).

Where possible, include hyperlinks to online resources to avoid queues for library books and so that items can be linked to free reading programs (e.g. Cereproc, Claroread; Read & Write; Natural Reader) that will allow students to listen to rather than read text. Be aware, however, that if everything on the resources list can be accessed via the desktop, students may not have an incentive to explore library resources (Stubley 2002; Stokes and Martin, 2008).

Retain books as a resource too since many students prefer hard copies (Piscioneri and Hlavac, 2012, say 80%), but bear in mind an ongoing complaint: ‘there are never enough copies’ of books.

You might want to show images of the shelving to which the majority of the unit/module texts belong and suggest ways to explore that part of the library. There will be students who have library anxiety who will need encouraging into the library (Jiao and Onwuegbuzie, 2003), and this may offer a start.

You could usefully annotate entries (Miller, 1999; Stubley, 2002; Stokes and Martin, 2008 see this as valuable) particularly early on (Butcher et al, 2006). Annotated bibliographies in module packs might be referred to and discussed at relevant points in lectures to underline their value. You might also discuss the reading levels of items and offer alternatives at this stage.

Annotations might be directional, e.g.

  • Gombrich: Story of Art (1950) (enormously successful history of art book) library ref. xxxx
  • Chapters on some eastern cultures; mainly concentrates on movements and styles in the West
  • Introduction: highly recommended: introduces some interesting ideas to consider, e.g. ‘There is no such thing as Art, only artists’   (hyperlink)
  • Useful timelines on artists and movements at the back      (hyperlink)

The Gaze

Berger: Ways of Seeing (1972), library ref. xxxx

  • Ch. 3 explores the idea that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’ (hyperlink)
  • The book is part of a television series; discussion of the Gaze appears in Ways of Seeing: the male gaze (hyperlink)

Levi’s 501 ‘Laundrette’ advertisement (1985)

  • A key moment in changing the direction of The Gaze to include men; the ad was so successful, it made model Nick Kamen famous (hyperlink)

hooks: Feminism is for Everybody (2000) (hyperlink)

For international students, include glossaries as well as annotations (Carroll, 2005). Also reference to a speaking dictionary so that students can link new words they see in text to what they hear in lectures. ( is quick and clear.)

Students might be asked to summarise paragraphs or sections of a resource. Maybe include questions in the margin which, e.g. Piscioneri and Hlavac (2012) suggest can help scaffold the development of reading skills.

You could create tasks for blog discussions around particular books/chapters/sections/articles.

Follow the British Dyslexia Association’s (BDA) Style Guide for layout, choice of font, size, etc. (the Thompson etc. al. 2003/4 researches found no particular format was favoured; this format will support dyslexic students and others.)

Ray Martin is a dyslexia tutor, mainly supporting art and music students. She also teaches on PGC and MA courses specialising in creative teaching and is the author of articles on NLP, supporting students, mindfulness and transitioning into university for Autistic Spectrum students.


Brewerton, G. (2014) Implications of student and lecturer qualitative views on reading lists: a case study at Loughborough University, UK. New Review of Academic Librarianship, 20(1), pp.78-90

Butcher, C., Davies, C. and Highton, M. (2006) Designing Learning. London: Routledge

Carroll, J. (2005) ‘Teaching in English, learning in English’ in Carroll, J. and Ryan, J. (eds.) Teaching International Students London: Routledge, 35-42

Cooper, R. (2009) Dyslexia in Pollak, D. ed. (2009) Neurodiversity in Higher Education: positive responses to specific learning difficulties. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. 63-89

Fairbairn, G. and Fairbairn, S. (2001) Reading at University Buckingham: Open University Press

Fung, D. (2017) The Connected Curriculum London: UCL Press

Gibbs, G. (2006) ‘How assessment frames student learning’ in Bryan, C. and Clegg, K. Innovative assessment in higher education London: Routledge. 23-36

Jiao, Q. G. and Onwuegbuzie, A.J. (2003) Reading ability as a predictor of library anxiety. Library Review, 52(4), 159-169

Killick, D. (2015) Keynote lecture, SEDA

Levy, P. and Petrulis, R. (2012) How do first-year university students experience inquiry and research, and what are the implications for the practice of inquiry-based learning? Studies in Higher Education 37(1), 85-101

Mann, S. (2000) The student’s experience of reading. Higher Education 39, 297-317

Miller, B. (1999) An integrated taxonomy of student reading and learning development. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 23, 309-16

Newman University Library (2012) Why a Reading Strategy? Available at: [Accessed 20 Feb 2018]

Newman University Library (2012) Developing a Reading List

Piscioneri, M. and Hlavac, J. (2012) The minimalist reading model: rethinking reading lists in arts and education subjects. Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 12(4), 424-445

Ramsden, P. (2003) Learning to teach in higher education 2nd edn. London: RoutledgeFalmer

Rich, A. (1986) Blood, Bread and Poetry: selected prose 1979-1985 London: Virago

Stokes, P. and Martin, L. (2008) Reading lists: a study of tutor and student perceptions, expectations and realities. Studies in Higher Education 33(2), 113-125

Stubley, P. (2002) Going beyond resource discovery. Update 1(6), 52-4

Swain, H. (2006) Makeovers for the guides to essential reading. Times Higher Educational Supplement 20 Jan, 18-19

Thompson, L., Mahon, C. and Thomas, L. (2003/2004) Reading Lists: how do you eat yours? Available at: Centre for Learning and Teaching [Accessed 8 July 2017]

UNESCO (2006) Guidelines on Intercultural Education. Available at: [Accessed 25 July 2018]

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