Friday, 8 March 2013

Too easy? Keren David

‘Alarm over secondary school reading habits’ reported the Guardian yesterday, which just happened to be World Book Day, a day -  a week, in fact – when many schools made a huge effort to  host authors and hold other events to boost reading.

‘There is something "seriously amiss" with the way children are encouraged to read in secondary school,’ according to the Guardian’s report, ‘ with many reading books with an average reading age as much as four years below their actual age. The story was based on an annual report compiled by Professor Keith Topping of the University of Dundee, who warned that pupils are reading books which are ‘too easy’, and therefore not being challenged and intellectually stimulated by the books they read.

Topping suggests that "teachers, librarians and parents need to engage in more discussions with children about what they are reading, seeking to follow children's enthusiasms but ensure that the book is at a high enough level of difficulty to challenge the reader".

His report is sponsored by Renaissance, which sells software for an Accelerated reading scheme to schools. Pupils are assessed before they start the scheme, and each time they read a book they complete a quiz to test their understanding of the book they’ve read. At a school visit this week I saw for myself how successful Accelerated Reading can be. A boy who hadn’t much liked reading signed up for the scheme at the beginning of the school year and had read more than a hundred books since. He’d often spend break and lunchtimes reading, he wrote reviews, completed quizzes, and  enthused about his new favourites -  Darren Shan , for example. He asked the librarian if she would take a picture of him with all the books he’d read. It was wonderfully clear that Accelerated Reading had changed his life.

However, reading Professor Topping’s report, I did wonder what such Accelerated Reading  schemes do to encourage readers to try more challenging books. If the emphasis is on reading books and completing quizzes, then the competitive reader might feel their success is based on speed and volume.  I also wondered who chooses the books that pupils can be quizzed on. I was interested to see that Jeff ‘Wimpy Kid’ Kinney was the author chosen to introduce the report, yet his books are some of the ones enjoyed by older teens who are deemed too old for them.

There are many things that schools can do to encourage reading which is both enjoyable and intellectually challenging. Employing a professional librarian is one, having a well-stocked, welcoming library is another. Involving all the staff -  not just librarians -  in encouraging and valuing reading is also important;  setting up a reading group where pupils can discuss books; having a website for them to post reviews; inviting authors into school to talk about their books and run creative writing workshops.  Children’s intellectual development can also be boosted by other activies which encourage their literacy -  debating and drama for example. 
 All of these things were happening at this particular school. Charles Thorp Comprehensive School in Gateshead is lucky in having wonderful librarians -  take a bow, Beth Khahil and Gill Hodgson – and a head teacher who appreciates and supports everything that they do. 
I  had mixed feelings about the report. On the one hand it is important for kids to develop intellectually through reading. On the other hand there is so much more that reading can give them – emotional development for example, and a chance to relax and use their imaginations, that I would hate to see too much emphasis being put on reading ‘hard’ books, especially as such choices and challenges are deeply personal.  Targets and levels have been bad for British education, I'm wary of applying it too much to reading.  


Anne Cassidy said...

I think you are so right, Keren. One of the reasons I never read as a teenager was because the school's ideas of books to read were the 'classics' and these said nothing to me. The actual experience of picking up a 'classic' as a thirteen year old was like reading the instructions for setting up my new TV/top set box/sound system. It made me feel indequate and stupid so of course I tossed it. After reading a lot of other stuff I came back to those 'challenging' texts and loved them, in my own time. This report simply confirms what students somehow intuitively know, that reading is schools is political issue not as we would like it but something to be done for pleasure. No wonder it's hard to get kids to read.

Savita Kalhan said...

I agree that kids instinctively know when a book is too difficult for them, or beyond them. Half my teen's year are unhappy with Shakespeare as a set text for GCSE - they are not even reading whole plays, but comparing characters from two plays by looking at a few scenes. None of them have read the whole play - not even in class, so where's the context? The point is they're not enjoying it at all. I did read a lot as a teenager, including the classics, but I also read anything I could lay my hands on, which was quite a lot as I had a huge well-stocked town library on my doorstep and a great school library. We also had a reading session a couple of times a week in school where we could read what we wanted, recieved help and suggestions if we needed it. I don't think that happens in secondary schools now.

Anonymous said...

I think it's far more important that children and young people - indeed everyone! - gets to read things they enjoy. So what if it is "beneath their reading level"? At least half of my reading is children's fiction. Instilling a love of reading is vital. Of course, we all have to read things we don't enjoy, for work or research or for school etc, but reading for pleasure should be just that. In my son's school they are encouraged to read whatever they want at home; there is no "reading book" to be struggled through, although they do still do set books in class. If they are only reading one type of book or magazine, then they are gently encouraged to try something else as well. He started out a reluctant reader, but only yesterday told me that reading is his favourite thing.

Ann Evans said...

I think nothing puts a child off reading than being told what they should be reading, and then to have to analyse, compare, discuss and dissect it word for word to figure out what the author was really getting at!
How I remember having to do this at my senior school. It's not surprising that I didn't get interested in books again until I was in my twenties.

C.J.Busby said...

I agree with Ann, and the awful thing is, that this 'dissect the book' attitude is now completely embedded at primary schools. Instead of reading lots and lots of different books and just enjoying them, and learning how stories work by osmosis and example, which I think is vital at this stage, pupils as young as 6 and 7 are being asked to think about character, setting, genre, writing style and all sorts of other lit crit stuff, til they're completely bored and/or confused, and associate reading with 'hard work'.

Cathy Butler said...

I agree - enjoyment is what will embed the reading habit. Adults are very good a prescribing reading habits for children that they wouldn't dream of imposing on themselves (look at the adult bestseller list for the evidence).

Anonymous said...

I've been looking for the report by Prof Keith Topping everywhere, but I can't find it! Does anyone have a link where I can find it?