‘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.