Shelagh Toonen, Librarian at Elgin Academy, responds to an article in the national press that ‘Scottish children are not reading challenging enough books’ (BBC News, 22 February 2018)
The report reads that we are failing our pupils in Scotland. It highlights a study which leads us to believe that we have a Scottish education system clearly heading for catastrophe. Librarians, teachers, parents, pupils, education authorities and concerned citizens have reason for alarm. There are signs of literacy failure nationwide.
However, in my own school, Elgin Academy, in 2016, 87% of our pupils left school with a literacy level of level 5 in literacy or better. This was compared with 80% of our virtual comparator.
This refutes the claim in the study that “many 16-year-olds sitting National 4 and 5 exams have the reading ability of a 13 year old or lower.”
However, the education company Renaissance Learning, Inc. has made the claim that Scottish children are not reading challenging enough books and this was reprinted in the Scottish media. Renaissance Learning’s flagship product is a software package called Accelerated Reader. The company claims that AR (as it is called) is “the world’s most widely used reading software.”
It has been established in the UK since 1999 and claims to have a presence in over 40,000 schools in more than 60 countries worldwide. Renaissance’s purpose is to accelerate reading and learning for all. A minimum subscription rate for 50 pupils is £450, or £9 per pupil. AR is, by its very nature, a system of providing extrinsic motivation and extrinsic rewards for reading. A very expensive system with very expensive rewards.
Most pupils, even those with less reading ability, quickly realise that one way to accumulate points is volume, volume, volume. Read easier books and lots of them so you can quickly take as many AR quizzes as possible with minimal challenge. This competitive race is likely to discourage weaker readers while proficient readers may find the joy and power of reading reduced to vocabulary words and computer-generated comprehension quizzes. Our young people should not be reading to achieve tangible rewards. They should read because they want to. AR gets motivation wrong. It assumes that the reason our young people don’t read is that they need to be bribed into doing so with extrinsic awards.
Bestselling YA author Judy Blume is unequivocal: “What I don’t like and what I really don’t like — intensely hate, you could say — is the Accelerated Reader program, even though many of my books are in that program, because they rate books, not on emotional content or emotional readiness. They’re rated by machine — how many words in a sentence, how long is a paragraph. Nothing to do with character, nothing to do with subject and again, nothing to do with emotional readiness.”
Our pupils in Scottish schools read because their school librarian selected and recommended a book they thought they would enjoy based on knowing them and on their interests. Our pupils read to escape, to heal, to experience, to have adventures, to escape into other worlds and to dream. We provide them with the means to do that. School librarians provide a reader-friendly, safe, nurturing space with time to read and be read to and with time to select and to talk about reading. We provide access to books and, more importantly, choice. Young people are given free rein in the library, to read anything and everything they want.
Free choice is a powerful motivator in reading. For a young person, to have the opportunity to independently choose their own book, surely demonstrates their willingness and desire to read? It does not matter what that choice is. It should not be frowned upon nor the reader discouraged. Choice empowers our young people and if we value their choices, then we value them. Their choice leads to discussion, firstly about the books, but also then helps to create and to strengthen relationships. Ultimately, choice develops independent readers and learners.
If secondary school pupils do choose the same books they enjoyed in primary school, or choose to remain with one series of books, then they are reading books they have known, enjoyed and loved. If these books provide a comforting or nurturing value during what might be challenging or difficult times at secondary school, then that is a good thing. If pupils want to remain with Robert Muchamore, or Jeff Kinney or Anthony Horowitz and want to re-read the whole series, then let them.
School librarians are there to help our pupils to make choices based on their interests and to develop their enthusiasm for books. We are there to motivate and to enable our pupils to have choice in their reading. Strong and capable readers are those who read widely and diversely in a wide variety of genres and in the quest to build capable readers, promoting independent, self-selected reading remains key. Creating keen, lifelong readers doesn’t just happen. It takes a school library, with a diverse, relevant and vibrant collection of books and a professionally qualified librarian to help reach that goal.
My own proposal would be that all pupils be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their school lives and that all young children would have an adult who would read aloud to them each and every day.
Parents of our pupils have a role to play in developing their reading habit and their literacy skills too. What parents do is more important than who parents are. A study involving 4000 children in the UK found parents who provided learning support at home had a positive impact on their child’s cognitive, language and socio-emotional development, regardless of the parent’s class or educational background. This can be anything from reading to their child, library visits, singing songs, reading poems or nursery rhymes.
The powerful influence of the early home learning environment was apparent in the pre-school period, and when children started school, and continued right through to the end of secondary school. Closing the gap in educational attainment between children from affluent and disadvantaged homes is a current priority of the Scottish Government.
A quality school library can contribute to reducing the attainment gap and enable vulnerable students to improve academic success. Evidence reveals the difference a school library can make at both primary level and to disadvantaged pupils who have limited access to reading resources in the home.
Nurturing my school’s reading culture gives me the opportunity to raise the profile of books and reading in school, while at the same time sharing my passion for high-interest titles, favourite authors and the joy of books.
I believe that, through independent reading and freedom of choice, our young people gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things and they will build vocabulary, fluency and will want to read more. I want our pupils to enjoy reading and I know that school librarians’ role in creating readers is one of the most exciting and satisfying parts of our job.
Now, with changing technologies and concepts, the school library is a much more exciting place to explore than ever before. We all relish the excitement on a pupil’s face, when they come into the library, knowing that they are entering a world of creativity, adventure, learning, fun and warmth. It is a reminder every day of why our school libraries and reading are so important to our young people.
Professional library support and choice really do help to make our make young people into readers. I firmly believe that our libraries should be the beating heart of the reading culture in our schools in Scotland.
“Students will read if we give them the books, the time, and the enthusiastic encouragement to do so. If we make them wait for the one unit a year in which they are allowed to choose their own books and become readers, they may never read at all. To keep our students reading, we have to let them.”
― Donalyn Miller The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child.
This guest blog originally appeared on the CILIPS’ website. It is reproduced here with kind permission.