Accelerated Reader

Dumbing Down?

This morning research was published that bemoaned the state of our teenagers’ reading. Apparently secondary school pupils are opting to read ‘easier’ texts. The research comes from Renaissance Learning, who run the Accelerated Learning database in school. This rates books according to their difficulty level and then quizzes children on completion of the books.

Firstly, let’s make a point of stating that if you know you’re going to be quizzed on a book you’ve read, clearly you’d opt for the easier book. I know I’d find it faster and easier to answer a series of questions on the Danielle Steel I’ve just read rather than the Dickens.

Secondly, I’ve just made an assumption here, that the Danielle Steel is an easier read than the Dickens. We have to ask why and how I’ve done this?

Accelerated Reader uses various measures to rate a book’s difficulty – something I’ve written on before, and which the company, quite rightly, then questioned me on. But essentially, they do ‘level’ books according to one criteria at least, which is simplicity of the sentence (vocabulary and syntax). For example, Patrick Ness and David Almond write some ‘easy’ books according to AL, because of their easy-to-read sentence structure. However, any who has read them will know that these are not easy texts. They contain huge themes, promote intertextuality, have complex characters, intense emotions, promote empathy. They are not, to my mind, easy texts.

As the literary agent, Jonny Geller, points out: “It takes a huge amount of experience and self-confidence to write simply.”

But ignoring all that, let’s assume kids are opting to read ‘easy’ texts. After all, David Walliams now commands a huge percentage of the children’s book trade market. He contributed £16m value in 2017 and I would call his books easy texts. The data from Renaissance Learning does show that the popular books for Years 7-9 are by David Walliams and Jeff Kinney. Why are young teens opting for these when there are so many great texts out there with fewer stereotypical characters and more complex plots and themes?

One of the reasons is access. I could point again to the closure of public libraries, which contain a wide range of FREE books, or to the reduction in schools library services at local councils, or the lack of funding to school libraries themselves. Librarians are dying out – more and more redundancies year on year. If we don’t provide access to different books for children, they can’t choose them to read. When Ofsted don’t even count the library as one of the points of inspection, you have to wonder what importance the government put on libraries at all.

Moreover, I could point again to the closure of independent book stores. No wonder children choose to read David Walliams, when the only access to books to buy is the local WHSmith or supermarket, where the book choice is tiny and those bestselling books are heavily discounted. Likewise the algorithms of Amazon, which indicate that if you like reading David Walliams books, then you’ll also like reading more David Walliams books…

Another survey out yesterday from Egmont showed that 48% of parents asked said that they were bamboozled by the choice of children’s books.

Is that because we live in a fast world and want answers immediately? Faced with the bright covers in WHSmith, is it easier to choose the one next to the till, the display of Walliams that are face out, the author you’ve heard of (ie. celebrity)? How do parents find other books?

Yes, there is a golden era in children’s publishing and the choice of books is immense – you only have to look back at my blog for the past couple of years to see the plethora of new amazing books published every month. And yet, parents do find it hard to know what to buy – there is a lack of coverage of children’s books in review sections across all media, there are fewer librarians to ask (see above), fewer teachers having time to read children’s books, fewer good booksellers who know their stuff. (The exceptions to the rule who do exist are awesome, by the way.)

We’re not providing parents with the easy solution of what to choose to buy. According to Egmont, 64 per cent of parents of 14-17 year olds agree that looking at the physical books is better than buying online, but parents find bookshops hard to access, and have little knowledge of where to begin. This leads to purchases of the familiar. Publishers, bloggers, journalists need to make parents more aware of what is out there for their children. It’s what I’m trying to do every day.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. Some parents will argue with this whole strand of argument. AT LEAST THEY’RE READING A BOOK, they tell me. So what if it’s an easier choice? And I’d tend to agree – for the most part, my aim is to get children reading – to make it a life habit. If a person wants to read Mills and Boon, crime books (apparently we do, just look at the adult bestseller lists), or comics or graphic novels over literary fiction and classics – who are we to judge?

And yet, I would support the nudging of children onto ‘better’, more challenging books, onto those by David Almond, Katherine Rundell, Sarah Crossan – I could go on and on. There are great books out there, and some have simple language despite their huge themes! This should be our aim – in the same way that footballers take time to perfect taking a penalty, not only just kicking it straight at the middle of the goal, but trying different skills and angles, so we should aim to improve our reading too – reading a wide variety of texts and discerning between what we like and dislike, what is hard and what is easy.

What’s stopping children and particularly teenagers reading? Why are only half of all preschool kids read to? The elephant in the room, and the topic that comes up at the end of every article, just like mine, is the evil screen. Our children are opting to watch YouTube rather than read a book.

Are screens vastly more entertaining? They are a more passive form of entertainment for sure, even though you can pick up a narrative and learn new information from watching a decent programme. But I’d argue that we adults are at fault here. Why do we give the screen as an option in our children’s spare time? The second piece of research published(Egmont) explained that parents say that their children prefer to watch the screen – but the question I’d ask is why are we giving them that choice? Why do we let them take their phones into their bedrooms at night instead of a book? Why do we let them fester on the sofa with them? For an easy life?

We don’t ‘let’ them get away with other things. We don’t let them eat chocolate instead of broccoli as a side serving to their protein. We don’t let them go partying until 4am; we insist they come home at a certain time. So why don’t we remove their phones? Why don’t we make reading the go-to option? It won’t make a parent popular, but then parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s best friend, they’re supposed to be their parent and guide. And the best way to do this – lead by example. Put your own phones away, pick up a book, and watch your child do the same. Who knows, you might even discover there’s more to life than Youtube.

Is My Child Old Enough?

Harry Potter Goblet of Fire  Anne Frank

So here is one of the most startling problems with helping children pick something to read. Age-appropriateness. The question comes up time and time again from adults: “My eight year old child loves Harry Potter, but we’ve got to book three, and I think they get darker after that – should I continue or wait till she’s older”, and “How old should my child be to read Anne Frank?” etc.

Even when you go to a good bookshop, it’s not like clothes where they’re shelved by size – books are only very roughly broken down into categories by publishers, and even then there’s huge overlap and vagueness, and some books don’t sit properly in their ‘marketplace’ at all. You’ll quite often see labels (even on my site), such as picture books, early readers, middle grade, young adult. What do these mean?

Picture books are what they say on the tin! Ie. They’re books with pictures on every page – almost always a larger size than your standard book, and mainly for a young age group. I say mainly because in the breadth and depth of the picture book world, the age range is huge. Many will read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to their children from birth, but The Arrival by Shaun Tan is best aimed at those aged eight and over. For The Sunday Times this was a picture book, in Publishers Weekly it was a graphic novel. In most bookshops I’ve seen it in the picture book section. The Arrival is a stunning book about having a sense of belonging, and explores issues of migration and displacement and refugees, but it’s not for pre-schoolers. Saying that, neither is The Promise by Nicola Davies (a book I hope to review on this blog shortly).

Early readers are those first titles that a child can start to read independently once they gain literacy fluency. However, even then the age at which they reach this point can vary hugely. Middle grade is roughly defined by the publishing industry as books aimed at readers aged 8-12 yrs with a protagonist of 10-13 yrs and a focus on friends, family and the immediate world. Young adult is generally perceived as being for readers aged 13-18 yrs, with older protagonists (14-18 yrs) who spend more time than the MG protagonists thinking and reflecting on what is happening and the meanings of things. These books may also contain romance, sex, profanity and violence. There is often some blurriness in the top end of MG and the bottom end of YA, and a huge debate over when young adult becomes part of the ‘grown up’ canon of literature.

Fastest Boy in the WorldFastest Boy in the World back

Some publishers started putting age labels on the back cover of their books to assist purchasing, and still do. My copy of The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird says 7+ on the back, which I do pretty much agree with. Although, again it depends on the individual child! In 2008 the Publishers’ Association found that 86 per cent of adults support labelling books like this, and staggeringly 40 per cent said they would buy more books if they had age labels! (Again, this points to people buying more books if only they knew which ones to buy!)

This became a hugely contentious issue. Doesn’t labelling a book as aimed at a certain age group limit it commercially, or in a perverse way just make it more attractive to those younger children for whom it isn’t intended? As I child I always wanted to watch films that were certified with a 15 certificate when I was under the age limit. We are drawn to the prohibited. It also makes the books less attractive to those older than the age label. And soul destroying to those who struggle with reading. A publisher such as Barrington Stoke allows you to search their website by reading age ability but also by content age, separating out the two. An interesting idea, and helpful to struggling readers.

And then there’s the school reading schemes – Cecelia Busby drew attention to the Accelerated Reading scheme on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure blogspot. The Accelerated Reader schemes labels books by ‘reading levels’, but it’s not done by a human, but by a computer – which then becomes a vocabulary and syntax exercise prone to error (in my mind anyway, as it deemed that a Daisy Meadows Rainbow Fairy title was more difficult to read than Alan Garner’s The Owl Service).

It’s the same argument that I’ve pointed to again and again. If you use a computer to give you reading choices, rather than a person – you’re going to be using an algorithm which, no matter how enlightened, has not actually read the books. Because what it boils down to is content. It’s all very well that an eight year old is a proficient reader, but just because they can read Forever by Judy Blume doesn’t mean they should.

Many parents believe that The Diary of Anne Frank, studied by many in Year 6 at school, needs to be read with an understanding of the context in which it’s set (the Holocaust). Of course you do, but there’s also plenty in the book about growing sexuality too – don’t forget Anne was 13 when she was given her diary and then went into hiding and wrote the diary for the next couple of years while she became aware of her own body. She writes extensively about exploring her vagina:
“There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”
It’s nothing revolutionary, and quite understandable for a 14 year old, but not something I personally want my nine year old reading just yet. I think they will simply appreciate it more when they too are approaching or going through puberty.

In fact, this leads me to one excellent way of judging a book’s suitability, which is the age of the protagonist. Most children want a protagonist with whom they can identify or in many cases, wish to be like. A protagonist the same age or a year or two older is about right. Harry Potter starts his sequence of books aged 11 and each year progresses through school, ending at aged 18, and I would suggest that children would get more out of the books if they read them at roughly the same ages. Many children aged seven do start reading Harry Potter, and if they can cope with the dark content of the later books, many read all the way through, but I would argue (contentiously I know), that reading them a little later would make for a better understanding and appreciation of the book. It’s simply a life stage – I know I read Madame Bovary totally differently at the tender of 18 yrs and single as to how I read it in my thirties, several years after having got married. It’s all about point of view.

Some believe that children will automatically self-censor – ie. if they read a book with content that’s too advanced for them, they won’t enjoy it and will stop reading. Author Patrick Ness doesn’t think age labels work:
“I don’t think it works, if it’s got an 18 certificate then younger children will look at it when their parents aren’t around … children are great self­-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read.”
My argument with that is that it can put a child off a book forever, as they feel they already attempted it and it was dull – and then never return. If they have dismissed a book at the wrong age by misunderstanding the nuances and underlying content, they may never go back to it. My absolute horror would be to give my children Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy at too early an age, so that they turn round and tell me it’s ‘dull’. So, I’m not suggesting censoring, just reaching out for the full breadth of children’s books that are available for your child at any given age, and not pushing them to read ‘higher’ up the literacy level until they are ready and willing, and you are somewhat aware of the content.

It’s impossible to read every book before your child, so there is no easy solution. You can talk to someone like me of course, although even I haven’t read all the books in the world! You can read about the book and do some research, and accept that at some point you will be caught out. When my daughter was six she was a proficient reader and was given a library book by an innocent librarian – it was only when my daughter asked me what ‘snogging’ was that I realised the content was inappropriate. My advice: don’t rely on a computer, do talk to as many people as possible about your book choices, don’t push your child onto the next ‘level in the hope of advanced literacy skills’ – there is plenty of amazing content out there for your child – and do take the more advanced books and read them aloud to your child so you can discuss issues when they arise.