I have recently read a number of headlines and articles about pupils’ reading in secondary schools, including the headline: Pupils ‘shunning tough books at secondary school’ (National Literacy Trust, http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/news/5952_pupils_shunning_tough_books_at_secondary_school), and Tough books left on shelf by secondary school children (TES, http://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/03/05/tough-books-left-on-shelf-by-secondary-school-children.aspx) which have riled me a little.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the TES and the NLT, and they are not the only reporters of this “story”, but the articles are misleading, short-sighted and based on limited information, selling students, their teachers and Librarians short, and here is why.

The articles arise from a report by Professor Keith Topping titles ‘What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in British Schools 2014′, based on data collected by Renaissance Learning from the Accelerated Reader scheme.  The data that is being analysed is generated from the number of times quizzes are taken on books included in the scheme, and this data is then interpreted ‘to provide detailed information on the books school children are actually reading’ (p.iv).

I take issue with the findings of this report, and the ways in which these have been reported in (and to?) the media, which I would like to highlight here.

Accelerated Reader (AR) is not a reflection of what all children are reading

AR is a reading scheme which operates using a fairly closed system of reading choice.  Pupils taking part in AR will be restricted in book choice by both; their AR ZPD levels, which determine the books they will be allowed to choose from, and is based on the result of a Renaissance Learning reading test sat by the student; and the books that are part of the AR scheme which have had AR quizzes written for them by their team of staff (i.e. not all books written for young people are included on the scheme). In this sense, pupils are not freely choosing books that they want to read because they will be “encouraged” by staff to choose books from a narrower selection than is available in their school Library, which is further restricted by the book-levels suggested by the reading test that they sit. To report that pupils are avoiding more challenging books would seem rather unfair here.

My experience of AR is that pupils, particularly those with low-literacy levels, will be encouraged to read books at the lower end of their range in particular in order to increase their general engagement in the programme and their pass rates in the quizzes.  In this sense, it is a useful scheme because when low-ability students are reading shorter books, which are generally matched to their reading-ability, they are able to finish these books quickly and experience success when taking AR quizzes.  This can help to boost their confidence, and experience “success” in relation to reading that they might not normally be used to.  The danger is that pupils of all abilities will play it safe, and only read books that are at their level that they think they will find easy, in order to pass the quizzes and appease the school staff involved in running the programme.  Further to this, I would suggest that in general, choices outside of pupils’ AR book-level range will be actively discouraged due to fear of failure.  In this sense, it does not encourage risk-taking in relation to reading choice both on the part of the staff involved in running the programme, and the kids themselves.

The author of the report finds that teachers and Librarians at secondary schools are “not encouraging students to attack more difficult books to a sufficient degree” (http://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/03/05/tough-books-left-on-shelf-by-secondary-school-children.aspx) with the report itself stating that “Secondary teachers and librarians need to get better at encouraging children appropriately” (p.vi).  I find these assertions to be founded on very shaky grounds, verging on the disingenuous.  To accuse Librarians and teachers in secondary schools of not challenging pupils, based on the data from AR, is offensive.  I would suggest that it is AR that is the force that is not challenging pupils and that, in spite of AR, Librarians in particular will be encouraging all pupils to read regularly and widely, above and beyond what their AR levels dictate.

As well as this, there is no consideration or mention (of course) of the huge amount of work that Librarians do to encourage pupils to read more widely, for example, through shadowing book awards such as CILIP’s Carnegie and Greenaway shadowing scheme.  I could go on and on here about the work that we do, as school Librarians, but suffice to say that to accuse Librarians in particular of not encouraging children appropriately, based on a set of highly restrictive and selective data, is both counter-intuitive and downright offensive.

Further to this, to determine that secondary school students do not read widely based on this narrow set of data is absurd.  What aboutthose students involved in the scheme who will not take quizzes on every book they read, as they are potentially reading books outside of school and the AR scheme and they are not included in the scheme, or are outside of their AR reading levels?  What about the books that are being borrowed from their school and public libraries?  Think about all that data regarding borrowing statistics in library management systems that might give an insight into pupils’ borrowing (and reading) habits.  What about the books that they are reading in class, or at book clubs, or intervention groups or at home with parents or friends?  There is, it is safe to say, a lot of reading going on outside of AR.

Rant over?

I could spend some more time offering some further solutions for how to determine what children in secondary schools are reading; or other ways in which we address the reading habits of children both in schools and school libraries; or some of the other findings of the report by Professor Topping,  but that is a blog post for another day.  So time to wind this up.

After reading this, you might think I am totally opposed to AR and all it stands for. I’m not… no, really! I think it is one of the useful tools in a school’s and Librarian’s armoury, when used in the right way, to encourage pupils to read books and get recognition for their reading.  Senior leadership teams in schools love it because it provides them with lots of data, which can be used as evidence of what they school is doing to improve the literacy of its’ students through engagement in reading.  Literacy is a problem in many schools, and with reading for pleasure on top of literacy becoming a focus for Ofsted, it is no wonder AR can be seen as part of a potential solution, and I am hoping it can.

However, this report seems to denigrate, or at the very least question, the very people in schools that will be running AR who themselves will want to challenge, push, develop and broaden the reading habits of the young people with which they work… by doing this the author, and Renaissance Learning by proxy, are treading a very fine line,  in my opinion