By Simon Gleave
There are different reasons why we read: the first is to make sense of the world, perhaps the second is to make sense of ourselves in the world. I have been invited to reflect on a report into the Accelerated Reader, a reading system aimed at improving child literacy worldwide by adapting to each level of reader in order to help parents understand the most important factors in helping their children learn to read.
I want to highlight some simple, perhaps even obvious but essential facts: that the reading system raises not only children’s literacy but their enjoyment of reading; that the earlier such programs are introduced to kids, the better and more independently kids fare in the long term; that different cultures, unsurprisingly, have different reading preferences; and that the more advanced the books we read – as in the case of Hong Kong – the higher the average reading level seems to become.
These observations derive from a formula of guiding and regularly testing students in a rigorous manner using enjoyable books. It is our job at Holland Park to put this practice into play in a dynamic, well-structured and fun way.
In a varied report with much comparison and cross analysis, one of the fist clear conclusions to emerge is that the better a child learns to read earlier, not only will they continue to read at a higher level but their engagement and enjoyment of reading will continue to develop. This is particularly essential as it is clear that on average, as children – even more so in boys – progress through their teens, their reading drops off. This is perhaps understandable as their social lives and other commitments develop but if we believe that reading – particularly reading novels, poems or even non-fiction books – is truly valuable to the young mind, then don’t we want to help nurture both the practice and facility as early as possible? Not only can we then give our children the skills of literacy, we can literally offer them the path to deeper independent experience and enjoyment as they grow up.
Another key lesson from the article is the fact that children who find reading harder at around age 6 or 7 who engage in the Accelerated Reader program will noticeably improve against children who do not. It is precisely the structure of the reading system – its implementation of tests, its engaged reading time, the children’s passing of quizzes – that develops the child’s faculties and pleasure even when they struggle initially. Children older than 7 who have experienced the AR both enjoy reading more than those who have not and read more independently of designated classroom or homework hours.
The reason these kids read more is because their Engaged Reading Time (as the report puts it) has increased, which means that they are subject to a quality of reading under the AR that demands more of them and frames their reading experience to extract higher quality effort. Another simple point, but the more a child reads in an advanced, well structured framework the more they will continue to read using this framework and the greater their growth and enjoyment will be.
The study makes clear that children from different countries have both different preferences and different abilities to engage with English language books. This is important, as we want to offer our children books that fit them and their needs, that will – literally – speak to them. How many of us have been put off a subject by a particular teacher or text? (Lots of us, I would argue.)
It is our job as tutors at Holland Park to choose the books that, according to our research, will specifically nurture your children, neither play down nor up to their needs but play through them. A remarkable outlier in the study is that non-ESL children raised in Hong Kong read to a significantly higher average level than their British equivalents. The study suggests the higher degree of difficult books being read in Hong Kong, which is having the effect of pulling up scores. In other words, as a result of making higher demands on students, standards and averages have been unilaterally raised. What this tells me is that while as tutors we must always cater to our students’ understanding and do everything we can to give them the tools to learn on their own terms, we must challenge our students to improve at high rates. Advanced books breed advanced students. The key, as I see it, is that the experience remains playful, open and enjoyable for the student so that hard work does not become associated with painful, dull, outcome-driven learning.
So which books ought we teach our children to read at different ages? And which books do Chinese children like to read as opposed to Canadian or British children? The report suggests the most popular children’s writer in mainland China (from an albeit smaller sample than in many other countries) is Roald Dahl.
This is not surprising; I grew up on Roald Dahl and he has an international accessibility that is remarkable. The fact that writers such as David Walliams and Jeff Kinney, so popular in UK, are not yet so exceptionally popular in mainland China may not be surprising, but we might ask ourselves is that because of ability, preference or accessibility? Will they be being read at a higher rate in 10 or 20 years? Hong Kong favourites are J.K Rowling written alongside the classics The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; these are difficult books not simply read.
Maybe that is where we at Holland Park come in. We have choices to make as a tutoring agency and as parents: who are the writers that will best develop not only the ability but the enjoyment of our children’s reading of English over the next few months and years?
I hope this piece has been useful in distilling some key elements of the report on the Accelerated Reader. I hope that the conclusions are relatively self-evident, that this reading system (and many others like it) offers a framework for the sustained development and – I cannot emphasise this enough – enjoyment of children’s reading habits and abilities. We discover our place in the world by reading, making and telling stories about it, and we learn the DNA of these stories as children. I recommend choosing books for children based firstly on your child’s level, secondly on their enjoyment and desire to read and finally on how the book will challenge them to grow as a reader. We develop reading habits very young, so it is important our guardians help us develop the right habits!
For more information on the Accelerated Reader studies or to work with Simon directly, please call us at 0207 034 0800 or visit our home page to submit an enquiry!