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CE Blog 2020 3: Research and Insights

11 March 2020 Share

There have been a few useful and interesting research reports revealed recently so I thought I’d take this opportunity to have a look through them, and highlight some of the bits I found personally interesting.

First was the Egmont consumer and research Insights – a great day with some really interesting elements. I was fascinated to learn that 238k children’s books were published last year – a huge number, and with it being so well known that children’s books make up only 3% of all books reviewed it raises a huge question for those of us in the sector about how can we make sure that parents and teachers can easily stay informed about the latest in children’s books, and make sure that they are getting to know about the books their children want.

Egmont also revealed that publishers seem to be making less profit per title, as the range of books has also increased, and there has been a 19% growth in the sector over the last decade; and more positive news – there seems to have been increased representation within the Egmont list, with 60% of their front list fiction featuring a BAME character, and 19% having a BAME protagonist. 20% of their front list (for picture books and fiction combined) was written by a BAME author – all of which is great news and I hope continues and inspires other publishers. We just need to make sure these stories are making their way to the teachers, parents and children who need them.

Egmont also do some research each year, and this year was a follow up to their 2019 research ‘Stories and Choices’. Over the years they have covered a lot of topics, in relation to reading for pleasure, and they did a brief round up of their findings so far. They have found that things which help include: being read to; free choice and wide choice. Things which hinder reading for pleasure are not being read to; too tight a focus on literacy and screen time.

At the end of the original project in January 2019 the key findings were:

  • Discovering new reading material has a positive impact on the children’s approach to reading (increased excitement and motivation).
  • Empathy and relationships improved
  • The children had an improved sense of wellbeing; and some of the teachers found it relaxing
  • It was difficult for the teachers to fit in the 20 minutes a day due to timetable and curriculum demands.
  • Attainment improved by an average of 10.2 months.

When Egmont followed up with the school at the end of the summer term 2019 they found:

  • Frequent storytime had ceased despite the teachers ‘wishing’ they could continue.
  • Benefits were still being felt and attitudes had changed permanently.
  • Children still had a positive attitude to storytime, and they spoke of being happy and relaxed.
  • Reading comprehension didn’t continue to improve at the same rate as during the initial project.

This raises some important points; notably that reading aloud for fun increases reading attainment and comprehension as well as changing attitudes, and that those attitudes can be changed in the long term if children have choice and times when an adult reads aloud to them. As a result Egmont are calling for Storytime to be built into the curriculum; this research has shown that there just isn’t sufficient capacity for teachers to do it at the moment, and this needs to change. You can read more about this here: https://www.egmont.co.uk/statutory-storytime/

The second major bit of research is the ‘What Kids are Reading’ report which came from schools that use the Accelerated Reader scheme. My main reading of this report has been the Executive Summary, dipping into the main report where needed; and it’s worth highlighting that my take-aways are based on this alone; not an in depth study of the report.

The Executive Summary highlights that (not for the first time) boys are more likely to participate than girls – I find this highly interesting given the assumption and stereotype that girls are more likely to read more. James Bell, Director of Professional Services at Renaissance Learning said: “Ultimately, the numbers are quite evenly split (487,966 boys vs. 469,426 girls – and a further 178,468 users where gender wasn’t defined)” which does help put it into context. Perhaps it’s that this programme activates boys more, or perhaps it’s that it’s being used with boys more as girls aren’t seen as needing the intervention… I don’t know, but I’d welcome more information or ideas about why this might be.

The report seems to indicate that secondary pupils are reading books which are less difficult, and again why this may be is interesting; it may highlight a lack of knowledge in secondary schools about appropriate books (the reading ladders can help you with this if you’re an SLA member Log in, then go to: https://www.sla.org.uk/teaching-and-learning and scroll down to Reading Grids), or it may reflect how the scheme is being run in those schools – if passing quizzes is linked to rewards there may be a benefit to the pupil in choosing ‘easier’ books; however, this doesn’t seem to square with the report also finding that the ‘Average Percent Correct’ score is also lower at secondary. James shared his thoughts with me: “it is quite likely that boys using AR at this stage of education are reading at a level below their chronological age, and would also be deemed reluctant readers.  Feedback from librarians and teachers who use AR suggests that the best way of engaging these readers is to look at their wider interests – often sport, and especially football – and then encourage them to read non-fiction and biographies… Due to the complexity of quizzing non-fiction titles for AR, it may well be the case that these students are also reading other non-fiction texts, but these won’t be recorded in the report if no quiz is available.  It’s worth noting that we encourage free choice and for students to read a wider variety of books – not just those quizzed for AR.” This makes sense to me; based on how AR is used to support pupils and the limitations of the research.

I also found it interesting that the books which are listed as highest in the most read tables aren’t also reflected in the favourite reads tables – this may show that children are likely to stick with what they know, but are open to trying new things and liking them when they do. The report author Professor Keith Topping states that: “these new books were no more difficult than older ones… it appears that reading new books is not necessarily a good strategy if the aim is to increase reading achievement” and I would possibly dispute this. There is such a wide range of elements that make ‘reading achievement’ for one child to read one of these books and then progress to another may show a significant ‘reading achievement’. For example, if a child has only read highly illustrated books by Kinney and Walliams and then moves to Jim Smith and Dav Pilkey and from those gathers the confidence to read Onjali Q Rauf that would illustrate a significant achievement for that child. In addition moving from Kinney and Pilkey to Walliams (whose books are likely to be significantly longer) may illustrate a significant achievement in terms of reading stamina. James Bell explained: “In this context, Professor Topping is defining “reading achievement” in terms of comprehension, as measured by success on the AR quiz – rather than the emotional/attitudinal benefits.”

I am concerned by the division of non-fiction into such strong gender types (“there was strong evidence in the first year of secondary of a male-orientate sports theme, but few countervailing books for girls” p45) and wonder what the cause of this are – whether it’s a lack of knowledge, or cognitive bias or fiction being given as the main diet, and non-fiction being viewed as an ‘intervention’ (which may also explain why the difficulty was so low) or restricted budgets limiting non-fiction stock purchases or something else all-together. 

I am very curious about the significant departure from what may be expected with the favourite books in ‘myON’ and given the mention of the ‘limited’ number of titles wonder whether this is because of a restricted choice, as opposed to ‘digital reading…raising the challenge level for children’. The executive summary didn’t seem to address whether these texts were read with a higher level of accuracy than the physical based books, or whether children had been pushed to read beyond their skill level due to a desire to read digitally. Again, I asked Renaissance Learning for some clarification about which titles are available through myON: “1,000 mostly non-fiction titles writing in British English”, all of which had been levelled, so the range should be similar to physical titles according to Renaissance Learning. So perhaps it’s more that the ability to adapt the layout and look of the books allowing children to read at their level, as opposed to being restricted to younger books because the font is bigger for example… It’s certainly an area that looks ripe for more research. 

Overall this report raises as many questions as it answers, which is good for the sector, and it raises some really interesting points for schools which run AR to make sure they are maximising the effectiveness of the system. You can sign up to download the full report here: http://www.renlearn.co.uk/what-kids-are-reading-2020/

One of the questions I often get asked when delivering training in schools is ‘what counts as reading?’ and my answer is always that when it comes to reading for pleasure it all counts. And even if a book isn’t ‘challenging’ or it ‘has too many pictures’ there are new ways of reading, new skills, new concepts being developed; and the more that children enjoy reading, the more they’ll explore naturally. Fairly often, this question will centre around audio books, and now the fab folks at the National Literacy Trust have done some research into that as well, and their findings (thankfully) completely back up my suspicions. You can read more about that research here: https://literacytrust.org.uk/information/what-is-literacy/audiobooks-and-literacy/

All these reports have given me much food for thought, and thank you to those at Renaissance Learning for answering my queries. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and continuing the discussion.