Anyone hoping to influence the reading habits of the young would do well to find out first what their reading habits are and how they get them.
Two recent research studies contribute some interesting findings to this complex and fascinating subject.
The Bradford Book Flood Experiment took place in four middle schools in Bradford from 1976 to 1979. It aimed to investigate what effect `flooding' schools with substantial amounts of books would have on their reading attainment, attitudes to reading and their reading habits.
Jennie Ingham's full report of the experiment is published this month. Here we report some of her conclusions.
The investigation followed a single year group of children through the four schools for three years. Two of the schools were given an increased stock of books (nearly 9,000 books, donated in the main by publishers but also by Bradford Libraries, made up the 'flood') and the remaining two schools, each the second half of a 'matched pair', acted as the control. The experiment involved a considerable amount of testing. In addition children in all four schools completed Reading Record Forms for every non-text book they read and researchers interviewed teachers and selected parents and children individually.
In terms of providing evidence that increased availability of books improves reading skills (as measured by the Edinburgh and Schonell Reading Tests) the experiment was inconclusive. What is interesting to those concerned to get children enthusiastic about books and reading is that it seems to confirm one of the findings of the Schools Council's research into children's reading interests (Children and Their Books, Whitehead et al, Macmillan Education, 1977) that contact with an informed enthusiastic adult is crucial to making a child into a reader.
The evidence here is even more telling and Jennie Ingham concludes that what teachers do with books, the attitudes they have to books and reading, and what they know about books are all critical.
The Reading Record Forms in one of the 'flooded' schools show that children were reading more and from an increasing variety of authors and titles, presumably because the choice was readily available and accessible to them. The other 'flooded' school, in contrast, showed a decreasing number of books read and fewer new authors and titles tackled. Simultaneously with this decrease, children were reporting a decreased amount of time made available for personal, private reading in school and lack of access to teachers who were well informed about the books available. Surely not coincidence'
Availability not enough
Simply making books available in quantity is not enough. Faced with a large selection of books, less able and even average readers felt inadequate and in need of reassurance and guidance. In the first year of the experiment one 10+ boy attempted 27 books from the 'flooded' class library and completed 19. In the second year he attempted 8 and completed 2. He liked the books, he wanted to read but by the second year he had exhausted the books he thought were at his level and was having difficulty finding something he could cope with. He felt there must be books somewhere but he didn't know how to find them. He comments on the second year: 'I read some of the harder ones in the class. I like it at first but when I start reading my book I get fed up about it and want to do something else... I want to read.' No reluctant reader here.
Jennie Ingham concludes, 'We need to know the children and the books; we also need to continue to teach the children to read these books. Many teachers reported less-able readers asking for help with reading after the Book Flood books arrived. Those children presumably now saw a future reward for their efforts.'
Familiarity breeds success
The children were asked to record 'favourite' books and authors. A greater percentage of these were books of which the child already had some prior knowledge. Books were more likely to have been considered 'successful' where the children had some idea of what they were taking on before they began. The implication for teachers is plain: reading aloud of extracts/beginnings, displays and talk about books, especially those on television or in films, drawing attention to authors (many 11 and 12-year-olds in the experiment were surprised that an author had written more than one book), series and books of a similar type, practice in how to choose (one 12+, an 'avid' reader, actively looking for another book by Leon Garfield, 'didn't think' of looking in the school library when the class library hadn't got any).
The English lottery
Some teachers in the experiment were enthusiastic, well-informed and professionally expert. Some, clearly, were not. For most of the children, whichever school they were in, with or without the book flood, how much reading they did was largely determined by which teacher they had for English.
'He wanted you to read the book, and then he talked to you about it before you got another one.'
`I didn't like any of the books in class and I spent a long time looking for a book and he said would I like to try that one (his own copy of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) because it was a right good book so I read it.'
'He knew about the violin and that, but he didn't tell us about books.'
`If we don't find one (a book) in about five minutes, sir just gives us one.'
'He just says choose one (a book) and go and sit down.'
'In the third year I don't think we had a proper lesson, not a whole lesson to read in.'
`We only have about five minutes (reading time) after lessons, and then we don't have another until two days.'
The experiment shows that even 'avid' readers read less when taught by teachers who were uninformed and unenthusiastic. And from the children there was pretty well unanimous agreement about the impossibility of `getting into a book' when time for reading is short, irregular and infrequent.
Talk about books
The experiment also shows that the children talked about books most to their friends and were very likely to take recommendations from them. After friends, children talked to members of their family more than anyone else. Except, significantly, in one school where fewer books were taken home. Children recorded very little discussion with teachers of the books they had read. Some teachers recommended books but there was little evidence that pupils were able to report back in a genuine two-sided conversation.
Often children found a recommended book too difficult but didn't feel confident enough to say so, or didn't want to be seen to be rejecting teacher's favourite book.
It is important, Jennie Ingham feels, `to meet the child where he/she is with reading and then to lead positively on with the child's co-operation, rather than totally demolishing what the child offers in attempting to replace it in one fell swoop with our own package deal, however good our intentions.'
Some kind of reading record is a good way to create an opportunity for discussing a child's reading, once or twice a term. (See Christopher Walker on Reading Conversations in Reading Development and Extension, Ward Lock Educational.) All four schools attributed an increased awareness of book titles, series, authors, the processes involved in choosing books and other reading-related processes to the continual use over three years of the Reading Record Form. Many of the teachers intend to go on using it after the end of the experiment.
Inevitably it's tempting to wonder what results the Book Flood might have come up with if the teachers had been properly trained and equipped to take full advantage of it.
This is an account of only a small part of the whole experiment. You will find the full report in Books and Reading Development: The Bradford Book Flood Experiment, Jennie Ingham, Heinemann Educational Books, 0 435 10450 0, £12.50 hb/ 0 435 10451 9, £4.95 pb, to be published on 28th September. For more comment, see Editor's Page 3.
REPORT 2/Young People's Leisure Reading 13-15
Since January 1979 Pauline Heather has been following the spare-time reading habits of sixty pupils drawn from ten comprehensive schools in Sheffield and N.E. Derbyshire. Here she reports on some of the things she discovered in the five terms she spent with them.
Each pupil was interviewed once a term. Among other things, we were interested in how many of the pupils read books, how much time they spent reading and how many books they read. We expected the number reading books to fall. In fact there were more pupils who started than stopped. Nevertheless throughout the five terms both the numbers of books read and the amount of time spent in reading decreased. The decline, though, was not steady; time spent in reading varied. The pupils gave these reasons for a change in their reading habits:
a) Pressure of examinations
b) Summer holidays - some pupils read more and others read less because of the holidays
d) Other activities - some activities are seasonal, so pupils may read less during part of the year. Some pupils started reading because they had nothing else to do.
e) Family commitments - these may be temporary e.g. mother having a baby or a permanent duty e.g. looking after brothers and sisters which inhibits reading.
f) Difficulty in finding suitable books to read or finding books which entice you to read.
g) Books being passed round at school - reading may stop when books are no longer passed round.
The largest change in reading habits occurred over the summer holidays, so it seems that the long holiday disrupts the pattern of reading which might not be resumed.
At the first interview all the pupils were asked whether they read books for pleasure. 15% of the pupils said they did not read books and another 25% said they did not read books every week. We found that pupils were more likely to read books if:
a) Their father was engaged in a non-manual occupation.
b) Both parents read books.
c) They attended a school which encouraged leisure reading by means of class libraries, a school bookshop or club, silent reading lessons, a qualified librarian and library lessons.
Girls were heavier readers than boys, although a similar proportion of boys and girls were non-readers.
At the start of the study 78% of the pupils said they read magazines. There was a slight decline in the number of magazines read throughout the study, but not as marked as the decline in book reading. The most popular magazines were those about modelling, transport, football, pop music, films, motor cycling and the second world war. Teenage magazines, especially Jackie and My Guy, were also read in large numbers. The same proportion of book readers as non book readers read magazines.
Using spare time
We did not find any significant correlation between the time spent either doing homework or watching television and the amount of time the pupils said they spent reading. Therefore, although homework was often given as a reason for not reading, some pupils find time for over two hours' homework a night and a large amount of reading. The pupils mentioned over 70 different leisure interests between them. Throughout the study the most frequently mentioned activities were team sport, ice-skating, swimming and discos. Just over a third of the sample had read books related to their hobbies at some time during the study.
Types of books read
During the study fifty books were mentioned by more than one person. We listed these. More than half have some link with television programmes or films: either the book is based on a television programme or film, or the book has been serialised or made into a film. Five authors appear more than once on the list: James Herriot, Ian Fleming, Isaac Asimov, James Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien. Other types of books on the list are classical novels, animal books, humorous books, mysteries, science fiction and teenage novels. A non-fiction book on cars also appears on the list. The pupils were asked their reasons for selecting each book. The five most common reasons given for choosing a book in order of frequency are:
a) Book by the same author previously read
b) Book was recommended
c) Influence of the mass media
d) Looking for particular type of book
e) Read cover.
Source of books
The three main sources of books were buying them (27%), borrowing from public library (25%) and borrowing from friends or family (24%). 11% of the books read had been borrowed from a school library and 10% had been received as presents. The small proportion of books borrowed from school libraries in comparison to the proportion borrowed from public libraries seems to indicate that school libraries are not catering for young people's leisure reading needs. When asked why particular books had been read, some pupils said that the book had been readily available, e.g. 'I felt like a change and it was convenient' and 'It was lying around at home.' This shows the importance of books being readily accessible to young people, in the places which they usually frequent.
Pauline Heather is on the staff of the Centre for Research on User Studies at Sheffield University. The Centre which was set up in 1975 is concerned with people's needs for information and literature, how they search, find and make use of it. Its work is related to publishing, bookselling, education, and library and information systems of all kinds.
The full report of Pauline Heather's research, Young People's Reading: A Study of the Leisure Reading of 13-15 year olds, 0 906088 05 4, is available from the Centre at 8 Palmerston Road, Sheffield S10 2TE. The price, including postage and packing, is £9.00 ($27 overseas).
This article The Habit Of Reading by Jennie Ingham & Pauline Heather can be found @http://booksforkeeps.co.uk/issue/10/childrens-books/articles/other-articles/the-habit-of-reading.
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