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Why encouraging schoolchildren to read more demanding books should not be such a difficult task

By Keith Topping

There are striking differences between how reading is taught on either side of the border but the good news is that, contrary to commonly held assumptions, children in both Northern Ireland and the Republic are reading more books.

The bad news is that, both north and south, pupils have stopped reading books of a sufficient level of difficulty by the time they start secondary school, a situation that becomes more acute as they progress through the final years of compulsory education.

For the past decade I have worked with Renaissance Learning to analyse the data it collects via its accelerated reader (AR) software for the annual 'What Kids Are Reading' report.

The research produces results for England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and, for the first time in 2018, the Republic of Ireland. Book choices differ somewhat between the regions. But there were even more interesting differences in terms of book difficulty and quality of comprehension in different years of school.

AR checks comprehension of real books freely chosen by children via a quiz of understanding. To produce this year's report, I analysed reading data from 963,678 UK and Irish pupils in 4,364 schools. In one year, they collectively read 18,044,078 books, or around 222,325,703,048 words. This research included more children than previous years, but many more books - in other words, each child was reading more books.

However, there was strong evidence that the difficulty of books failed to increase once the children went to secondary school. Indeed, to a large extent secondary pupils tended to read the same books as upper primary pupils. This was a cause of considerable concern, as pupils who are not reading at a sufficient level of difficulty are likely to have problems understanding written examination questions across all school subjects, for instance. In later life, they may have difficulty understanding and telling the difference between fake news and true news, and thus not be able to play a proper part in a democratic society. There are striking differences in reading teaching at primary level between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In the Republic, in lower primary there is much emphasis on reading hard books, which the children seem to manage with high levels of comprehension. In Northern Ireland, levels of difficulty are much lower.

However, by the time secondary education comes around, these differences seem to have been levelled out and children are reading material at pretty much the same level of difficulty.

But surely if children read harder books, their comprehension would suffer - ie they would not understand the book so well? Not at all. There is no relationship between book difficulty and quality of comprehension. In other words, children can read hard books with good comprehension if they are motivated to do so.

And don't boys prefer reading non-fiction? Well, not really. Boys in secondary school do read two-and-a-half times more non-fiction than girls, but that still represents only 9% of what they read on AR. And even more unfortunately, boys read non-fiction less well than they read fiction. And they read non-fiction less well than girls.

In terms of differences in book choices, year seven Northern Irish pupils love the book Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna, which is in first place there, but does not appear in any other region.

In year eight in the Republic, the first-placed book is Wonder by RJ Palacio, which again does not appear in any other region. Otherwise, Jeff Kinney and David Walliams remain the most popular authors across all regions, including the Republic, while Roald Dahl and JK Rowling are among the other names to appear on most-read lists both sides of the border.

What are the implications for action? In the Republic, if only the high level of difficulty in lower primary could be sustained into upper primary and especially into secondary, the children would be performing at a much higher level.

In lower primary in Northern Ireland, if only the children could be reading books as difficult as they are reading in the Republic, they would have a considerable boost and go on to read harder books at upper primary and secondary than they do.

In both countries, building in dedicated reading time to the timetable each day could have a significant impact on overcoming the plateauing of difficulty we see regardless of location.

As pupils progress through school, there is only so much teachers and librarians can do, however.

If we want young people to choose more difficult books that remain interesting to them then peer recommendations are an important part of the process. This means educating them about the importance of reading more difficult books, providing them with information about difficulty, and facilitating the social and other networks that enable them to make recommendations.

After all, children listen less to adults and more to their peers regardless of where they become teenagers.

Keith Topping is professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee

Belfast Telegraph

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