Should Students Get More Complicated Assignments?
A nationwide survey, which included 2,200 schools and over 500,000 pupils, came out with unexpected results: children consistently opted for text beyond their reading age during primary education, but were overwhelmed by books evaluated as appropriate for secondary school.
The results of this survey sparked a discussion: are secondary-school pupils under-challenged by the books assigned to them? Do they need to be encouraged to read more demanding literature?
According to the annual “What Kids Are Reading” study, youngsters no longer prefer traditionally favorite authors such as Roald Dahl, and would rather opt for fiction that has been adapted into film. There is a serious gap between the literature that pupils prefer reading and the books that are assigned in the classroom. Is the educational system supposed to shift towards Suzanne Collins and other mainstream authors instead of imposing Wimpy Kid and Fantastic Mr Fox?
The 2014 “What Kids Are Reading” report shows how pupils' book preferences change by the time they reach Year 8. In Years 1-5, children read books above their chronological age, but this trend starts to decline by Year 6. According to the study, Year 8 students read text that's two years below their chronological age.
Trends in non-fiction reading
A study conducted by the Institute of Education showed that the reading habits of children at young age impact their vocabulary. According to the statistical analysis that included more than 9,400 British people at the ages of 10, 16, and 42, “those who had regularly read for pleasure at 10 scored 67% in the age 42 vocabulary test”. On the other hand, subjects with infrequent childhood reading habits scored only 51%.
Since “What Kids Are Reading” study shows that pupils are developing healthy reading habits at early age, what causes the decline in higher school years? The problem is found in the assigned non-fiction reads beyond Year 5, which are under-challenging for students of that age.
The lack of versatility in the books children read is another issue that needs to be addressed. In their younger years, the non-fiction-content is mostly limited to nature and animals, whereas by the point of secondary transfer, the sports niche prevails in the program.
Professor Keith Topping from Dundee University expressed his concern about the reading trends in secondary school: “We see a marked difference in Year Seven where favoured books are no longer above chronological age, but six months below it, and in ensuing years the difficulty of books plateaus or declines.”
What measures can we take?
In the recommendations of the “What Kids Are Reading” study, the need for librarians and secondary teachers to evaluate students' preferences is set as a priority. They need to encourage children to read books that will challenge their critical opinion.
The researchers from the Institute of Education found that “highbrow” fiction that people read between ages 16 and 42 makes the greatest impact over their vocabulary. “Those who read such novels scored 5 percentage points higher in the age 42 test than people who did not read literary fiction as adults.” The vocabulary improvements linked to reading fiction books are greater than those for factual literature.
Teachers and librarians may find a possible solution when they take the results of both these studies into consideration. Although children prefer fiction that rose to fame thanks to Hollywood movies, they are still happy to read classics and contemporary fiction appropriate for the school system, such as of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck or Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss.
If the school system assigns more challenging reads in accordance with the findings of the Institute of Education, the students will be appropriately encouraged to develop good reading habits.