The problem with reading surveys

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Surveys seem to be the order of the day for school librarians at the moment as they try to assess what they’ve done over the year and set some priorities for the next.

I’ve never really been one to put much into surveys on provision for a number of reason but mainly down to a long time ago when I was at university studying self-selection.

Self-selection explains naturally formed groups and groups that put themselves forward for certain things. Polls and surveys are one example of these self-selecting groups with people choosing to take part in them. What the theory tells us though is that the people who take part in it will be influenced by a number of factors.

I was reminded of this when reading a post with someone complaining about the results they had received from a survey they had undertaken.

In fact too many times have I seen school librarians bemoan the fact that the only students that fill in their surveys comment that they don’t use its facilities because it doesn’t have what they want yet what they want is in the library but because they don’t use it they don’t know. As mentioned above self-selection will tell us that it is only a certain type of student that will fill out the survey in the first place and it will most likely be those people that have a strong feeling either way. Therefore you will get a completely polarised view.

It also worth thinking about the behaviour here too. Does the behaviour come before or after the action? For instance because you are a professional do you feel compelled to wear a suit or do you act in a professional manner because you’re wearing a suit? Strangely enough studies will show that it is the latter that is the case as you associated the behaviour with the action. It’s worth bearing that in mind when you’re thinking about how groups act with each other.

Biasing context and demand characteristics will also show that young people will be influenced when doing a survey or taking a poll, depending on where it is they are undertaking it, the reason why they are doing and who they are taking it for. Therefore if they already have a negative view of the library, the librarian or reading they are more likely to answer negatively in the survey. The opposite of this is also true with those students already positive toward the library answering favourably towards it.

However if you undertook the survey by selecting a number of people to complete it, a varied cross section across the school, then you would most likely achieve the goal of getting the best response from all students. If you then also made sure that the students were undertaking the survey outside of the library and did not know that it specifically generated by the library then you are more likely to receive a truer reflection of your resources/work etc as there will less bias based on pre formed ideas and beliefs. This could be achieved by creating a survey that has a number of elements to it and just one of these being the library. For instance you might do a survey on resources across the school, in the classrooms, lunchtime resources etc and also include a section on the library.

This type of survey would give you a much better set of results, free from the bias you might otherwise have got and ultimately more useful to then be able to use as guidance and evidence on success and future priorities.

So next time you think of doing a survey my advice would be either don’t, or produce one that eliminates any potential to produce a self-selecting group.

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Improving reading in secondary schools #2

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Attitude, for me is one of the most important factors when you are thinking about engaging young people into reading. If the attitude isn’t right then there is no or very little chance that a young person will be engaged.

It is probably the first step towards creating or sustaining readers yet is one of the most underestimated and rarely thought about areas in regards to reading.

Assessing and analysing reading attitudes is one of the first things we do with our students and from analysing their results in regards to only their attitude I could easily pinpoint, with around a 95% accuracy how proficient the student is going to be in their reading.

In fact this is actually what we do with our tracking. There is about a two week difference at the beginning of the school year between us getting the results to the student reading attitude tests to the results from the reading and spelling age data. When analysing the data we start to make initial assumptions, thinking about which students might need intervention. Alongside this we also make an estimate as to whether a students reading age will be above, below or in line with their chronological age.

Looking at the data in this way gives us a really good view on what an individual student is like. We talk a lot in schools about attitude to learning ATL and even grade our students in terms of this in reports etc. we know how important a students attitude is to their learning so why don’t we focus more on ATR attitudes to reading?

The thing with attitudes too is that they can tell you things that a reading proficiency test can’t. For instance if a young person starts secondary school aged 11, has a reading age of 13 then little notice will be paid to them. They are obviously doing ok, are more than capable of comprehending and understanding texts so are in no need for any intervention. The same student 4 years down the line is half way through their GCSEs and is really struggling. Concerns are raised about their understanding of higher level language and for all purposes seem to have gone backwards.

What has actually happened is that the student when they started in Yr7 was of course more than proficient in reading, however they had a really poor attitude towards it. They viewed reading as something they did very little of, they didn’t read very much per month or a range of things. Due to their attitude they spent the next 4 years not reading, coming across fewer new words, not extending their vocab to the point where their reading age plateaued and their chronological age caught up and surpassed their reading age.

It hasn’t been a sudden change but a gradual one that may have been identified if someone had noted the students attitude at the very beginning. Had they done so they would have realised that the student was potentially at risk of not succeeding as a reader and making the sufficient gains because of their attitude.

It’s therefore important that schools take this knowledge seriously. That they think about how they can gauge attitude but then also what they can do with this information.

When I run training sessions around tracking reading and showing impact one of the things I will have people do is write down the characteristics that make a good reader and a poor reader. The usual things come back such as proficiency, access, the ability to decode, determination, variety of types of books. I then ask the delegates to think about the importance of each of these and their impact on someone actually reading. Does a proficiency in reading mean someone will read? No. Does having access to books mean that someone will read? No. Does having a positive role model in reading mean someone will read? No. But does having a good attitude towards reading mean that someone will read? Yes. You can do the opposite of this too. Does a young person who lacks in proficiency mean they won’t read? No. Does not having access to books mean that someone will not read? No? But does having a poor attitude to reading mean that someone will not read? Yes.

So the question schools should be asking themselves revolve around how they have catering for young peoples attitudes towards reading? Are they making sure they know them? The engage students in a number of different ways and they understand what the barriers are that exist around attitude so they can change the them?

The problem with borrower statistics

I saw a post the other day talking about measuring impact of reading based on borrower statistics.
To say I was unimpressed was an understatement. Unimpressed more about the attitude of some of the profession to not be able to see beyond the basics and remain fixated on the things that don’t really matter.
To not even be able to see beyond their naivety and false understanding of impact and ultimately to spend time and effort on an area that means nothing.

The question was based around how you can prove impact of reading in a school and changes made on reading based on borrower statistics.

The problem with statistics and borrowing data is that it actually proves nothing in a school library and can be ‘bodged’ in so many ways that to rely on it as evidence to show SLT is like basing a students GCSE grade on their attendance.
Just because a book is being borrowed does it in anyway prove that it is being read. And on the flip side just because a user hasn’t borrowed a book does it mean that they are not a reader.

To look at year on year statistics then has no real bearing on giving you any type of information, especially in a school, different maybe in a public library but especially in a school.
One year, for instance, you may have no specific library lessons but students come in when they wish to borrow books. Every book that goes out is pretty much read because those using the service are borrowing because they want to read. In this year lets say borrowing figures are at 1,000 over the course of the year.
The next year the library introduces library lessons where students come to the library on a regular basis and as part of this are encouraged to take books. In this year borrowing increases to 7,000 loans a year. ‘Wow’ you say. You’ve increased loans over the year and now have 6,000 more books read in the year. Your impact has been massive and more reading is happening. Right? Wrong!
The only proof you have is that more books are bring borrowed. This though has no relation whatsoever on how much reading is actually going on.
What you’ve probably got is the same amount of reading going on as the year before but a lot of books going out and coming back that aren’t being read.
To use this and believe that in some way it provides evidence of impact is not only naive but also foolhardy.
Impact of reading is a lot more intricate than this. Borrower statistics are only a surface picture, what you really need to be doing is looking at your students as individuals, understanding their starting points, their barriers that are stopping them from accessing reading and then break down those barriers and allow them every access to be able to read.
Then to show that impact you need to track the student, highlight the work you’ve done with them and then show the progress they have made. That is impact and that is the reason you should take little notice of borrower statistics.

Improving reading in secondary schools #1

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So this is my model of Reading for Pleasure and what you need, especially in a school to make it a success.

All the facets are just as important as the framework and without any of these you cannot successfully say that you or your school achieves reading for pleasure.

Over the next couple of blog posts I’ll look at the individual nature of each of the components, thinking about their implications in a school and the question you should be asking yourself to see if you manage to provide enough for your students. Initially though I’d like to lay the foundations for that and explain the meaning behind my understanding of what reading for pleasure is and more importantly what it entails.

Reading for pleasure is obviously a big focus at the moment in schools with Ofsted highlighting in reports such as Moving English Forward the need for students to be engaged in reading, for schools to create policies around reading for pleasure and for reading to play an important role across all areas of the school.

Of course Ofsted being Ofsted, their view of reading for pleasure is very different from reality. Ofsted state students should be reading books at the appropriate level. Now, this isn’t, contrary to popular belief, anything like reading for pleasure. This is steadfastly believing that for young people to be a success at reading they need to be challenged. Now challenge is extremely important if young people are to improve in their reading but only focussing on this is done at the detriment of the student and potentially any progress that might be made.

Too often I’ve been watching young people choose a book during an English lesson, form time etc with the understanding being that they need to pick a book they are going too read. Too often have I seen a student pick a book that they want to read, know they will enjoy, only for the teacher, sometimes English teacher, sometimes other member of staff to ridicule their selection as being too easy then drag them over to pick a more ‘worthy’ classic that will improve their reading, comprehension and understanding of language.

That might be true, if the student was ever to read that book. So instead of enthusing them into wanting to read it they have instead only succeeded in proving to the student that reading is a forced activity, has nothing to do with pleasure and their own decisions as well as just having made them feel a bit rubbish. I’m very glad to say this doesn’t happen in my current school, with staff realising there is so much more to engage readers than just trying to challenge everyone at every point.

Just because a student may be capable of reading there is almost a hierarchy of reading ala Maslow that needs to be reached before you can start looking at pushing a reader. This hierarchy I will talk about more in other blog posts but for the purpose of this model I think it’s important to see it as more about the whole working together rather than just the individual parts.

Ereaders the saviour of weak readers Pt2

A recap – an intervention with new technologies that improves students a minimum of 18 months in reading age. Original post here

Having retested our first wave of students we noticed that the improvements that had initially been made through the intervention programme had been sustained.

For instance student A started with a reading age 3 years 4 months below their chronological age. When they had finished the 10 week programme their reading age was only 1 year 5 months below their reading age. The student had improved 2years 1 month through the intervention – a massive success in itself. But 3 years later when we tested her we noticed that she was 1 year below her chronological age. So not only had she continued to make the progress expected – 1 reading year per chronological year – she had done better than this and closed the gap beyond this expectation.

To say we were impressed was an understatement. Not only was the intervention capable of producing fantastic short term gains but these gains were then becoming sustainable over a period of time. Just with student A all our first wave students closed the gap over time.

It’s a really simple reason why this was happening too and one that we had discovered when we delved into our original gains to find out why they were so high in the first place from just a small intervention.

Having undertaken a large number of research projects into interventions and reading I’m a firm believer in only running an intervention for a short time period. This is for many reasons. 1. A student learns a massive amount from being in a classroom, bring with their peers, questioned and challenged, pushed via group work, knowledge extended through conversation etc etc 2. The longer an intervention lasts the less a student values it, they stop working that extra bit harder because it’s different a start to coast. 3. With short sharp bursts covering a small amount of skills or knowledge is much more focused than a long drawn out drip effect. In my experience between 6-12 weeks is optimum.

So to be making these gains from just 10 extra hours of reading seemed too good to be true. In honesty we expected there to be some gain, it was an intervention and the rule of intervention will tell us that just by spending more time doing something  you should make a difference. The difficulty in analysing the success of an intervention is discerning between an effective intervention and one that is only giving you an expected gain from having just done more of it. In other words the intervention needs to add value to the extended frequency of a task.

To understand why we were able to add so much value you need to look at the reasons why we were doing it. 1. The students we were choosing were significantly minus reading to chronological age. 2. They had made little or no progress from a years worth of secondary intervention (extra phonics). 3. They had general weak literacy skills. Clearly these students weren’t making the minimal gains expected and they were also receiving the same intervention they had done for the 6 years previously in primary school.

My view was simply that it wasn’t working and that they required another way to help them read. I strongly believe that when a student reaches secondary school age phonics is the wrong way to go. Yes it is vital in beginning reading alongside all the other facets that produce a young person able to read for gain but in a secondary school if phonics does work then the student still needs to learn comprehension and so still requires intervention. What if we put together an intervention that works both for decoding and comprehension at the same time? Plus, let’s be honest, if it hadn’t worked after 6 years is it really going to suddenly start working now? Most likely not, and know hormones are starting to kick in the student is going to have the belief that they can’t do, they don’t want to do it, they hate reading, why are you making me do it!

What we need to do is reignite their desire, their want to read. We need to show them that they can do it and that they can achieve at it. We need a completely different approach. The approach we chose was through using technology and a mixture of edevices. I strongly believe that when you put an intervention together it should be adaptable to the needs of the person undertaking the intervention. Each student will be completely individual and will come with a different set of problems and needs. You therefore need to be aware of this and make sure that the intervention is personalised to them. We therefore had a range of edevices that all did slightly different things. We had ipads, nintendo ds’, ipods with talking books etc etc. We needed to fit the device to the student and not the students to the device.

Having then put all this together we spoke to the students taking part about how we were going to chose together a really good book that they were going to enjoy and then we were going to simply read. As simple as that. Obviously it wasn’t quite that simple but from the eyes of the student it was, and that was important. We told them beforehand that we weren’t going to stop every time they came across a hard word, that if I figured they were struggling I was going to tell them the word and then we would carry on reading. If they got a word wrong and didn’t know they had done I was going to repeat the last word the got right and that would be their cue to go back and try again. I wanted to work on their confidence and fluency, for me, is the key behind this, and so many other things to do with improving reading. I explicitly said to them too that they didn’t need to worry about phonics. They didn’t have to try and break down and words and sounds and blend them together again, all they needed to do was read and enjoy the book. Enjoy the book, because that was the whole idea behind the intervention. Get them to enjoy the process of reading by removing any barriers that they had.

So when we broke down the reasons why it worked so well we concluded that it was really down to 6 key points.

1. In secondary school students read differently than in primary school. They use word recognition to read instead of breaking down words. It’s why we/they can see a word with first and last letters in the right place but everything else jumbled up and still understand it. What we are doing is recognising the rhythm of the word rather than using synthetic phonics. Once a student has been told a word they will remember this. At the same time they will also be learning comprehension as they are seeing it used correctly in the right circumstances. The more they come across the word the more it is embedded in their mind as with anything as they are creating and embedding neural pathways.

2. Although books like Barrington Stoke are really good, students with lower abilities need to still come up against hard words and have a high frequency of these interactions. We know this when it comes to learning, students need to be stretched and challenged so why should we expect a student to improve in their reading if they are only ever coming up against words that they already find easy. Research shows that word recognition plays a vitally important part in reading. If students come across harder words they will recognise them and how they are pronounced and they can then transfer this over to other words of similar ilk. Therefore to compound these neural pathways they need to have this higher frequency of interaction with such words and therefore with harder books that will challenge them.

3. Very often a student will tell you that they don’t like reading. What they are really telling you is that they don’t like the process of reading they have been through for the past six years. Not many people would enjoy reading if it happened to be reading a list of words on a sheet being told to break them into phonemes and graphemes and then blend them together again. After 6/7 years of not getting this we are compounding their problems by continuing to try and teach this in secondary schools. Students know that they need to break down words into their composite sounds then build them back up with blends etc but they don’t get it entirely. They get the initial sound and then maybe the second one but just guess at the rest. The kindle with its text size changer allows you to concentrate more on the words individually and spend time getting them right which means they can be reading a story they are engrossed in but still have time to work on harder words.

4. Words on a double page spread confuse weaker readers, even those that don’t have dyslexia. If you watch a weaker reader read their eyes tend to ‘wander’ off the sentence or even paragraph. This is the same with a word they have noticed at the bottom of the page which they are worrying about. They either skip or don’t concentrate in anticipation for a word they know they will struggle with. This inhibits fluency as well as comprehension but with the Kindle being able to enlarge the text lowers the chances of this happening therefore increasing fluency and comprehension and in turn confidence.

5.If you listen to weak reader read They. Will. Read. As. If. They. Are. Reading. A. List. Of. Words. This is because this is all they know. They haven’t been given the opportunity or the skills to read with fluency but have instead been used to reading a lists of words. The knock on effects is a decreased amount of comprehension, enjoyment and ability to increase literacy and reading skills.

6. Books and their sizes can be quite daunting and a turn off for a lot of students especially if they have been told for past 6 or so years that they can’t read. A Kindle takes this away completely you don’t have to worry about how many pages there are, you can just enjoy a book for the story.

These were really the biggest factors and the way that the intervention was breaking down barriers to make sure that each students was able to enjoy the process of reading that they were now undertaking. We had allowed them access to and had scaffolded their reading. Due to this the knock on effect was that the students were starting to enjoy what they were doing. They were growing in confidence with their reading and they were more willing, because of this, to read more outside of school. After interviewing each student after the 10 weeks we asked them how their attitudes had changed. They were all extremely positive and stated how they were suddenly reading more at home. This was massive and the reason why such big gains were being made. These students who had gone from never reading were doing 1 hour a week extra with me but then also X number of hours on top of this at home. Of course they were going to be making a difference and it was this that meant that the gains were sustained over longer periods of times. The students were now readers for pleasure so they were doing more of it. It was the simple success criteria: the more you enjoy doing something the more you do it and the more you do it the better you get at it.

And for me, that is why edevices and technology has the saviour of the weak readers in our school.

Oh DEAR not in here

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Ever since Ofsted announced that it was focussing on literacy and reading in schools there seems to have been a massive increase in the number of schools undertaking what they feel are ‘whole school’ answers to these problems.
Mainly these ‘whole school’ answers have no thought process through what they are actually doing and maybe whether they are doing more harm than good. They are also more of a slight nod towards doing something to improve reading and literacy rather than actually wanting to do something that’s going to make a difference.
One example of this is the DEAR programme, drop everything and read. The premise behind it is basically at some point during the day/week, or however a school wants to run it, is that everyone stops what they are doing and reads.
A good idea you may think, a really visible way of showing everyone reading and the impact that you are having with such a high profile reading project.
You may think so wouldn’t you? But actually let’s think about that in more detail. A scheme where we are asking everyone in school to stop what they are doing and read. Where it relies on literally everyone to stop and read. Everyone, otherwise we know those kids, yes those kids, will turn round and say ‘but you’re not so why should I?’
So not only does it have to be everyone but they have to enjoy it too. Enjoy it because otherwise what’s the point, it’s supposed to be about reading for pleasure and that’s why you’re doing it.
But, what happens if you don’t feel like reading? I sometimes don’t feel like reading, and this is mostly when I feel I’m being made to.
Do we really think there won’t be others in the school like this. And what about those kids that have forgotten their books or reading items? What you say, provide each room with a box of things to use. You mean forced to read because they haven’t got anything. But isn’t reading for pleasure about reading something you want to? Ah, so already what you’re doing is going against the reason for doing it in the first place?
Can we really believe that those kids that tell us they don’t like reading will suddenly be spurred into action and to discover a passion for reading because for 20 minutes a week everyone is forced to read.
My thoughts would be, hell no! I know exactly what’s going to happen. Those kids that want to read and that will do it no matter what, will read, but those students that don’t read or like reading, the ones we need to be careful with, that we need to gently coax and encourage to show them the benefits of reading. Those students will suddenly believe all they thought was true. ‘I only read when I’m forced to and I hate all things I’m forced into doing.’
Wahey, what we’ve managed to do is compound their understanding of reading all because we wanted a visible, quick and easy way to show how much we value reading and provide some good PR shots.
Come on, really, if it were really that simple to get everyone reading do you think we’d be in the state we’re in? No we wouldn’t because actually making a difference isn’t about paying lip service to something it’s about understanding the problem and working damn hard to find a solution, always remembering the reason why you’re doing it and that there might not be a solution but that that’s not going to stop you.
You only thing you’ll achieve doing things like this is an ever bigger divide between those that read and those that don’t.

Lighting the library touchpaper

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Ok, so this is a big one. How do you introduce something that you know is challenging the way people go about things in a profession. Something that tries to move people on in their roles, that tries to get them thinking in a different way. But something that you believe passionately in and that you know will make a big difference to a profession.

Well hopefully this is the beginning of that as today I start to light the school library touchpaper. Spurred on by things such as the millennium problems and more recently EduResearch, I’ve been thinking long and hard about the key questions in school libraries today. The real big big issues. What are they, what do they mean and more importantly how do we go about answering them. Surely for us to make any kind of difference these are the things we need to be discussing, to be talking about and trying to uncover a way to move forward.

Sure, publicity about school libraries and librarians is great but what actually does that achieve? Does it give us anything, do anything for us? The answer to that is most likely no, not really anything of any substance at least, nothing that’s going to be long lasting. PR is great but it’s only ever going to be short term, when the dust settles on an article or a report we’re straight back in the same place we’ve always been. When all the talking is finished that’s all it really is, words. Words won’t change anything, but people will.

So what’s really going to make a difference is us. If we take things into our own hands, if we provide the substance that’s going to have an impact and change things then we can really do something special. And I don’t mean run a one off event that might look good but again gives no real substance or meaning to anything. I don’t even mean an event that lasts longer than a one off I mean fundamentally changing something or producing something that changes the fabric of our roles.
So I’m setting a challenge. A challenge that’s going to get school librarians all thinking about the big issues, and not just thinking about them, but coming up with a solution. A solution that’s going to give us that substance that words and PR can’t. Substance that’s going to change everything for the better and that’s going to be long term.

That is the challenge and that is the purpose behind the library touchpaper conundrums.

The conundrums are the ‘problems’ I feel most evident in school libraries that must be answered to go someway towards showing the benefit of a school library and librarian. To me there’s no point lobbying for statutory school libraries when you can’t show the tangible benefit of having one in every school. Do this first and then there’s more chance you’ll win you’re argument.

Last week I let two of these questions into the open at our Herts CPD LibMeet. The session itself was fantastic with lots of people participating on the great things they are doing in their schools. So it was a perfect opportunity for me to get people thinking about the big issues.

To give you a flavour of what the questions are I’ve put two below. I’ll be releasing all the questions over time with the promise of producing something special to gain some outcomes, because that’s the reason behind this, to come up with some real defined answers as to how we can move on, improve and progress.

So watch this space as that small flame starts to burn brighter in all of us. Before long we’ll have a roaring fire burning that’s going to make such a difference nothing will stop us.

Question 4.
What is the shortest period of time needed to improve a students reading age by 1 year?

Question 5.
What organisation of physical resources produces the most effective learning outcome?