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Taking stock: is it getting easier for children who struggle with reading to access appropriate books?

Are things getting better for struggling readers?

One of the major motivating factors for Barrington Stoke’s founders in setting up back in 1999 was the desire to ensure that no child with dyslexia, reluctance or any other issue relating to reading should ever again be turned off, demotivated or downright humiliated by being given books intended for much younger children.

Every year we talk to hundreds of supportive parents, inspiring teachers and brilliant librarians who champion age-appropriate reading for kids who can’t or won’t tackle books published ‘for’ their age-group. Projects like Premier League Reading Stars feature high-low fiction, as do the big book-gifting schemes such as Bookbuzz.

So we are immersed in high-low and our work tends to bring us into contact with like-minded people. This means that it can be difficult for us to gauge whether the positive provision we see so often is representative of the experience of the majority of children in the UK.

So it made for a sobering morning when the ‘What Kids Are Reading’ report landed at Barrington Stoke HQ. The report is produced by the good folks at Renaissance Learning (the company behind the hugely popular Accelerated Reader programme) and details the top books read by different year-groups of children engaged with the programme across the country. There are separate lists for struggling readers. And are the strugglers reading age-appropriate material?

AR Tables

In secondary, yes. They favour our books, books from other specialist publishers, and mainstream books that are especially accessible, such as Wimpy Kid. But in Years 5 and 6 (P6 and 7 in Scotland), the picture is very different. They’re reading The Gruffalo, various Oxford Reading Tree titles and other books published for much younger children.

The report defines a ‘struggling reader’ as a child reading two years or more behind their chronological age. Beyond that there’s no further breakdown, so the ‘struggling’ group will include children with particular special needs who prefer a gentler read. But it must also include 10 and 11-year-olds with reading ages of 8 and 9. It’s simply not OK that these kids are being given reading scheme and pre-school books – all under the label of reading for pleasure.

Around the same time the report appeared, Marilyn Brocklehurst of Norfolk Children’s Book Centre shared an upsetting experience of witnessing struggling readers in upper primary being sent into infant classrooms to pick up their reading books. A rash of unfortunate terminology was applied by people who should know better to dyslexic children within our hearing or in discussions referencing us (‘remedial’ was one example; another is too shocking to repeat). And a flood of e-mails came in via our web channels from parents who all had stories of years of frustration and who all used a variation on the sentence ‘I can’t believe no one ever told me about your books before’.

So it seems that the original mission of the Barrington Stoke founders is far from accomplished. Please let us know your thoughts. Why the big primary/secondary split in the Renaissance Learning report? Is it a question of library provision? Information? Something we’re not seeing?

We are wracking our brains to think of ways to help spread the word that The Gruffalo may be an absolute classic for little ones and their families but in the hands of a hulking, great, status-conscious 11-year-old, it may just be the final humiliation that confirms suspicions that reading really is a bit of a rubbish exercise after all.

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