New phonics test will do nothing to improve Australian children’s literacy



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Research in England has found that the proposed test was no more accurate than the teacher’s judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties.
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Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

Minister Birmingham released a report today recommending that all Year 1 students in Australia complete a phonics test. The panel responsible for the report has recommended that Australia adopt the Year 1 phonics screening check that has been used in England since 2011.

What is phonics?

Phonics is the process of matching sounds to letters. It is an important skill when learning to read and write in English. There are two main approaches to teaching children phonics – synthetic phonics and analytic phonics.

Analytic phonics starts with taking a word that children know the meaning of, and then analysing it to see how the sounds in the word match the letters we see within the word. So five-year-old Emma will learn that her name starts with the sound “e” which is represented by the capital letter E, followed by the sound “m” which is represented by the two letters “mm”, and ends with the sound “u”, which is represented by the letter a.

Synthetic phonics starts with letters which the children learn to match with sounds. The meaning of the words are irrelevant, and indeed, inconsequential. The theory is that the children should master letter/sound matches first before trying to attend to meaning.

Which phonics method is better?

There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.

All inquiries have concluded that whatever phonic instruction method is chosen, it should be one part of a suite of skills children should have when learning to read.

What is the phonics test?

The phonics test is based on synthetic phonics. The children are given 40 words on a computer screen, with no context. The words are not put in a sentence, or given any meaning. This is deliberate, and an important feature of a synthetic phonics approach, as the children must show they are not relying on meaning or prior experience with the word in order to successfully decode it.

To this end, 20 of the words the children are given are nonsense words, like “thrand”, “poth” and “froom”, to ensure they are not using meaning to decode the words.

Why are we introducing it?

Minister Birmingham is concerned about the numbers of students in Australia who are struggling with literacy. The decline in literacy standards of Year 9 students is very concerning, and he is right to be looking for solutions. But the solution will not be found in this phonics test for six-year-olds.

As the test has been has already been in use for six years in England we are fortunate to be able to learn from their experience. A major evaluation of the test conducted by the Department for Education in England found that the test is not delivering improvements in literacy capabilities, and in fact, is delivering some unwanted side effects, like class time being spent learning to read nonsense words rather than real words.

Numerous other recent studies of the implementation of the phonics test in England provide valuable information that allow us to test the claims for the test against research evidence.

What does the research say?

Claim: The phonics test has improved reading results in England since its introduction.

Evidence: Year 1 children in England are certainly getting better at passing the phonics test. Over the past six years, pass rates have increased by 23%. This means around 90% of Year 1 children in England can now successfully read nonsense words like “yune” and “thrand”.

However research has found that the ability to read nonsense words is an unreliable predictor of later reading success.

And so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.

As the test only tests single syllable words with regular phonic patterns, it is not possible to know how many English children can read words like “one”, “was”, “two”, “love”, “what”, “who”, or “because”, as such words are not included in the test. This is unfortunate because these are amongst the 100 most common words in the English language, which in turn make up 50% of the words we read everyday – whether in a novel, a newspaper article or a government form.

“Yune”, “thrand” and “poth”, on the other hand, make 0% of the words we read.

Claim: The phonics test will pick up children who are having reading difficulties. Birmingham has stated “the idea behind these checks is to ensure students don’t slip through the cracks”.

Evidence: Research in England has found that the test was no more accurate than the teacher’s judgement in identifying children with reading difficulties. Teachers already know which children struggle. As researchers, teachers and principals
have all said – teachers need more support in knowing how to support those struggling children.

Claim: The phonics test will provide detailed diagnostics to support teachers to make effective interventions. The chair of the panel recommending the test says that the phonics test will drill into the detail of phonics to establish what children know.

Evidence: A thorough analysis of the test’s components found it fails to test some of the most common sound/letter matches in English, and indeed screens for a very limited number of the hundreds of sound/letter matches in English. They found that children can achieve the pass grade of 32 from 40 with only limited phonic knowledge.

Other research found the test fails to give any information about what the specific phonic struggles of a child might be , or whether the struggles are indeed with phonics.

These limitations mean the check has negligible diagnostic or instructional use for classroom teachers.

Learning lessons

Australia is in the fortunate position of being able to learn from the research that has been conducted since the implementation of the phonics test and mandatory synthetic phonics teaching in England. The lesson is clear. The test is unable to deliver what was hoped. Australia should look elsewhere for answers to its literacy challenges.

Already state Education Ministers have begun to let Birmingham know that they will not be taking up the offer of the national phonics test.

The ConversationThis may be an issue where Australia is able to overcome its intellectual cringe, and act on the research evidence rather than old colonial ties.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The rise in personalised story books and what it means for children’s privacy


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Natalia Kucirkova, UCL

When was the last time you read a good book? If it was quite a while ago you might want to head to the library or the nearest bookstore, because research shows that reading makes you happier. In fact, adults who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, and more likely to feel that the things they do are worthwhile.

Research has also revealed that reading for pleasure can be a key factor in children’s levels of happiness. It has been shown that reading is more important for children’s cognitive development than their parents’ level of education. And is also a more powerful factor in terms of life achievements than socioeconomic background.

Yet despite all the benefits reading can bring, statistics from 2014 show that one in five children in England cannot read well by the age of 11. And with this in mind, anything that helps to encourage children to read is often seen as a good thing.

Personalised reading

Over the years, personalised children’s books have become increasingly popular. This is when children’s names, addresses, their likes and dislikes are inserted into a story book – the characters can even look like the children. These books are sold online and have become big business with many new children’s publishers popping up creating these one of a kind story books.

‘It’s all about me’.
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Wonderbly, one of the biggest publishers of personalised books, has sold over 2.7 million copies of their leading title “The Little Boy/Girl Who Lost His/Her Name”. Children tend to like personalised books because they are specially made for them and often feature themselves or their friends and family members as story heroes. And reading a personalised book together can be a really lovely experience for parents and children.

But personalising books in this way means that how children’s publishers work is now changing. Because as well as producing books, they are now also data managers – responsible for the privacy and confidentiality of children’s data.

Privacy fears

There are no official national guidelines regarding the amount, storage or sharing of data collected by publishers and producers of personalised books, so parents must trust the integrity of individual companies and that their family data won’t be misused or misplaced. This data often includes information such as a child’s date of birth, gender, address and photographs.

The way children are reading books is changing.
Pexels.

Though some progress is being made – from May 2018 the General Data Protection Regulation will apply throughout the EU (including the UK) – it is still the case that children’s personal data can become ensnared in a web of complex legal and technical challenges if it is ever reused, consolidated, or organised by publishing companies.

Interviews with UK children’s publishers and app designers also show that many handle large amounts of children’s personal data, but don’t necessarily know how to use it effectively.

Making data safe again

This is why the UCL Institute of Education is developing new personalised reading technologies and also working to address the challenges of personalised books.

As part of the project we are working with the HAT Community Foundation and the The Hub of All Things – a technology designed to help the internet exchange and trade personal data. HATs are “private data accounts” that let anyone store their personal data for themselves, so that they don’t have to rely on governments or corporations.

As we explain in our white paper, if publishers use HAT technology, a child’s private data account could hold their personal data in a contained, self-owned database. This means that children and their guardians would be able to own their personal database in the same way they own physical assets, and share the data within it on terms they control.

The ConversationChanging the way this data is stored and used is important because there is a big future for these types of books. And it is clear that children’s publishers need a straightforward means of effectively leveraging personalisation – both economically and educationally – to improve both the reading experiences of children, and the peace of mind of their parents.

Natalia Kucirkova, Senior research associate, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Research shows the importance of parents reading with children – even after children can read



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Research has typically found that shared reading experiences are highly beneficial for young people.
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Margaret Kristin Merga, Murdoch University

Many of us will be able to recall the enjoyment of shared reading: being read to and sharing reading with our parents. However, my research has found that of the 997 Year 4 and Year 6 respondents at 24 schools who took part in the 2016 Western Australian Study in Children’s Book Reading, nearly three-fifths reported that they were not being read to at home.

A sample of these children also participated in interviews, where I asked them how they felt about shared reading. While a few children did not mind no longer being read to, others were disappointed when it stopped. For example, when I asked Jason about his experience of being read to by his parents, he explained:

… they kind of stopped when I knew how to read. I knew how to read, but I just still liked my mum reading it to me.

His experience is common, with other recent research suggesting that more than one-third of Australian respondents aged six to 11 whose parents had stopped reading to them wanted it to continue.

But why is it so important for us to keep reading with our children for as long as possible?

Research has typically found that shared reading experiences are highly beneficial for young people. Benefits of shared reading include facilitating enriched language exposure, fostering the development of listening skills, spelling, reading comprehension and vocabulary, and establishing essential foundational literacy skills. They are also valued as a shared social opportunity between parents and their children to foster positive attitudes toward reading.

When we read aloud to children it is also beneficial for their cognitive development, with parent-child reading activating brain areas related to narrative comprehension and mental imagery. While most of the research in this area focuses on young children, this does not mean that these benefits somehow disappear as children age.

As young people’s attitudes towards reading reflect their experiences of reading at home and at school in childhood and beyond, providing an enjoyable shared reading experience at home can help to turn our children into life-long readers.

However, not all shared reading experiences are enjoyable. Some children described having poor quality experiences of being read to, and children did not typically enjoy reading to distracted or overly critical parents. In some cases, parents attempted to outsource this responsibility to older siblings, with mixed results.

While many children really enjoyed the social aspects of reading and being read to as valuable time with their parents, they also felt that they learned from these experiences. For example, listening was felt to provide an opportunity to extend vocabulary, and improve pronunciation. Gina recalled the advantage she lost when her parents stopped reading to her, as:

… when they did read to me when I was younger, I learnt the words; I would like to learn more words in the bigger books and know what they are so I could talk more about them.

Similarly, Craig explained how being read to enabled his academic advantage in literacy, as “they were teaching me how to say more words”, and “that’s why I’m ahead of everyone in spelling and reading and English”. When this stopped “just because my mum thought I was smart enough to read on my own and started to read chapter books”, Craig was disappointed.

In addition, children were sometimes terrified of reading aloud in the classroom, and this fear could potentially be alleviated through greater opportunities to practice at home.

Hayden’s anxiety around reading aloud at school related to his lack of confidence, and his tendency to compare his skills with those of his peers. He described himself as “always standing up there shivering, my hands are shivering, I just don’t want to read, so I just start reading. And I sound pretty weird”. No-one read with him at home, so he had limited opportunity to build his confidence and skills.

This research suggests that we should not stop reading with our children just because they have learned to read independently.

The ConversationWe should continue reading with our children until they no longer wish to share reading with us, ensuring that these experiences are enjoyable, as they can influence children’s future attitudes toward reading, as well as building their confidence and competence as readers. It is worth the effort to find time to share this experience with our children in the early years and beyond.

Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to encourage literacy in young children (and beyond)



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Ask your child what their toys did while they were out today or invite them to help you read the mail.
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Louise Phillips, The University of Queensland and Pauline Harris, University of South Australia

How can parents best help their children with their schooling without actually doing it for them? This article is part of our series on Parents’ Role in Education, focusing on how best to support learning from early childhood to Year 12.


Literacy involves meaning-making with materials that humans use to communicate – be they visual, written, spoken, sung, and/or drawn. Definitions vary according to culture, personal values and theories.

We look to a broad definition of literacy as guided by UNESCO to be inclusive for all families. Children learn to be literate in a variety of ways in their homes, communities and places of formal education.

What research tells us

New research in three-to-five-year-old children’s homes and communities in Fiji, has revealed that children’s regular engagement in literacy across many different media has supported good literacy outcomes.

There were ten main ways of engaging in literacy-building activities. These included print and information, communication and entertainment technologies, arts and crafts, making marks on paper, screens and other surfaces like sand and concrete, reading and creating images, and talking, telling and acting out stories that were real or imagined.

Children also engaged with reading, recording and talking about the environment, reading signs in the environment, engaging in music, dance, song and, lastly, with texts and icons of religions and cultures.

These activities were enjoyed and valued by children and their families as part of their everyday lives, and were further bolstered by creating books with children in their home languages and English.

Parents and communities include their children in daily activities, encouraging their literacy experiences.
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This research can be used to add to our discussions on how parents can help develop their children’s early literacy.

The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found daily reading to young children improves schooling outcomes, regardless of family background and home environment.

The OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results also indicate a strong correlation between parents reading and storytelling with children in the early years and reading achievement at age 15, with those students performing one to two years above their peers.

However, it is not just being read to that matters. The adult-child interactions are also very important.

These interactions need to be lively and engage children with the text-in-hand. Alphabet toys and phonics programs alone offer little to develop literacy, as they focus on a code without contextual meaning. Words, and their letters and sounds, are best understood when seen and applied in everyday experiences, driven by children’s motivations.

How to be a talking, reading, writing, viewing, and listening family

There are several practical things parents can do to encourage broad literacy and learning in early childhood years.

  1. Don’t wait. Read what you are reading aloud to your newborn. Children become attuned to the sound of your voice and the tones of the language you speak as their hearing develops.

  2. Share stories at mealtime. Provide prompts like: “Tell us what your teddy did today”. Alternatively, randomly select from ideas for characters, problems, and settings, for example: “Tell us about an inquisitive mouse lost in a library”. Oral storytelling provides a bridge to written stories.

  3. Record on your phone or write down your child’s stories. Turn them into a book, animation, or slide show (with an app). Children will see the transformation of their spoken words into written words. These stories can be revisited to reinforce learning of words, story structure and grammar.

  4. Talk about their experiences. For example, prompt them to describe something they have done, seen, read or heard about. Research shows children’s oral language supports their literacy development, and vice-versa.

  5. Guide literacy in your children’s play, following their lead. For example, help them follow instructions for making something, or use texts in pretend play, such as menus in play about a pizza place. Children will engage with various texts and the purposes they have in their lives.

  6. Books, books, books. For babies and toddlers, start with durable board books of faces, animals and everyday things with few words that invite interactivity (e.g., “Where is baby?”). Progress to more complex picture books with rhyming language. Talk about personal links with the stories and ask questions (such as “I wonder what will happen next or where they went to”) as these will support comprehension. Look to the Children’s Book Council for awarded quality children’s literature.

  7. Talk about words children notice. Be sure the words make sense to children. Talk about what words look like, what patterns, letters and sounds they make. This builds children’s word recognition and attack skills, and understanding of what words in context mean.

  8. Involve your children in activities where you use literacy. For example, if you make shopping lists or send e-cards, your children could help create these with you. Explain what you are doing and invite children’s participation (e.g., “I’m looking at a map to see how to get to your friend’s house”). Children can meaningfully engage with and create texts and see the place these texts have in their lives.

  9. Use community and state libraries. Most offer interactive family literacy programs. Early Years Counts and The Australian Literacy Educators Association has a range of resources for families.

The ConversationAbove all, be sure the experience is enjoyable, playful, and encourages children’s active involvement. Literacy should be engaging for your children, not a chore.

Louise Phillips, Lecturer, School of Education, The University of Queensland and Pauline Harris, Research Chair in Early Childhood, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Once upon a time: a brief history of children’s literature



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Children’s books were historically moralising and instructive. What’s changed?
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Susan Broomhall, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, University of Western Australia

April 2 is International Children’s Book Day and the anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous contributors to this genre, Hans Christian Andersen. But when Andersen wrote his works, the genre of children’s literature was not an established field as we recognise today. The Conversation

Adults have been writing for children (a broad definition of what we might call children’s literature) in many forms for centuries. Little of it looks much fun to us now. Works aimed at children were primarily concerned with their moral and spiritual progress. Medieval children were taught to read on parchment-covered wooden tablets containing the alphabet and a basic prayer, usually the Pater Noster. Later versions are known as “hornbooks”, because they were covered by a protective sheet of transparent horn.

A 1630 horn book.
Folger Digital Image 3304., CC BY-SA

Spiritually-improving books aimed specifically at children were published in the 17th century. The Puritan minister John Cotton wrote a catechism for children, titled Milk for Babes in 1646 (republished in New England as Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes in 1656). It contained 64 questions and answers relating to religious doctrine, beliefs, morals and manners. James Janeway (also a Puritan minister) collected stories of the virtuous lives and deaths of pious children in A Token for Children (1671), and told parents, nurses and teachers to let their charges read the work “over a hundred times.”

These stories of children on their deathbeds may not hold much appeal for modern readers, but they were important tales about how to achieve salvation and put children in the leading role. Medieval legends about young Christian martyrs, like St Catherine and St Pelagius, did the same.

Other works were about manners and laid out how children should behave. Desiderius Erasmus famously produced a book of etiquette in Latin, On Civility in Children (1530), which gave much useful advice, including “don’t wipe your nose on your sleeve” and “To fidget around in your seat, and to settle first on one buttock and then the next, gives the impression that you are repeatedly farting, or trying to fart. So make sure your body remains upright and evenly balanced.” This advice shows how physical comportment was seen to reflect moral virtue.

Erasmus’s work was translated into English (by Robert Whittington in 1532) as A lytyll booke of good manners for children, where it joined a body of conduct literature aimed at wealthy adolescents.

In a society where reading aloud was common practice, children were also likely to have been among the audiences who listened to romances and secular poetry. Some medieval manuscripts, such as Bodleian Library Ashmole 61, included courtesy poems explicitly directed at “children yong”, alongside popular Middle English romances, saints’ lives and legends, and short moral and comic tales.

Do children have a history?

A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled in the debate over whether children in the past were understood to have distinct needs. Medievalist Philippe Ariès suggested in Centuries of Childhood that children were regarded as miniature adults because they were dressed to look like little adults and because their routines and learning were geared towards training them for their future roles.

But there is plenty of evidence that children’s social and emotional (as well as spiritual) development were the subject of adult attention in times past. The regulations of late medieval and early modern schools, for example, certainly indicate that children were understood to need time for play and imagination.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Children’s Games, 1560.
Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists working on the sites of schools in The Netherlands have uncovered evidence of children’s games that they played without input from adults and without trying to emulate adult behaviour. Some writers on education suggested that learning needed to appeal to children. This “progressive” view of children’s development is often attributed to John Locke but it has a longer history if we look at theories about education from the 16th century and earlier.

Some of the most imaginative genres that we now associate with children did not start off that way. In Paris in the 1690s, the salon of Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy, brought together intellectuals and members of the nobility.

There, d’Aulnoy told “fairy tales”, which were satires about the royal court of France with a fair bit of commentary on the way society worked (or didn’t) for women at the time. These short stories blended folklore, current events, popular plays, contemporary novels and time-honoured tales of romance.

These were a way to present subversive ideas, but the claim that they were fiction protected their authors. A series of 19th-century novels that we now associate with children were also pointed commentaries about contemporary political and intellectual issues. One of the better known examples is Reverend Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863), a satire against child labour and a critique of contemporary science.

The moral of the story

By the 18th century, children’s literature had become a commercially-viable aspect of London printing. The market was fuelled especially by London publisher John Newbery, the “father” of children’s literature. As literacy rates improved, there was continued demand for instructional works. It also became easier to print pictures that would attract young readers.

18th century Battledore printed by Newbery which adds pictures and a verse on the rewards of industry to the elements of the hornbook.

More and more texts for children were printed in the 19th century, and moralistic elements remained a strong focus. Katy’s development in patience and neatness in the “School of Pain” is key, for example, in Susan Coolidge’s enormously popular What Katy Did (1872), and feisty, outspoken Judy (spoiler alert!) is killed off in Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894). Some authors managed to bridge the comic with important life lessons. Heinrich Hoffman’s memorable 1845 classic Struwwelpeter reads now like a kids’ version of dumb ways to die.

Struwwelpeter (‘Shock-headed Peter’) in a 1917 edition.
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By the turn of the 20th century, we see the emergence of a “kids’ first” literature, where children take on serious matters with (or often without) the help of adults and often within a fantasy context. The works of Lewis Carroll, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Edith Nesbit, JM Barrie, Frank L Baum, Astrid Lindgren, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling operate in this vein.

Children’s books still contain moral lessons – they continue to acculturate the next generation to society’s beliefs and values. That’s not to say that we want our children to be wizards, but we do want them to be brave, to stand up for each other and to develop a particular set of values.

We tend to see children’s literature as providing imaginative spaces for children, but are often short-sighted about the long and didactic history of the genre. And as historians, we continue to seek out more about the autonomy and agency of pre-modern children in order to understand how they might also have found spaces in which to exercise their imagination beyond books that taught them how to pray.

Susan Broomhall, Director, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, University of Western Australia; Joanne McEwan, Researcher, University of Western Australia, and Stephanie Tarbin, Lecturer in medieval and early modern history, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Children prefer to read books on paper rather than screens



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Children may actually prefer reading books the traditional way.
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Margaret Kristin Merga, Murdoch University and Saiyidi Mat Roni, Edith Cowan University

There is a common perception that children are more likely to read if it is on a device such as an iPad or Kindles. But new research shows that this is not necessarily the case. The Conversation

In a study of children in Year 4 and 6, those who had regular access to devices with eReading capability (such as Kindles, iPads and mobile phones) did not tend to use their devices for reading – and this was the case even when they were daily book readers.

Research also found that the more devices a child had access to, the less they read in general.

It suggests that providing children with eReading devices can actually inhibit their reading, and that paper books are often still preferred by young people.

These findings match previous research which looked at how teenagers prefer to read. This research found that while some students enjoyed reading books on devices, the majority of students with access to these technologies did not use them regularly for this purpose. Importantly, the most avid book readers did not frequently read books on screens.

Why do we think children prefer to read on screens?

There is a popular assumption that young people prefer to read on screens. This was mainly driven by education writer Marc Prensky who in 2001 coined the term “digital natives”. This term characterises young people as having high digital literacy and a uniform preference for screen-based reading.

But young people do not have a uniform set of skills, and the contention that screens are preferred is not backed up by research.

Despite this, the myth has already had an impact on book resourcing decisions at school and public libraries, both in Australia and in the US, with some libraries choosing to remove all paper books in response to a perceived greater preference for eBooks.

But by doing this, libraries are actually limiting young people’s access to their preferred reading mode, which in turn could have a detrimental impact on how often they choose to read.

Young people are gaining increasing access to devices through school-promoted programs, and parents face aggressive marketing to stay abreast of educational technologies at home.

Schools are motivated to increase device use, with Information and Communication Technology being marked as a general capability to be demonstrated across every subject area in the Australian Curriculum.

The drivers toward screen-based recreational book reading are strong, but they are not well-founded.

Why are students more likely to prefer paper books?

Reading on devices through an application leaves more room to be distracted, allowing the user to switch between applications.

For students who already experience difficulty with attention, the immediate rewards of playing a game may easily outweigh the potentially longer-term benefits of reading.

Digital literacy could also be an issue. In order to use a device to read books, children need to know how to use their devices for the purpose of reading books.

They need to know how to access free reading material legally through applications such as Overdrive or websites such as Project Gutenburg.

Tips for encouraging your child to read

Research shows that reading books is a more effective way to both improve and retain literacy skills, as opposed to simply reading other types of text. Yet international research suggests that young people are reading fewer and fewer books.

While equipping children with devices that have eReading capability is unlikely to encourage them to read, there are a number of strategies, supported by research, that can help encourage children to pick up a book. These include:

  • Be seen to enjoy reading. This study found that a number of students did not know if their literacy teachers actually liked reading. Teachers who were keen readers inspired some students to read more often and take an interest in a broader range of books.

  • Create (and regularly access) reading-friendly spaces at home and at school. Loud noises, poor lighting and numerous distractions will not help provide an enjoyable reading experience, and are likely to lead to frustration.

  • Encourage regular silent reading of books at school and at home. Giving children time to read at school not only encourages a routine of reading, but it also may be the only opportunity a child has to read self-selected books for pleasure.

  • Teachers and parents should talk about books, sharing ideas and recommendations.

  • Continue to encourage your child and students to read for pleasure. While we know that children tend to become disengaged with books over time, in some cases this can be due to withdrawal of encouragement once children can read on their own. This leads children to falsely assume that reading is no longer important for them. Yet reading remains important for both children an adults to build and retain literacy skills.

  • Find out what your child enjoys reading, and support their access to books at school and at home.

Margaret Kristin Merga, Lecturer and Researcher in Adolescent Literacy, Health Promotion and Education, Murdoch University and Saiyidi Mat Roni, Lecturer, Edith Cowan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why children’s books that teach diversity are more important than ever


BJ Epstein, University of East Anglia

If you think back to your childhood, what sticks with you? For many people, it’s those cosy times when they were cuddled up with a parent or grandparent, being read a story.

But bedtime stories aren’t just lovely endings to the day or a way to induce sleep, they are also a safe way to experience and discuss all sorts of feelings and situations. So even when children think they’re just being told about an adorable bunny’s adventures, they are actually learning about the world around them.

We know that children’s books can act like both mirrors and windows on the world. Mirrors in that they can reflect on children’s own lives, and windows in that they can give children a chance to learn about someone else’s life. We also know that this type of self-reflection and opportunity to read or hear about different lives is essential for young people.

Research on prejudice shows that coming in contact with people who are different – so-called “others” – helps to reduce stereotypes. This is because when we see people who initially seem different, we learn about them and get closer to them through their story. The “other” seems less far away and, well, less “otherly”.

But while it may be ideal for children to actually meet people from different backgrounds in person, if that isn’t possible, books can serve as a first introduction to an outside world.

Representing the world

Despite knowing how important it is for diversity to be represented in our day-to-day lives, many children’s books are still littered with white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender, nominally Christian characters. And research suggests that over 80% of characters in children’s books are white – which clearly doesn’t reflect the reality of our world.

All of these reasons are why the We Need Diverse Books movement was set in motion in 2014, stemming from a discussion between children’s books authors Ellen Oh and Malinda Lo. The movement aims for more diverse children’s books to actually be created and for these works to be available to young people. And while we need people to actually write them, we also need publishers to produce them, and bookstores, libraries, and schools to stock them.

Getting diverse books into the hands of young readers.
Pexels.

As someone who researches children’s literature, I think we’d have fewer conflicts in the world if we all read more diverse literature and lived more diverse lives.

I like to think that if we had more diverse children’s books, featuring a broad range of characters in many different jobs and situations, as well as more diverse role models in the media, young people would feel empowered, and they’d believe that when they grow up, they could be anyone and do anything they wanted. And they’d look at their friends and think the same for them, and they’d grow up respecting and appreciating everyone’s talents.

With this mindset present, issues such as race or religion wouldn’t even play a subconscious role. And it would mean that within a generation or two, we wouldn’t read articles about appalling and depressing statistics, and we wouldn’t need campaigns to increase diversity in literature, academia, or anywhere else.

Role models

But books aren’t just about “others”. When we see people like ourselves in the media, including in fiction, we get a glimpse of who we might become, and we feel validated. We can gain role models and inspiration through literature.

Perhaps partly in response to people’s growing awareness of the need for role models – whether in person or in literature – one young black girl, Marley Dias, started a campaign to find 1,000 “black girl books”. Dias recommends works such as Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson and I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley.

But I wonder how many of those “black girl books” feature black girls in prominent roles, such as working as professors, doctors, teachers, or even as presidents of nations. I have a suspicion that the percentage would be disappointingly low.

Wanted: diverse role models.
Shutterstock

Just featuring a minority character isn’t enough to create quality diverse literature, but it is a first step. And while there are some useful websites that recommend diverse children’s books and even literary awards dedicated to promoting such works, much still needs to be done.

Along with the increased worries today about immigrants, refugees, and general “otherness”, some societies seem to be headed towards a sense of false nostalgia about a time when the world was controlled by whites.

Given this is not how the world is or should be, we owe it to young readers to show them reality in the books they’re reading. Perhaps then the next generation will be less frightened of the “other” if they get to meet them and learn about them from an early age.

The Conversation

BJ Epstein, Senior Lecturer in Literature and Public Engagement, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Summer reading list: ten best children’s books of 2016


Belle Alderman, University of Canberra

It’s not always easy to keep kids reading over the summer holidays. But research shows that those who stop reading over these long breaks from school are actually at risk of seeing their reading ability drop during this period. This is called the “summer slide”.

But there are simple ways to prevent this from happening. Reading just four or five books over the summer can stop the slide.

Reading regularly also helps to develop a child’s language and comprehension, enhance listening and speaking skills, and help with the understanding of narrative and story. Reading to your child during pre-school years has even been shown to boost their literacy levels.

Children are, unsurprisingly, more likely to read when they find a story interesting and engaging. With this in mind, I’ve pulled together a list of great new books that have been published this year that are sure to keep kids engaged in reading over the summer break.


Harper Collins Publishing

1. Hello Little Babies by Alison Lester

(Harper Collins Publishers, 2016) Ages: 0 – 3 years

Cameos of babies’ lives and their families feature in ordinary but universal scenes starring babies as they sleep, play, eat and explore life.

The short, familiar text, such as “Zane rubs corn in his hair” and “Vikram yawns and stretches”, is perfect for parents to read aloud. Lester is at her finest in capturing the minutia of the ordinary and rendering it memorable.

Further reading: Lester’s 48-page colouring-in book, Wonderful World, featuring characters and scenes from her books Imagine, Magic Beach and others, is the perfect companion.

Parents might collect Lester’s books and join in a game of “find the characters” appearing in the colouring book.


Penguin Books Australia

2. Who sank the boat? And other stories by Pamela Allen

(Penguin, 2016) Ages: 1 – 5 yrs

Here’s a treasure trove of nine familiar favourites by a creator who excels in the art of simplicity, humour, playful images and universally loved stories including Grandpa and Thomas and Belinda. Allen’s jaunty language is perfect for reciting and performance by pre-schoolers.

Parents will enjoy performing words and actions and talking about the subtle character-building ideas, such as being kind to others and working together.


Little Brown

3. One Minute Till Bedtime written by Kenn Nesbitt, illustrations by Christoph Niemann

(Little Brown, 2016) Ages: 3 and up

These 60-second poems are perfect bedtime reading. Five countries, including Australia, feature in these 132 selections, each evoking strong emotions. Included are abecedarian, pantonums and haiku poems, plus others. The illustrations are minimalist and clever, ensuring imaginations are engaged.

Australia’s poems by Kathryn Apel, Mark Carthew, Sophie Masson and others add to the international flavour. Parents prepare for a rollicking read aloud and discussion of other kinds of poetry than those here.


Black Dog Books

4. Welcome to Country written by Aunty Joy Murphy, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy

(Black Dog Books, 2016) Ages: 5 and up

Welcome to country ceremonies are an important part of major events. They signify cultural greetings by Aboriginal elders who grant permission for visitors to enter their traditional lands.

This stunningly illustrated book has a deep yet simple text, which introduces its central concept through poetic language and earthy, evocative landscapes of blended colours and shapes of people and landscapes.

“We are part of the land and the land is part of us” reminds us to respectfully share cultural traditions. Parents might collect a range of picture books by Aboriginal creators for children, comparing illustration styles and discussing the meaning underlying traditional stories.


Allen & Urwin

5. The Sisters Saint-Claire written by Carlie Gibson, illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie

(Crows Nest, NSW : Allen & Unwin, 2016) Ages: 7 and up

Gibson’s debut, gem-like story offers likeable characters, a tasty dilemma and a satisfying ending. Appealing ingredients include a family of four French mice who adore food, family and fashion, intricately detailed illustrations, lavish banquets of French food and a text in delectable rhythm and rhyme.

Adults and child can explore places in the world, locate these on maps, and share cultural diversity.

Further reading: Similar in whimsical detail, but featuring enchanting rabbit characters, is the trio of books by Kate Knapp about Ruby Red Shoes. Ruby’s adventures to distant places are told in entrancing prose and feature detailed, whimsical illustrations.


National Library of Australia Publishing

6. Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks by Gina M Newton

(National Library of Australia, 2016) Ages: 8 and up

Australia is home to over 110,000 species of animals and here in Newton’s large, lavishly designed book are 120 – most existing only in Australia. The beautifully designed layout conveys information so jam-packed that readers will return again and again.

Basic and iconic information include slang, sports, places to visit, and lots of food. Adults reading this book (and the one below) with children might want to talk about the importance of looking after the environment.

Further reading: Tania McCartney’s book, Australia illustrated, in a similar large and inviting format, offers fascinating titbits about all Australian states and territories.


Allen & Urwin

7. Artie and the Grime Wave by Richard Roxburgh

(Allen & Urwin, 2016) Ages: 8 and up

Artie and his best friend Bumshoe discover a cave-of-possibly-stolen-stuff, then match wits and defeat our shady characters including fang-toothed Funnel-web and the dastardly Mayor Grime.

High-appeal ingredients abound in this mystery-adventure: a struggling underdog; good-hearted friends; moments of bravery; slightly dangerous baddies and a rip-roaring pace. The quirky line illustrations perfectly capture inventions like the “super snotter” and shady characters in zany, slightly dark, line illustrations.

Parents might compare this work with other popular humorous authors and illustrators such as Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton with their Magic Tree House series.


National Library of Australia

8. Radio Rescue written by Jane Jolly, illustrated by Robert Ingpen

(National Library of Australia, 2016) Age: 9 and up

Two masters of story and illustration combine their art to reveal a fascinating piece of Australian history — how “the world burst open” with the invention of the pedal radio. The facts are astonishing, but the human story adds great appeal.

Young Jim and his mum and dad love station life but long for human contact, and worry about disaster striking. Jane Jolley’s text is simple with appealing repetition perfect for reading aloud.

Robert Ingpen’s signature soft pencil sketches and luminous foldouts are unforgettable. Parents might find other books about significant inventions and innovations in our world such as transportation and the Internet, and talk how these have changed our lives.


Allen & Urwin

9. Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

(Allen & Urwin, 2016) Ages: 10 and up

Shaun Tan’s 15 short stories explore unique, perplexing and sophisticated ideas with unforgettable images. One story centres on Eric, tiny in size but large in heart. He leaves behind an unforgettable gift for his human friends. Another story features satirically decorated missiles in front yards. Tan puts a twist in this tale, prodding the reader to think. A family with little money creates a richly imaginative attic retreat.

Parents will enjoy reading Tan’s crisp proud aloud and luxuriate in his mesmerising illustrations, then discussing the many layers of his work. Then, as a family, put together the accompanying Shaun Tan 750-piece puzzle.


Hachette Australia

10. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

(NSW : Hachette, 2016) Ages: 12 and up

Occasionally a book leaves an indelible impression, irrevocably changing one’s worldview. This is one of those books.

Ten-year-old Subhi is a refugee, born in a permanent Australian detention centre. Though he knows no other life, his imagination soars and offers comfort. When he meets a young girl from the other side of the fence, their lives change forever.
Family members loved and lost weave throughout this story. The prose is lyrical, and there are light moments. Read this book as a family and explore injustices, hope and love.

Further reading

You might also like “A love and feel for place : Australian illustrated children’s books – in pictures” by Leigh Hobbs.

All the books listed were published in 2016 and reflect Australia’s rich and diverse creative talent.

The Conversation

Belle Alderman, Emeritus professor of children’s literature, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading with your children: proper books vs tablets


Nicola Yuill, University of Sussex

Most of us have an opinion about whether we prefer reading on screen or paper: but what difference does it make for children? The truth is that technology is now encountered from babyhood. Anecdotes abound of toddlers swiping their fingers across paper rather than turning the page, while parents and teachers express their fear of screen addiction as tablets introduce new distractions as well as new attractions for young readers.

Ofcom figures tell us that children’s screen use rises sharply towards the end of primary school (from age seven to 11) and in the same period, book-reading drops. Increasing screen use is a reality, but does it contribute to a loss of interest in reading, and does reading from a screen provide the same experience as the feel of reading on paper?

We looked at this in our research on shared reading. This has been a neglected topic even though it is clearly a common context for children when they read at home. It might be their regular homework reading of a book from school, or a parent reading them a favourite bedtime story.

Warming up

We asked 24 mothers and their seven to nine-year-old children to take turns – mother reading or child reading – with popular fiction books on paper, and on a tablet. They read Barry Loser: I am not a Loser by Jim Smith and You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton. We found that the children’s memory for the descriptions and narratives showed no difference between the two media. But that’s not the whole story.

The interactions of parent and child were found to be different in the independent ratings from video observation of the study. When they read from paper rather than a screen, there was a significant increase in the warmth of the parent/child interactions: more laughter, more smiling, more shows of affection.

It may be that this is largely down to the simple physical positioning of the parent and child when using the different media, as well as their cultural meaning. When children were reading from a screen, they tended to hold the tablet in a head-down position, typical of the way they would use the device for solo activities such as one-player games or web-browsing.

This meant that the parents had to “shoulder-surf” in order to share visual attention. In contrast, when parents read to their children on paper, they often held the book out to support shared visual engagement, tucking the child cosily under their arms. Some children just listened without trying to see the book, but instead curled themselves up comfortably on the sofa.

Paper or pixels?
Megan Trace/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Keep taking the tablets?

Our research joins a growing list of studies comparing paper and e-books, but the answer isn’t a simple one. Shared reading is different to reading alone, for a start. And we may be interested in whether screen or paper makes a difference in how children learn to read, to understand, and enjoy reading. In short there are multiple perspectives to consider – developmental, educational, literary and technological – if we are to decide which medium is preferable.

Most studies have compared children at the earliest stages of reading, using paper books, e-books with audio and dictionary support to help less-skilled readers, and so-called “enhanced” e-books with multimedia, activities, hotspots and games.

Text with audio support helps children to decode text, and multimedia can keep a reluctant reader engaged for longer, so a good e-book can indeed be as good as an adult reading a paper book with their child. But we don’t yet have long-term studies to tell us whether constant provision of audio might prevent children developing ways of unpicking the code of written language themselves.

They think I’m reading; I’m playing Candy Crush.
George Rudy/Shutterstock

Re-design for life

There is also increasing evidence that adding multimedia and games can quickly get distracting: one study found that young children spent almost half their time playing games in enhanced e-books, and therefore they read, remembered and understood little of the story itself. But there is plenty of guidance for e-book developers on the what, where and how much of designing multimedia texts.

And that brings us back to perhaps the defining conclusion from our own study. Books versus screens is not a simple either/or – children don’t read books in a cultural vacuum and we can’t approach the topic just from a single academic field. Books are just books, with a single typical use, but screens have many uses, and currently most of these uses are designed round a single user, even if that user is interacting with others remotely.

We believe that designers could think more about how such technology can be designed for sharing, and this is especially true for reading, which starts, and ideally continues, as a shared activity in the context of close long-term family relationships. Book Trust figures report a drop from 86% of parents reading with their five-year-olds to just 38% with 11-year olds. There is a possibility that the clever redesign of e-books and tablets might just slow that trend.

The Conversation

Nicola Yuill, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to teach literacy so no child is left behind


Kevin Wheldall, Macquarie University

Children who do not learn to read in the first few years of schooling are typically destined to a school career of educational failure, because reading underpins almost all subsequent learning.

Even when exemplary reading instruction is available, there will always be some children who take longer than others to catch on to what reading is all about. It is important to identify these low-progress readers as early as possible so that they do not fall too far behind their peers.

We need a clear plan in place to ensure that no child falls through the net. Such a plan needs to be both effective and cost-effective.

A three tier model of reading instruction, known as Response to Intervention (or RtI) has become known in recent years as the best way of achieving this.

Kindergarten

The three tier RtI model is based on the first tier of exemplary, quality initial instruction in reading for all students during their first year of schooling.

The instruction offered to all children beginning school should be based on what internationally conducted scientific research has shown to be most effective.

To the layman, this sounds patently obvious but this is not what is currently the case in many Australian schools. For the last few decades an implicit model of reading instruction has held sway.

Most of this implicit approach to reading instruction makes a good bedrock to build effective reading instruction on. But it is not enough for every child to learn to read.

The majority of children will need direct, explicit and systematic instruction in the five pillars or “five big ideas” of reading instruction: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

What is often lacking in initial reading instruction, in particular, is effective instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics: specific instruction in how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words.

In New South Wales and some other states, many schools typically screen students at the beginning of year one for possible placement in Reading Recovery, one of the most well known and most widely utilised remedial reading program in the world.

Whatever the debate about the efficacy of Reading Recovery, it is necessarily very expensive. It is based on a daily, half hour, one-to-one session with a highly trained Reading Recovery teacher, for two or more terms.

The bottom 25 per cent

The RtI model recommends that struggling readers should be offered more intensive Tier 2 intervention in small groups of three to four students.

Again the instruction provided to these students is based on what the scientific research evidence has shown to be most effective.

In effect, this is essentially the same emphasis on the same five big ideas of reading instruction but it is both more intensive and more individualised. Teachers also need to be more responsive to the specific idiosyncratic needs of the students with whom they are working.

Research suggests that good small group instruction can be just as effective as one-to-one instruction.

However, even with a solid Tier 2 small group reading intervention in place for young low-progress readers, there will still be a very small number of students who “fail to thrive”, perhaps about 3 to 5 per cent of the total population of Year 1 students.

Intensive instruction

The small number of students whose reading problems seem to be more entrenched and who are resistant even to specialised intensive small group instruction are the ones who should receive Tier 3 one-to-one intensive reading instruction.

By now it will come as no surprise that the general nature of the instruction provided in a one-to-one Tier 3 intervention is exactly the same as offered at Tier 1 and Tier 2.

What is different is the intensity of instruction provided to this very small minority of students.

Because we have successfully taught the vast majority of Year 1 students the basics of learning to read by Tier 1 and where necessary, Tier 2 teaching, we can afford to provide these remaining students with the individual support they need.

Some of these students may need this support for some time, but this is a far more manageable proposition with a smaller number of students.

Monitoring progress

With this three tier Response to Intervention model in place, most, if not all, children will learn to read, given the necessary time and resources.

The RtI model does not stop at the end of Year 1. It’s important to monitor all students’ reading progress closely, especially for the first three years of schooling.

By following these models, it’s not too much to ask to expect all of our children to learn to read.

The Conversation

Kevin Wheldall, Emeritus Professor of Education, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.