Children’s books can do more to inspire the new generation of Earth warriors



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Gary Haq, University of York

A changing climate means the frequency of extreme weather events such as heat waves, flooding, hurricanes and wildfires has become a common occurrence. Temperatures are increasing on the land and in the ocean, the sea level is rising and amounts of snow and ice are diminishing, as greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations have increased. Unfortunately, children and young people are taking the brunt of climate change and this will continue into the future.

Doctors are seeing the serious effects of global warming on children’s health and are concerned that it could reverse the progress made over the past 25 years in reducing global child deaths. Not only that, children are at risk of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety due to natural disasters caused by climate change.

A UNICEF survey of children aged nine to 18 in 14 countries showed that children are deeply concerned about global issues affecting their peers and them personally, including climate change. Children across all countries feel marginalised because their voices are not being heard nor that their opinions considered.

Environmental diversity

Given the enormity of the climate challenge, it is surprising how limited coverage of our changing climate receives in current children’s fiction. The children’s publishing sector is booming. UK sales of children’s books rose by 16% in 2016 with sales totalling £365m. Globally, children’s book sales have risen steadily across all age categories.

Some picture books do explain climate change (such as The Magic School Bus and Climate Change by Joanne Cole and Bruce Degen). And there are plenty of young adult novels that feature dystopian climate futures (such as Carbon Diaries by Saci Lloyd). But few fiction books for eight to 11-year-olds discuss the issue.

In my view, the lack of “environmental diversity” in children’s literature is just as important as the debate about the lack of cultural and social diversity. After all, children will be responsible for the future protection of our fragile planet, and so their knowledge and engagement are critical.

Connecting with nature.
Angelo lano/Shutterstock.com

Stories not only develop children’s literacy but convey beliefs, attitudes and social norms which, in turn, shape children’s perceptions of reality. They allow children to move from a position of powerlessness to a position of possibility. Through fiction, children are able to explore different perspectives and actions beyond what they know by living in the story world of characters for whom they care.

Through literature, children can develop a better understanding of global issues and engage in critical inquiry about themselves in the world. And so combining narrative structure with factual information has the power to take children beyond what is on the page. This could allow them to expand their understanding of difficult scientific concepts such as climate change.

Earth warriors

As children engage in the printed word, they can be inspired to make a difference in the real world. This is what a group of Portuguese children is doing after watching their district burn because of the worst forest fires in their country’s history. The fires that occurred in June 2017 have been linked to climate change, and killed over 60 people. The children are now seeking crowdfunding to take a major climate change case to the European Court of Human Rights alleging that the states’ failure to tackle climate change threatens their right to life.

When I decided to write my first children’s novel, I never intended it to be an eco-themed book. But given that I am an environmental researcher, it seemed the most natural thing to do. The result is My Dad, the Earth Warrior, a funny story about the relationship between a boy called Hero and his dad who have grown apart since the death of his mother. Then one day dad has a freak accident and wakes up claiming to be an Earth warrior sent to protect Mother Earth. This plunges Hero into an increasingly bizarre and dangerous world.

Climate change can be a dark, apocalyptic issue to discuss in a story to overcome this, I did not make it a central topic but used the changing weather as an underlying theme throughout this book. The persona of the Earth warrior provides an alternative perspective on our relationship with the natural world. At the end of the book, I encourage readers to join the tribe and become Earth warriors. I hope by taking a humorous approach to a serious topic, I can not only engage and entertain children but also inspire them to think beyond the book. This is something that writer and illustrator Megan Herbert has done by teaming up with climatologist, Michael Mann, for their crowdfunded picture book The Tantrum that Saved the World.

The ConversationWe need children to care about the planet if they are to the tackle climate challenge that lies ahead. Storytelling can play a part in raising awareness and inspiring children and young adults to take action and become the next generation of Earth warriors.

Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York

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

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How children’s picturebooks can disrupt existing language hierarchies


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This image is from Te taniwha me te poraka, an issue from the Junior Journals series He Purapura, aimed at fluent readers.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Nicola Daly, University of Waikato

There are many factors that shape the value we place on different languages.

Some languages seem more pleasant to listen to, easier to learn or more logical. These perceptions are generally influenced by our attitudes towards the speakers of a language and the different situations in which the language is spoken.

One reflection of the differential status of languages comes through in bilingual children’s picturebooks. Here I explore how te reo Māori (the indigenous language of New Zealand) is represented and argue that the way languages are displayed in bilingual picturebooks can disrupt the status quo.




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


Linguistic landscapes

As a sociolinguist, I am interested in the representation of languages in bilingual picturebooks. This not only reflects existing attitudes towards languages, but it can also be powerful in shaping future societal attitudes.

As well as telling a story or giving information, the presence of a minority language in a picturebook can serve a symbolic function. The way in which languages are presented in bilingual children’s books may encourage readers to value a language, or perhaps use this language more frequently, thus positively affecting its vitality.




Read more:
Indigenous picture books offering windows into worlds


To show the different ways in which minority indigenous languages can be featured in children’s picturebooks, I examine the linguistic landscapes of some Māori-English picturebooks that are disrupting the status quo of language hierarchies.

Linguistic landscape is a term used to describe the (usually visual) presence of different languages in public spaces. In my work with picturebooks I use this term to describe the space occupied by languages within a book. Language hierarchies relate to the idea that in any society some languages have more status than others.

I use these concepts to examine the comparative presentation of different languages in three areas: which language is presented first, which language uses a bigger font, and which language presents more information.

I argue that these three factors are reflections of the relative status of languages in a bilingual picturebook and they subtly indicate to the reader which language is more important.

Overturning existing hierarchies

In Aotearoa/New Zealand the indigenous Māori language (te reo Māori) has official language status, but it is spoken by a minority of the population (3.73% of the total population and 21.3% of the Māori population). However, some bilingual picturebooks have opted to assign primary status to te reo Māori in terms of order and font size.

Children’s picturebooks are often underestimated, but some bilingual picturebooks disrupt the status quo and promote an alternative language hierarchy.


Reo Pēpi, CC BY-SA

For example, Kākahu – Getting Dressed (Brown & Parkinson, 2015) is a board book in a series self-published purposefully by Reo Pēpi to encourage the use of te reo Māori with young children. On its front cover, the Māori word in the title (Kākahu) is much larger than the English (Getting Dressed). In the body of the book, Māori is privileged in several ways.

Māori is given first on the page, with English underneath; Māori is presented in a much larger font size than English; and Māori is given in a bold typeface, whereas English is given in normal typeface.

Te Wairua o Waitangi, which can be translated as “The Spirit of Waitangi”, is also part of a self-published series, written by Sharon Holt and designed to support teachers to bring te reo Māori into English medium classrooms via song.

The cover of Te Wairua o Waitangi.
CC BY-SA

This book (and others in the Te Reo Singalong series) features a brightly coloured title in te reo Māori only. It is bigger and more bold than any other writing (in English) on the cover.

The first few pages before the body of the story feature publishing information, a translation of the lyrics, and teaching notes for teachers in English. However, in the body of the book, only te reo Māori is used. At the back of the book, the lyrics for the song are given in Māori only with guitar chords. The picturebook includes a CD recording of the song, which also features a title in Māori and not English.

The power of the picturebook

The many different factors that influence the status of a language are often inter-related, but if a language is not valued, this may lead to people using it in fewer situations, and even to its eventual demise.

The ConversationThe two picturebooks I have discussed illustrate how an often underestimated form of children’s literature can be used to support an indigenous language with a minority of speakers. Children and adults reading and listening to these books will see, albeit subconsciously, which language is being given higher status. In this way, new language attitudes are being formed and this may result in the adjustment of existing language hierarchies.

Nicola Daly, Senior lecturer in children’s literature and language teaching., University of Waikato

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

Five tips to help you make the most of reading to your children



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Reading aloud to children can encourage a love of reading.
Shutterstock

Margaret Kristin Merga, Curtin University; Paul Gardner, Curtin University; Saiyidi Mat Roni, Edith Cowan University, and Susan F Ledger, Murdoch University

Reading to your child is one of the most successful ways of instilling a love of reading in them. But in our recent study, more than one-quarter of primary-school-aged respondents claimed they were never read to at home.

Children typically enjoy being read to, and see educational, social and emotional benefits to the practice. But families are busy, and finding time to read aloud can be eaten up by the demands of everyday life.

Not all parents have been read to themselves as children, so may not have experienced a model they can then follow with their own children. And many adult Australians may be struggling readers themselves.

With this in mind, here are five suggestions that can help make the experience of reading to your children fun, relaxing and educational.

1. Give it all your attention

For many people, the best time to read with their children is at night, once the children are in bed. But if you find your child too cranky and disengaged at this time (or if you are feeling tired yourself), you might want to try reading to them earlier in the day.




Read more:
Three easy ways to get your kids to read better and enjoy it


Whatever the time, it’s important to give the book and your children all of your attention. Phones and other devices with enabled notifications should be switched off. Everyone should be comfortable, and children should associate time spent being read to with enjoyment.

Reading time should be free of distractions.
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Where possible, we strongly suggest reading to your child becomes part of the daily routine. The more often children are read to, the more substantial the benefits. Reading to children is both an opportunity to model how the written word sounds and a chance for family bonding.

2. Engage with the story

Children don’t typically enjoy having the story stopped every few seconds for comprehension checking, so we suggest you keep interruptions to a minimum.

But recapping is useful when picking up a book again after a break. If parents let their children provide this recap (“So, where are we up to?”) this also enables informal comprehension checking. Opportunities for prediction are also beneficial (“Wow… what do you think might happen next!”).

Sharing your response to a book and encouraging children’s responses stimulates critical thinking. These techniques and others can enhance learning and comprehension, but they shouldn’t upset the fluidity of the reading experience or turn it into a test.

We should read aloud to children for as long as possible .
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You can share the task of the reading itself with your children if they want to. This is beneficial for a range of reading skills, such as reading comprehension, word recognition and vocabulary building.

3. There’s no age limit

You can start reading to your child from early infancy to support their developing language abilities, so it’s never too early to start. The skills infants and young children develop through shared reading experiences can set them up for literacy achievement in their subsequent schooling years.




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


Reading to your children remains important beyond the early years, too, with continuing benefits for literacy development and cognitive skills.

We should read to young people for as long as possible. There is no age where the benefits of being read to completely expire.

Very recent research in the UK found struggling adolescent readers can make remarkable gains on their reading comprehension when books are read to them at school. This is perhaps due to the opportunity for students to enjoy books that are too hard for them to read themselves.

4. Pick a book you both enjoy

We suggest you select a book that interests both you and your child. Reading together is a great opportunity to share your passions while broadening your children’s horizons through making diverse book choices.

Children often struggle with picking a book to read.
from shutterstock.com

Don’t be afraid to start reading chapter books to your children while they are still very young. The age to begin this will vary depending on your child’s attention span, but it’s often possible to begin this with pre-schoolers.

As long as the story isn’t too complex, children love to be taken on an enjoyable journey into books that are too hard for them to read independently. This can also help to extend child’s vocabulary, among other benefits.




Read more:
How building your child’s spoken word bank can boost their capacity to read


It’s a good idea to take your children to the library and model how you choose interesting books for shared reading. Research shows many primary and high school children are easily overwhelmed by choice when they attempt to pick what books to read independently, so helping them with this is a valuable skill.

5. Don’t worry about your style

Not all of us are destined to be award-winning voice actors, and that’s OK. It’s great to use expression and adopt different voices for the characters in a book, but not everyone will feel able to do this.

At multiple points in our research, we’ve come across people who have praised the reading efforts of parents who weren’t confident readers, but who prevailed nonetheless. For example, in our recent paper a respondent described being read to by her mother who struggled with dyslexia. This mother, and many other parents, have inspired a love of reading in their children through their persistence.

Children love being taken into the virtual reality of a story.
from shutterstock.com

The ConversationBeing taken into the virtual reality of story is a memorable, pleasurable experience that stays with us forever. Reading aloud provides parents with a valuable opportunity to slow down, relax and share the wonderful world of books with their children.

Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Curtin University; Paul Gardner, Senior Lecturer: Literacy Education, Curtin University; Saiyidi Mat Roni, Lecturer, Edith Cowan University, and Susan F Ledger, Associate Dean Engagement, Murdoch University School of Education, Murdoch University

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

Wicked witches and evil queens: why children’s books need more female villains



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Still from DIsney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016)

Anna Cermakova, University of Birmingham and Michaela Mahlberg, University of Birmingham

This year, women’s history month follows what seems an unprecented upsurge of events that revealed the widespread abuse of women in both professional and private life. So it is not surprising to also see an increased interest in the representation of gender in literature – or rather, as a recently published big data study shows, a significant under-representation of women in literature.

Both female writers as well as female protagonists have been lagging behind their male counterparts for centuries. Gender inequality has naturally become a contemporary topic that has also made it into schools. To mark World Book Day, which we celebrated on the first day of women’s history month, Votes For Schools, a voting platform for schools, in collaboration with Let Toys Be Toys, a campaign promoting gender equality in the toy and publishing industries, published a lesson plan for primary schools asking the question “Do bestselling books encourage sexism?”

Votes For Schools then put this question to primary school pupils and got an interesting result: 79% of students said “No” and only 21% said “Yes”. But another vote on “Do we need more female villains in books?” tells a bit of a different story: the result is 67.5% “Yes” and 32.5% “No”. The response further revealed that 80% of female pupils wanted more female villains in books compared to 54% of male voters.

Books for boys and books for girls

Stories in which male heroes go through all sorts of adventures before they come to the rescue of the beautiful, but passive, princesses are all too familiar. The Observer newspaper collaborated with Nielsen research on a large market study which found that lead characters were 50% more likely to be male than female, and male villains were eight times more likely to appear compared to female villains. This kind of gender stereotyping is, however, just a continuation of a tradition established in children’s literature much earlier than that.

It was in the latter half of the 19th century that booksellers and book reviewers – “the cultural gate-keepers” as the American literary critic Anne Lundin calls them – started to distinguish between reading suitable for boys and that for girls. At the beginning of the 19th century, the book market was much more general, it did not even clearly delineate between adult and child readers.

From the 1880s, The Times newspaper started to devote separate review essays to literature for boys and for girls. Lundin notes it was rather critical particularly of the books addressed at girls – and it was not the quality of writing that was criticised so much as the subject matter: “Writing for girls … lacked the dynamism of boys’ books.”

Good girls and brave boys

Research at the University of Birmingham looks at gender in children’s literature with the help of corpus linguistic methods. As part of the GLARE project, which explores gender in children’s literature from a cognitive corpus stylistic perspective, a specialised corpus of 19th-century children’s books has been collected. This collection of 71 books was selected to represent what has been called the “Golden Age” of English children’s literature and contains classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Water Babies.

A quick look in the GLARE corpus confirms observations on bias of gender representation. Among the books written by female authors, there are only seven where the word “girl” is used much more frequently than “boy”. Among the books by male authors, there are only two where “girl” is used more frequently than “boy”.

The highest relative frequency of “girl” is in the 1886 book A World of Girls: The Story of a School by the female author L. T. Meade. The book was greeted by The Academy review journal on publication (November 20, 1886) as “light and pleasant reading” with “many a quiet, useful hint about the education and general training of young girls”. The highest relative frequency of the occurrence of “boy” can be found in the 1858 cautionary tale Eric, Or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School by Frederic William Farrar.

But women who wrote books for children also often dealt with male worlds – the relative frequency of “boy” is similarly high in the 1883 novel Jackanapes by the female writer Juliana Horatia Ewing. A review described it as: “The wistful tale of heroic sacrifice in which the orphaned son of a Waterloo cavalry officer … dies saving the life of his childhood friend on the field of battle.”

These books are good examples of reading expectations of boys and girls at the time – and the following selection from the corpus provides us with some insights.

Examples of ‘girl’ in the GLARE corpus retrieved with CLiC.
Birmingham University, Author provided

In these examples, girls are well behaved and beautiful – and they certainly appear inferior to boys. Boys are strong and brave and ready for the adventures ahead of them. But boys are also trouble sometimes. In many respects, this has not changed much.

Examples of ‘boy’ in the GLARE corpus retrieved with CLiC.
Birmingham University, Author provided

Wicked witches and evil queens

Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland.
John Tenniel

Male villains in children’s books outnumber their female counterparts. In fact, not everyone might easily come up with a top ten list like that of the British author MG Leonard. Her list features the likes of Mrs Wormwood in Matilda, Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter, Cruella de Vil in The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Mrs Coulter in His Dark Materials.

The female villain is usually represented as a witch – as the White Witch from Narnia – or a queen, as the wicked queen in Snow White or the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. Witches embody an unattractive (often old), powerful female figure who is turned to for advice or help when everything else fails – as with the witch in the Little Mermaid fairy tale. Witches are feared and excluded from society, as illustrated in this example from The Book of Dragons (1899) by Edith Nesbit quoted from the GLARE corpus:

And besides a King he was an enchanter, and considered to be quite at the top of his profession, so he was very wise, and he knew that when Kings and Queens want children, the Queen always goes to see a witch. So he gave the Queen the witch’s address, and the Queen called on her, though she was very frightened and did not like it at all. The witch was sitting by a fire of sticks, stirring something bubbly in a shiny copper cauldron.

The ConversationChildren’s books are not only fiction. They provide vital opportunities for children to make sense of their own world. How many more women’s history months will it take to see a greater variety of fictional female characters, not just beautiful princesses, good girls and evil queens?

Anna Cermakova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, Centre for Corpus Research, University of Birmingham and Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham

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

Schools can’t tackle child literacy levels alone – it takes a village



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More than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day at home.
Shutterstock

Catherine Wade, Parenting Research Centre

The recently released NAPLAN 2017 results and findings from the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have got Australia talking again about how our children are faring when it comes to literacy.


Read more: NAPLAN 2017: results have largely flat-lined, and patterns of inequality continue


We know from PIRLS, while most Australian children are meeting international benchmarks for reading at year 4, nearly one in five are not meeting these benchmarks. Australia has one of the largest proportions of students who fall below the “intermediate” benchmark into the “low” or “below low” categories, compared to other English-speaking countries, including the US, Canada, and England.

Despite the range of steps that have been taken to address literacy levels across Australia, a large proportion of children are still not meeting international standards for reading. So what other approaches could we try?

Parents: an untapped resource

New research from the Parenting Research Centre highlights an area ripe for intervention: better supporting parents in reading to their children.

Our findings from a study of 2,600 parents showed more than half of children under two and nearly half of children aged three to five are not being read to every day.


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We found, while most children were being read to by an adult in the household four to five days a week, a concerning proportion were not being read to at all or very infrequently. Specifically, 13% of 0–2-year-olds and 4% of 3–5-year-olds were not read to at all by an adult at home in the previous week.

Our research also looked at how important parents’ educational values and aspirations for their children were and how they felt about their interactions with their children’s educators. The survey has national relevance, as most of the findings relate to broader parenting issues.

Why early reading is vital

We know from decades of international research that what parents do at home with their children has a profound effect on children’s learning outcomes. Children who experience enriched, cognitively stimulating home environments are at an advantage in the learning process because they have had exposure to many more words.

The evidence in support of providing a language-rich environment to children is vast. Children with language delays at school entry are at greater risk for academic difficulties. With flow-on effects to later academic and socio-emotional challenges, the imperative to tackle language and literacy problems early is paramount.

Sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy.
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A number of high-quality reviews of the scientific literature show good evidence for the benefits of parental shared reading for children’s literacy.

And while older children typically need less input from parents when it comes to actually looking at words on the page, that doesn’t mean the parents’ role in supporting reading diminishes. Creating a home environment that encourages time and space for books is key.


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


If we know reading works, why don’t we do it?

The message that simply sitting together, opening a book, and reading and pointing to words can be incredibly helpful in building the foundations of good literacy has certainly cut through with many parents of young children.

But there are many reasons parents don’t read at home. As we know from sectors such as health, simply telling people what needs to be done – such as exercising more – does not take their personal context into consideration. Alone, it’s not enough to motivate people to adopt new patterns of behaviour.

Considering how best to support parents to read more often to their children is an important question and will depend on a thorough understanding of the barriers that are preventing them from doing so. Family and work pressures and parental confidence around reading books are some possible factors that could be further explored as barriers.

A shared concern

Children’s literacy is not the sole responsibility of parents, but it’s clearly an area where parents and schools can work together. This parent-educator partnership featured in our survey, which explored parents’ views about their interactions with kindergarten, child care and school teachers.


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Most parents (92%) felt comfortable communicating with their children’s teachers. Although 21% did not think or were unsure if their child’s teacher understood their child.


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Also, 20% did not agree they were able to participate in decisions that affected their child at kinder or school.

Of note, fathers tended to feel less comfortable talking with their child’s teachers than mothers did.

While 82% of parents felt their opinions were valued in discussions with their child’s educators, 11% had mixed feelings about this and 7% felt their opinions weren’t valued.


https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/ILYt4/1/


Given what we know from research about the value of parents being connected with their children’s educational settings, it follows that parent-teacher partnerships are important for children’s educational outcomes.

Consequently, it’s important issues like literacy are looked at holistically. Literacy is not just as an education system issue, and not just a parenting issue. It’s a societal issue.

Parents are ready to engage

We found the vast majority of parents (93%) see their own contribution to their children’s learning in the early years as important. This supports the view that today’s parents are generally well placed for taking on information about how to improve their children’s literacy and educational outcomes.

It’s encouraging that most children are being read to at home – even if not every day. But in the context of concerns about Australia’s position in international literacy rankings there’s more to be done.

The ConversationThe message to parents is clearly “read early and read often”. The message for policy makers and professionals is “support parents to better engage with their children’s learning”. This could take many forms and is dependent on context. It could include strategies such as building literacy messages and materials into existing parenting support services and promoting online resources for parents, given our survey found 79% of parents look for answers online about parenting issues.

Catherine Wade, Principal Research Specialist, Parenting Research Centre

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

International study shows many Australian children are still struggling with reading



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Despite improvements in the national average score, the 2016 PIRLS report confirms many Australian children continue to be left behind.
wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Jennifer Buckingham, Macquarie University

The results of an international study into the reading skills of Year 4 students offer reason for optimism for Australian children.

The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) shows that, on average, reading achievement among the Australian children surveyed improved significantly between 2011 and 2016. This is excellent news.

However, there is still cause for concern about Australia’s literacy standards, with the PIRLS study showing that a substantial minority of Year 4 children continue to struggle with reading.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

The study has been running internationally every five years since 2001. In 2016, it encompassed 50 countries. Australia has participated twice – in 2011 and 2016.

In 2016, 6,341 Year 4 students from 286 Australian primary schools took part.

The study focuses on two reading abilities – reading for literary experience, and reading to acquire and use information. Students were given texts to read and then asked to answer multiple choice and short answer questions. Example questions include:

How does the author show you what the red hen is like?

According to the article, what is one way people have made the sea more dangerous for turtles?

Signs of improvement

The results show Australia’s national average performance improved significantly between 2011 and 2016.

With the exception of the Australian Capital Territory, all the states and territories showed an improvement. The improvement was statistically significant in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.


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The increase in the average scores in many states is due to better performance by students at the top end of the scale. This is a wonderful outcome for those students.

While the 2016 PIRLS results run counter to the trends in the most recent PISA and TIMSS international assessments, the improvement isn’t entirely unexpected. Recent years of NAPLAN results have shown an improvement in average reading scores for Year 3 students.

It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the reason for this improvement. But it’s fair to say there has been a strong focus on early reading since NAPLAN was introduced in 2008, putting a spotlight on progress in this vital area of education.

Indeed, the PIRLS results provide a very useful external validation of the reliability of the NAPLAN results, as they report similar trends in reading over similar periods.

The sting in the (long) tail

The improvement in average scores is certainly heartening. But the PIRLS data also show that when it comes to reading, many Australian children are still being left behind.

In 2016, 6% of Australian children did not meet the minimum (low) international benchmark for Year 4 reading. This is only a very small improvement from the 2011 figure of 7%.


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Some 19% of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve the intermediate benchmark. To reach this benchmark, children needed to be able to:

  • make straightforward inferences about things that weren’t explicitly stated in the text
  • work out the order of events in the text, and/or
  • find and repeat explicitly stated actions, events, and feelings in the text.

PIRLS describes this benchmark as a “challenging but reasonable expectation”.

In 2011, 24% of Australian children in Year 4 did not achieve this benchmark. So the figure of 19% in 2016 is an improvement. But it’s a poor outcome compared to other countries, including England, Canada, and the United States.

Despite some improvements, Australia still has the second-largest proportion of children below the international intermediate benchmark for reading among English-speaking countries.


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Early identification of low progress readers

Research shows that children who struggle with reading in their early school years are unlikely to ever catch up. These children need to be identified and supported much earlier.

This year, an expert advisory panel to the Australian government (which I chaired) reviewed early years reading assessments used around Australia. We found a deficit in the assessment of phonics skills in particular.

Phonics is the ability to translate the letters on a page into their respective sounds. It’s a skill that children (and adults) need so they can read and learn unfamiliar words. Without the ability to read and learn unfamiliar words, children have little hope of reading for meaning.

Based on the outcome of the review, the panel recommended (as have other experts) a trial and possible subsequent adoption of the Year 1 Phonics Check that has been statutory in English primary schools since 2012.

In this context, it’s worth noting that England’s results in PIRLS 2016 – the first group to take the Year 1 Phonics Check – are the best they have ever been.


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The Phonics Check is a quick (five-minute) and effective reading check. It’s neither stressful for children nor onerous for teachers, and provides immediate information to teachers about this fundamental aspect of literacy development.

The expert panel acknowledged that phonics is one of five essential components, alongside:

But of those five components, there is good reason to believe that phonics isn’t being taught effectively or assessed consistently in many schools. For the children most at-risk of reading failure – including those from socioeconomically or language impoverished homes, and children with learning difficulties – the consequences are devastating.

Literacy on the agenda

This Friday, Australia’s federal, state and territory education ministers will come together for the year’s final Education Council meeting. Their agenda will include the need for a national Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.

The PIRLS statistics will be thoroughly dissected and debated. But it’s important to remember these statistics represent real children.

What does it mean to be unable to read? One mother of a Year 6 child poignantly described it as “not being able read the jokes in Christmas crackers around the table at Christmas lunch”.

The ConversationThis should not be the case for a child who has spent seven years at school. A literacy check in Year 1 could prevent many Australian children from falling through the cracks, and facing a lifetime of disadvantage.

Jennifer Buckingham, Senior Research Fellow, The Centre for Independent Studies; Associate Investigator, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University

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

South Africa has a reading crisis: why, and what can be done about it



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Children must be taught to read for comprehension, not just to parrot what they hear.
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Peter Rule, Stellenbosch University

The teacher stands in front of her Grade 4 class. The 45 nine and ten-year olds are crammed together at desks, huddled over shared books. Some are sitting on the floor. “Now, class, read from the top of the page,” the teacher says. They comply in a slow sing-song drawl.

“Stop,” says the teacher. “It is not ‘Wed-nes-day’, you say it ‘Wensday’. It is what?” “Wensday,” the class responds. “Again.” “Wensday.” The reading resumes, the teacher frequently stopping to correct her pupils’ pronunciation.

Sometimes the children read aloud in groups. At other times, she calls a child to come to the front and read aloud. Not once does she ask a question about what the story means. Nor do the children discuss or write about what they have read.

This is the typical approach to how teaching is read in most South African primary schools. Reading is largely understood as an oral performance. In our research, my colleague Sandra Land and I describe this as “oratorical reading”. The emphasis is on reading aloud, fluency, accuracy and correct pronunciation. There is very little emphasis on reading comprehension and actually making sense of the written word. If you were to stop the children and ask them what the story is about, many would look at you blankly.

Pronunciation, accuracy and fluency are important in reading. But they have no value without comprehension. Countries around the world are paying increasing attention to reading comprehension, as indicated by improving results in international literacy tests.

The problem with the oratorical reading approach is evident in the results of the recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 tests. PIRLS’ purpose is to assess reading comprehension and to monitor trends in literacy at five-year intervals. Countries participate voluntarily. Learners write the test in the language of learning and teaching used in Grades 1 to 3 in their school.

The tests revealed that 78% of grade 4 pupils in South Africa fell below the lowest level on the PIRLS scale: meaning, in effect, that they cannot understanding what they’re reading. There was some improvement from learners writing in Sesotho, isiNdebele, Xitsonga, Tshivenda and Sepedi from a very low base in 2011, but no overall improvement in South Africa’s performance.

South Africa was last out of 50 countries surveyed. It came in just behind Egypt and Morocco. The Russian Federation came first followed by Singapore, Hong Kong and Ireland.

South Africa also performs poorly in the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality surveys. These show that in reading and numeracy South Africa is lagging behind much poorer African countries such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Our research on reading at a rural primary school and an adult centre in the KwaZulu-Natal province showed that the oratorical approach to teaching reading was dominant both in the school and adult classes. Both adults and children were not learning to read with meaning, and so were not achieving literacy despite attending classes. Our findings confirmed the results of other South African studies.

So where does the problem lie and how can South Africa address it?

Rote learning

To understand the situation more deeply we interviewed teachers and explored how they had learned to read. We found that they teach as they were taught; an indication that oratorical reading is a cycle repeated from one generation to the next unless it is broken.

Teachers told us they assessed pupils’ reading ability just as they were assessed by their teachers: by having them read aloud. Marks were allocated for individual oral reading performance. This was based not on understanding the passage, but on fluency and pronunciation. There was no written assessment of reading comprehension. Reading was about memorising sounds and decoding words.

This suggests that the problem in learners’ performance lies in how reading is taught in most South African schools. Learners are taught to read aloud and pronounce correctly, but not to understand the written word and make sense of it for themselves. Another consequence is that the pleasure and joy of discovery and meaning-making are divorced from school reading.

New approaches

There are no quick fixes, but there certainly are slow and sure ones. The first is to get reading education in pre-service teacher training right. A report by JET Education Services, an independent non-profit organisation that works to improve education, found that universities don’t give enough attention to reading pedagogies.

Universities need to teach reading as a process that involves decoding and understanding text in its context, not just as a “mechanical skill”. Countries such as India, with its great diversity and disadvantaged populations, have begun to address the need for this change in how reading is taught.

The second “fix” concerns in-service training. The Department of Basic Education has a crucial role to play here. Teachers need to reflect on how they themselves were taught to read and to understand the shortcomings of an oratorical approach.

Effective reading instruction, such as the “Read to Learn” and “scaffolding” approaches, should be modelled and reinforced. In a multi-lingual African context, strategies that allow teachers and learners to use all their language resources in making meaning should be encouraged. Teachers’ own reading is vital, and can be developed through book clubs and reading groups.

The school environment is also crucial. According to the PIRLS interviews with principals, 62% of South African primary schools do not have school libraries. These are central to promoting a reading culture, as work in New Zealand shows.

Schools should develop strategies such as Drop Everything and Read slots in the timetable, library corners in classrooms, prizes for reading a target number of books and writing about them, and creating learners’ reading clubs. Learners can draw on local oral traditions by gathering stories from elders, writing them and reading them to others.

Finally, the home environment is vital. The PIRLS research showed that children with parents who read, and especially read to them, do better at reading. Our research found that children with parents who attended adult classes were highly motivated to learn and read with their parents. Even if parents are illiterate, older siblings can read to younger children. The Family Literacy Project, a non-profit organisation in KwaZulu-Natal, has done excellent work in creating literate family and community environments in deep rural areas, showing what is possible.

The ConversationDeveloping families as reading assets rather than viewing them as deficits can help to strengthen schools and build a reading nation.

Peter Rule, Associate Professor, Centre for Higher and Adult Education, Stellenbosch University

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

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.

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.
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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.