Every few months, there’s a discussion amongst school librarians regarding the pros and cons of reading schemes. I’ve never worked in a school that has bought into one of these although I’ve created plenty of my own to encourage wider reading of genres and authors. But the commercial schemes on the market are far more than that. They involve assessing students to ascertain their reading level then directing them to suitable books. Some have quizzes, most have competitiveness involved and some schools have even linked them to their in-house rewards system.
I’ve got nothing against reading schemes. As far as I’m concerned, anything that gets students reading is a good thing but whilst these schemes can certainly improve a student’s reading level, do they actually turn the participants into “readers” – people who choose to read above other activities because they enjoy it? If you think about what you love doing (and I’m not necessarily talking about reading here) - did you discover this pleasure through being forced to do it? Or did you come across it, was given the freedom to explore and discover its delights, and encouraged to pursue it?
Reading is a skill and like any other skill – riding a bike, playing a musical instrument, partaking in sports – you need to practise regularly to get better. You also need to challenge yourself, try something a bit harder than you did last time and push yourself. Reading schemes, if they are run properly, do all of these but in order to show any sort of progression within them, you need a system of measurement. And this is where they fall down because the minute you start tracking progression, setting reading for homework, making participation of the reading scheme part of a lesson, it becomes another subject, another chore. It is turned into a systematic and mechanical activity, and not one that is done for pleasure or through choice. It is also important to remember that students have a limited amount of time for reading. They are busy with their homework, extra-curricular activities and own interests so have to fit reading in (like most of us). If they only have time for their reading scheme reading then that’s all they’ll do. It’s the same as when I’m on a book selection panel – I do not have time to read any other books and I know this can take the pleasure out of reading (although luckily for me it doesn’t).
There are also other difficulties that can occur - students have been known to avoid reading a book that is popular with their peers because it’s not at the “right” level so it “doesn’t count”; participating in shadowing groups can be problematic with students not being allowed to select all of the shortlisted books (those levels are the reason); book-giving schemes (such as Bookbuzz) can run into difficulties with students being told they can only choose a particular book (levels again) and library lessons – which should encompass a range of activities exploring and introducing students to books (YouTube reviews, book talks, time to browse and select, etc.) – can be lost to the rigidity of reading schemes. And don’t get me started on schools who think a reading scheme is the answer to having a library with a librarian.
We need to make the distinction between reading for improvement (R4I) which is what reading schemes do and reading for pleasure (R4P) which involves a wide-range of stock, access to it and time to browse and select – without restraints. Reading schemes certainly tick all the boxes – for Ofsted, for knowing reading levels and setting targets – but it should not be an “either or” choice between R4I and R4P. Both should be found within the school timetable yet, sadly, too often the former is given priority to the detriment of the latter; however, whilst reading for improvement does not automatically result in reading for pleasure, reading for pleasure will result in an improvement in reading skills.
So perhaps it is time to start giving reading for pleasure the priority and recognition it deserves?
If you would like to read more about the benefits of R4P, try these links: