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World Book Day 2024: 1 in 5 children feel judged for what they read

This World Book day, March 7, 2024, the Guardian reported on a survey of 1,000 7- to 14-year-olds in the UK – conducted by consultancy Beano Brain for the charity World Book Day* in January. The poll found that more than a third of children cannot choose what they want to read, and one in five feel judged for what they do read.

“Children have told us that they think that reading choices are judged by the adults around them,” said Cassie Chadderton, CEO of World Book Day. “It discourages them, it puts them off reading for pleasure and by choice”.

The charity reported, “The experience of feeling judged is also impacting children right across the age group. Over one child in every 10 say they feel judged by their reading ability at school (15%) and at home (16%), while twice as many – one in five – feel judged by others on their reading choices, both at school (20%) and at home (18%). and quoted a child who had said, ”I didn’t tell my teacher that I didn’t like that book in case she thought it was a bit rude and told me off.”

In our State of Data 2020 report, we included a case study on a common platform used by schools to steer what books children read, automating scores of what they “ought to be reading“. You can read our full case study here, 16:00 Case study | The reading monitor | Accelerated Reader which the company Renaissance was given the opportunity to vet and edit before its publication.

It first came to our attention after a parent talked to us in frustration when their child had been told by the librarian they ‘had got worse at reading’ and had to go for remedial reading at lunch time. The child was a high achiever and the system had identified that she had been reading slightly ‘easier’ books than usual. But had the child’s reading ability really fallen behind? That’s what the child understood from the intervention and it knocked their self-esteem.

How their systems assess children like this, or rate and rank books’ complexity and guide how the children choose what to read next is opaque without access into its design.

In 2019, the BBC reported that the company director of professional services had suggested that, “Mr Men books look really easy but they are a really high difficulty level”. In the words of its Managing Editor, “No formula could possibly identify all the variables involved in matching the right books with the right child.” So should it be trying to at all, and in particular when it might not offer all of the UK-published books a child is looking for?

In 2020, we asked, “what scope is there for this algorithm to create a misplaced perception of ‘value’ of a book to a child? Is the app limiting what they will read out of curiosity, sticking to their assigned ‘level’ or age band? It influences their choices in ways that are not fully transparent. How does the ‘norming’ work and what influence does it have and why? Is it biased? In what ways, and how are its unintended consequences mitigated? How do children of different abilities feel about the product over time? These questions would be interesting to see research trials address and whether and how the product makes ‘better’ readers and how attainment and progress compare to teacher encouragement to read with non quantified goals rather than turning children’s reading for pleasure into one of over ‘2.8 billion real-world data points’. Or is it the reading practice that matters, not the product?”

In 2021, the Education Endowment Fund concluded in its research that, “Children who started Accelerated Reader in Year 5 made, on average, no additional progress in reading compared to children in the comparison schools,” and, “Children eligible for free school meals who started Accelerated Reader in Year 5 made, on average, no additional progress in reading compared to FSM children in the comparison schools. However, this result has high statistical uncertainty.”

In summary the EFF wrote, “AR was very well received by the vast majority of teachers, teaching assistants, and librarians who perceived positive impacts on pupil reading ability, reading stamina, and attitudes.

Perhaps these new poll findings despite the platform’s reported popularity with school staff, also point to more research needed on children’s voice in the debate around the balance of risks and benefits of EdTech products that cost schools money but have (a) no consistent quality, pedagogy, safety, or technology assessment before procurement, and (b) might at best offer uncertain or no clear results of significant progress towards positive outcomes. As far as we know, there is no research into how most edTech use of tools like this one, makes children feel.

It is also unproven to parents if and how any of the rest of the same company’s products work. The UK Department for Education has however funded research to assess pandemic catch-up needs based on this company’s products, run with the EPI. Findings suggest more catch up needs should be supported, a result that could have also been evidenced by asking any number of state schools up and down the country. We wonder what tools schools might feel encouraged to use to achieve this?

*World Book Day conducted research with funding from The Mercers’ Company, and partnered with Beano Brain, to speak directly to children aged 7-14 about their feelings around reading for pleasure. World Book Day is a charity sponsored by National Book Tokens.