Reading the signs

On April 5, 2016 the National Library in conjunction with the New Zealand Book Council hosted the first Horizon series panel discussion, on the importance of reading for pleasure and the capacity it has to lift literacy levels, improve our wellbeing and to bolster our economic, social and cultural lives.

Miranda McKearney, Founder of The Reading Agency and EmpathyLab in the UK, was our special guest. She was joined by Peter Biggs, Chair of the Book Council, and Professor Stuart McNaughton, Chief Education Scientific Advisor for the Ministry of Education.

Professor Stuart McNaughton speaking at the National LibraryProfessor Stuar McNaughton from the University of Auckland (speaking), with Miranda McKearney and Peter Biggs (seated).

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Peter Biggs, Miranda McKearney, Stuart McNaughton.

So we’re just going to have a relaxing and hopefully really interesting conversation here as a panel for about forty minutes, and then open it up to questions and a conversation with you, the audience.

So Stuart, just off the top of your head, give us a reaction to Miranda’s work.

We’re pretty low here, I might stand for no other reason than I can see you. So maybe three or four reactions. One of the really interesting things about the summer programme that Miranda has talked about is this point about fun and making it different from school, so most of the research that I know – and particularly the research in the States – is of course school-based, and it’s designed as a programme that is constructed, engineered and what-have-you from school, and we can talk about the elements of those programmes that make them successful but I take Miranda’s point.

I well remember a mother that I interviewed once in one of the research exercises in which we were engaged, and we were trying remote reading and talking about why she didn’t use the library and why she didn’t perhaps use the books that came home and optimise the reading of these books with her child, and she said, “Why would I do that? It’s holidays, why would I do homework?” So I take the point. Somehow we have to capture that sense of fun and pleasure and most of the research programmes that reiterate the point, that I know of, probably miss that. They have all the other elements, the incentivising, the resources, the access, but they miss the point that this is actually about fun.

The next thing, we tend to default when we talk about reading for pleasure – and it might be in the word pleasure – to thinking that this is all about narrative texts, and particularly fiction. And I want to say that pleasure can also be reading a taxonomic information text, it can also be, as my second eldest grandson will do for many hours, read a text about trains... which poses some difficulty when you’re the grandpa and you want to spend time reading, I have a limited attention span for the ins and outs of tenders and gauges...

So I do want to put a plea in for the idea that we should be thinking about not just narrative texts. The research evidence is certainly about narrative texts and it is about literary texts, so the comparisons in the studies are usually between so-called literary texts and readable texts, sort of popular genre, popular fiction… There’s only one of the experiments that I’ve been able to see which compares the reading of the literary texts with non-fiction, and it’s a fairly weak comparison just by the way because they’re not matched in any particular way and it doesn’t look like a very good selection of non-fiction. So I’d be curious to know what pleasure in non-fiction would look like, just as an aside.

The summer reading – I had a doctoral student from Germany who did a study in Germany recently on summer writing. Even greater effects just by the way, it’s one of the first studies that we could detect of anybody looking at writing over summer, and she compared low socioeconomic status children and schools with high socioeconomic status and looked at reading and writing, and it’s the same thing. It’s about the practices. You know, you had families and children from low socioeconomic communities who were writing a lot and their writing didn’t go over summer, and vice versa. Some families in high socioeconomic status communities who weren’t writing a lot over summer, and their achievement in writing tended to drop. So it’s all about the practices. It’s just that some practices are more often associated with some communities than others. So our issue becomes thinking about the practices and how we put the practices in place, so I take that point.

If I could go back to the fiction/non-fiction issue. You do know that we also have a national policy at the moment which is called “a nation of curious minds” which is about science, and somehow, if we’re going to do this – and we can do this in a country of our size – we should put these things together.

I’ve had this discussion with Peter, and how the idea of science literacy is a good idea, but I’ve also had this discussion about the WHO report on obesity which talks about nutritional literacy. I mean, how many literacies do we need? It’s a long list of literacies but basically it’s reading critically. It’s being able to take topics and understand them, so I think if we’re going to be even more of a nation of readers than we might currently be, then we need to think about how we marry that with the other imperatives that are out there, and one mechanism for doing that might be through the science literacy idea as well.

Two further points. One is about, as somebody mentioned, the Matthew effect – when we were talking before we came in here. The potential for anything we do in education to benefit those who already are well off, and I don’t mean that in economic or income terms necessarily. There’s a large scale study of a library intervention in a major US city: built new libraries in poor communities, created fabulous resources and access for the children, to find that – first thing – more middle class families tended to use the libraries more often; but secondly, more importantly, it was middle class families tended to provide the guidance that was associated with the use of the libraries in order to gain access to relevant, appropriate texts that are high interest and what have you. In which case, it was the children of those communities who gained more from the libraries than the children of the communities for whom the libraries were originally designed. So whatever we do, we have to think about risk mitigation. We have to think about how we get the targeting right.

Final point, let’s also think about digital reading. Now the empathy part of this is really, really important, and especially in a digital environment. I don’t know if any of you are at universities at the moment, or have Deans who can send off emails that border on being aggressive and might have low empathetic value. We’re trialling some tasks and ways of assessing in the digital environment, and what we’ve realised is that, even if you just think about one reader and one person responding to that reader in a digital environment, you’ve got four persona going on. You’ve got the real reader, and then in a digital environment sometimes you can have a virtual reader, then you’ve got the virtual audience for that writer, and then you’ve got the real writer behind the virtual writer. So you’ve got the potential for people hiding behind other personalities, and we see this quite often actually. It’s where you see real interference with empathy, so somehow we’ve got to figure out how to build empathy in digital environments as well.

Thank you very much, Stuart. Fantastic, thank you. Miranda could I just come back to you. Why did it take so long for the government in the UK – both the political leadership, the bureaucracy – to get their heads around and take action around something like literacy, reading for pleasure and outcomes for social good? Could you just take us through the journey of advocacy that ended up in such a successful place?

I think I probably need to start by saying that, although there have been these major gains, so it is in the curriculum and all those things I said, there’s actually really complicated things going on that means, the way that teachers are being asked to assess children, actually undercuts some of that. There’s a big fuss about that at the moment. So it’s a complicated scene. And I think the scene here compared to the UK is very interesting, because – and we talked a little bit about this last night with authors – authors have a lot of weight in the UK now, much more than they did fifteen years ago, which I think has to be the J.K. Rowling effect. They’re really big figures now. They have newspaper columns and huge Twitter followings, and you know, Michael Rosen is an incredibly vocal critic of strategies that feed children extracts from books rather than give them whole books to read, for instance.

So I think what factors, what levers, are turned, generally in any change in policy – but I think it’s interesting that the authors certainly played a role and I don’t know if that would be the case here, it’s just interesting to compare. We also have probably a more complex, richer but more complex scene, of lobbying charities and The Reading Agency certainly was absolutely not doing this single-handed. So the National Literacy Trust and Book Trust, have the ear of government in certain ways, and the National Literacy Trust has played a really important role in research and coming up with the kind of research base that was starting to shift the thinking, so that when those OECD surveys and the Institute of Education came on board, that was big.

Then it’s interesting to think about what really changes things. There’s a couple of really important publishers in the UK. Dame Gail Rebuck is head of Random House. She goes to all the right dinner parties and she’s a passionate advocate for reading for pleasure. Then you had the educators, teachers themselves, lobbying away like mad for changes in the curriculum because they could see that children were enjoying reading less and they were really worried about it. So I don’t think it’s possible to identify one magic bullet. I think you need to think about your system and think about what would happen to change it.

What I found interesting about the Summer Reading Challenge was what I learned, because we did a similar thing on adult literacy, was that for years as a charity we had all the right frameworks and training and audits and all sorts in place, but it wasn’t until we introduced a really creative programme that really set people’s imagination on fire, that you started to see changing practices in libraries and with adult learners and with child learners. So I think there’s something about that. When we did the events in Westminster with MPs, firstly we gave them books to take back to their local library and talk to them about what they were going to do over the summer, and were they going to present the medals when the kids had finished, but also we were able to engage them in conversations about reading for pleasure. I remember one year we had half the Cabinet through the door, and it was very cheap – you had a little room in Houses of Parliament and had a drop-in session. Who knows what other things changed things, but those were some of the factors.

Thank you very much Miranda. Just picking up Stuart’s point and your point earlier about various different audiences. You do a lot of work with Māori and Pasifika communities. If we’re to take reading for pleasure forward as a kind of national movement, do you want to give us a perspective on culturally responsive initiatives? Particularly for Māori and Pasifika, and just from your experience, some ways forward that we could take there that would be successful.

That’s a good question. In no particular order, I think what one needs are texts that reflect the communities from whom children come – so clearly there’s a need for us to grow even more and support and maintain even more writers from the Māori and Pasifika communities that we have. That clearly is the case. And we have some prominent writers, just by the way, who have in a sense promoted exactly what you’re talking about. I mean Alan Duff as an example, and the Books in Homes programme is a very good example of a local writer championing and then having a charity follow his work, to build the practices of reading.

So that’s one thing. A second thing is having teachers who are able to use the books that reflect culture and background in ways that mean that rich discussions and rich understandings can come from those books, but also bridge to books that are unfamiliar. Before we had this panel a number of us were talking about the metaphor that colleagues of ours use, the idea of mirror texts and window texts, and how mirror texts reflect your background, your knowledge, your cultural identity and window texts are the texts that let you see into the unfamiliar. So the second part of the answer to your question is we’ve got to make sure that there’s a good diet of texts that do both the familiar thing and also the extension to the unfamiliar. There’s a lot of research about that.

The third thing is you think about the institutions and the ways in which cultural practices within our social institutions might promote reading for pleasure. For example, I didn’t know this but in some of the Pasifika families with whom we’re currently working, the use of social media for communicating messages, especially around family events, is a remarkably rich use of text and it’s become a very strong part of the Pasifika communities I know. That is, using social media as a platform for reading and writing for connecting families together. Now if you think about that and extend it, you think about where are the practices associated with particular institutions. So the church is an obvious example for some Pasifika communities. Various clubs – I might connect with your rugby example here, although nowadays, according to the Herald this morning, it wouldn’t be rugby or rugby league, it would be bicycling clubs and jogging clubs and walking clubs which have overtaken rugby. So you look for community sites where the practices already exist in some form and then build on those practices.

The lynchpin for me are the teachers in here. Despite what we said about summer and fun and outside of school, it’s the teachers in my view who are going to be able to promote the engagement and the extended engagement in reading – and, as you heard me say a moment or two ago – ergo writing. I don’t want to forget writing in this particular formula.

And Miranda – to use a very prominent lawyer’s term here – in this world of “super-diversity”, the UK is a very diverse society as well, can you talk about this reaching hard-to-reach groups but also diversity in terms of activation around reading for pleasure?

One of the big issues is the first thing you talked about, Stuart, it’s the kinds of books and the kind of ecosystem of the people publishing the books. There’s a big piece of work going on at the moment in the UK about diversity in publishing, both in terms of the staff in publishing houses, but also what’s actually coming out of them. A lot of people think we’re going backwards and I think that’s probably right, which is absolute madness when you look at the diversification of the population. So that is a very big central issue, is can children see themselves reflected in books, and you can’t think of any greater turn off than not seeing yourself reflected in a book, so it’d be really interesting to hear how you’re tackling that in new Zealand.

Very interesting, Penguin Random House have now dropped the requirement for their staff to have a degree, and part of that is about diversity. So it’s thinking big about how we change that.

The best work – I’m not a teacher, I haven’t worked much in schools – so the most work I’ve seen around diversity has been through public libraries, and they’re doing an extraordinary job in terms of connecting well to their communities. There are cities like Leicester where a lot of the librarians will be from the Asian community. I think Leicester is going to be the first city that has more Asian people than white people. So the strategies are really critical. There’s really interesting flourishing of work around making reading more social and I think that’s very relevant to the diversity thing. I don’t know where you are here on reading groups, but there’s been a real explosion of reading groups in the UK. Book clubs, but lots of schools running very different kinds of models of book clubs, and the best ones that I’ve seen start with the children’s interest - not with a book – so you know, if you’re interested in fishing or motorbikes, the club may be about that, or coding, not trying to ram books down people’s throats when actually they’re interested in other things. So, culturally responsive in that way.

You mentioned libraries. Collaboration – Stuart, Miranda, talk to us about what kind of collaboration a movement like reading for pleasure needs and how might that work?

Well the first thing I have to say is what an amazing thing you have in New Zealand, is in terms of collaboration, which is the National Library’s Services to Schools, providing books free to schools. It’s amazing! Compared to the UK, our school library services are locally provided and they’re nearly all shutting. It’s just terrifying. So hold onto your model for dear life, because it’s a really important basis for collaboration.

I think if we kind of helicoptered up on the collaboration thing, I think there’s something really interesting about do you need, have you got, a reading strategy? If you did, how would that draw in your curious minds people and your Department of Health, and everybody who ought to be interested in getting more people reading and enjoying it. In the UK, our discourse is stuck so annoyingly in a discourse about literacy and schools whereas actually it ought to be about every government department ought to be interested in people reading and it ought to be systematically wired into a strategy.

I think it’s very interesting in Scotland, who have a literacy strategy, it’s chaired by the Chief Medical Officer, and I just love that because it’s like, they’ve got it, it’s about our wellbeing, it’s not just about literacy. So collaboration is right across the board, and what about big other bits of society – supermarkets, you’ve talked about cycling clubs, how do we bring all the bits of society into play that need to come into play to create a nation of readers?

Stuart, your perspective on collaboration?

I don’t think I have much to add to Miranda’s comment, I think we have a wonderful resource in the National Library, I’ve thought that for many, many years, and I do think that the idea of being able to – this is the wrong word – but package up texts in a way that meets what we know is appropriate, that is a set of resources that is appropriate for a classroom, or even now a school, it seems to be a remarkable resource that we should protect.

Collaboration for me is a collaboration that is at least between the individual teachers in the school with the National Library and the local public library as well, because what we know from the summer studies is that if the school is not providing the books, then the books have to come from somewhere, or if a charity isn’t providing the books they have to come from somewhere, and where are they? They’re in the National Library or they’re in the local library in some form or another so a collaboration that gets every body on the page in terms of selecting and gaining access to appropriate texts, yeah.

Within a school, within a high school, we can talk about collaboration, and particularly collaboration between departments. Not so much reading for pleasure now but certainly reading for usage in the school becomes a collaboration between departments... the most successful secondary schools I see in terms of a literacy project or a literacy programme are those that have coordinated ways of thinking about the nature of literacy to meet different content areas and curriculum outcomes. So you’re right, you can think about collaboration at multiple levels.

We now have a system being designed in which we’re rolling back the autonomous schools, we’re creating clusters of schools at this very moment. Now that requires collaboration between primary and secondary and these local resources that we’re talking about. If you’re asking whether or not collaboration is a good thing, I think it is, yes!

I just forgot to say something about collaboration, because I think something really interesting about public and us and if we take promoting reading seriously, how do we mobilise ourselves? In the UK, there’s a big community volunteer effort that goes into sport and helping children do rugby and really interesting models like dementia friends, and that sense of the community mobilising itself to make the world a better place. Why don’t we do that enough around reading? At The Reading Agency there was a model we were trying which I thought was really interesting called World Book Night, where publishers printed a whole load of books and volunteers – 56,000 volunteers – went out on Shakespeare’s birthday to give a book to somebody who didn’t like reading. That might be in a prison or on the tube... and the impact report is really interesting about that sort of face to face conversion. Those of us who love reading and put our hands up about it being joyful, well what are we going to do about the people who don’t love it? So I think it’s something about the public and social media of course has a lot to bring into play with that.

We’re going to open the panel to questions from the audience now, but I’ve got one question I want to ask you. Your Reading for Pleasure Civil Servant – what do they do?! And where are they?

Well, they’re in the Department for Education, I suspect they played a big role in, the government issued last year a strategy called ‘Reading for Life’ and it focused its support, it published a big research base on reading for pleasure, so I expect the Civil Servant had quite a lot to do with that. They spend a lot of time talking to the charities, so the government funding for the growth of children’s reading groups would have been investigated by the Civil Servant.

Horizon Series 2016

By Public Programmes

Public Programmes put on exhibitions, events, and learning programmes at the Library.

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