Personalisation in children’s reading: what do the literacy experts think?

Natalia Kucirkova.

With the advent of personalised news and algorithms automatically predicting what one should read, children’s own agency as readers is in peril. When this is coupled with a boom in the children’s personalised book industry, reading for pleasure is becoming reading about ‘me’ rather than ‘you’. It’s self-oriented rather than outward-facing. What can be done about it?

Personalisation is a buzzword in education, with a lot of confusion about what it actually means. UCL Institute of Education has a strong expertise in the context of children’s personalised reading, and last week, the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0-11 years) and the International Literacy Centre hosted a one-day conference as part of my project on Personalised Stories.

The conference’s aim was to discuss the intersection and tensions between automated personalisation and children’s own choices in fostering reading for pleasure.

Professor Merideth Gattis (Cardiff University) highlighted in her opening keynote the many  interventions that have been devised to target how parents read to their children. The interventions are expensive, difficult to implement and long-term effects are difficult to find. A promising alternative, however, is to use the book content as a context for rich parent-child conversation. Can personalised books promote abstract talk around the book? Can books that feature the child’s name or photo better support children to make inferences about the wider world? That is the question for future experimental research.

Taking a different perspective, John Kent from the Children’s Media Foundation highlighted the role of personalisation in increasing children’s engagement in stories and games. He pointed out that since a good story and strong characters are key in driving children’s interest, then a good story that is “personaliseable” provides a win-win situation.

The keynoteby Professor Teresa Cremin (The Open University) referred to the disconnect between adults’ personal reading practices and what she saw as the rather impersonal reading promoted in schools. She said that there are lots of ways adults personalise their reading, adding that “the educational process can be enhanced when teachers learn about their children’s everyday literacy lives and develop pedagogies of reconnection”. Teachers can share their 24-hour reading diaries, create reading displays, make visits to children’s homes or simply have long conversations with children to find out where, how and what they read. Cremin concluded that since unmotivated and disaffected students fail to benefit from reading instruction, it is vital to shift the locus of control from teachers to choice-driven reading led by the child.

The final speaker, Professor Catherine Snow (Harvard University) focused on the tension between child-led and teacher-led instruction. The widely reported socio-economic gaps between children from working- and middle-class families are not about the number of words spoken at home but about the content of parent-child communication, Professor Snow said. The situation will not be remediated if parents simply talk more to their children: there needs to be rich ping-pong-like conversation between parents and children. Books provide ideal structure for ‘conceptually challenging talk’. But in addition, children need to have opportunities for rich conversations during mealtimes or family trips. Yes, some gifted parents and teachers are able to provide knowledge-rich learning environments. But we cannot leave the issue in the hands of a few. Professor Snow challenged the research community to develop resources, support the type of design and instruction that can walk the line between personalisation and community. She drove home the message that personal and group identity need not be in conflict.

This conference was the last in the series of events connected to the Children’s Personalised Books project, but you can follow the updates on the project website and its associated blogs. The event was sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council and dedicated to Dr Lisa Procter, formerly of the Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Posted in Childhood & early education, Language and literacy
2 comments on “Personalisation in children’s reading: what do the literacy experts think?
  1. John Mountford says:

    Much to ponder here. Reading will always be central to a life of discovery. Certainly, the reader needs to, and will, explore ‘self’ and the lives of others through reading but for young children reading for pleasure in the company of a reading ‘buddy’ is a vital prerequisite.

    I feel Professor Snow’s comment – “there needs to be rich ping-pong-like conversation between parents and children.” – needs re-framing to take account of what often happens in the teaching of reading in our schools.

    Evidence abounds that the teaching of reading is failing some children. Pressure to employ synthetic phonics with very young children threatens to undermine reading for pleasure and breeds insecurity in the very children we need to work most carefully with to capture their interest in books and stories. This blog from Reclaiming Schools, highlights the position in Ireland which recently ranked as the highest European country in the PIRLS international reading test. (https://reclaimingschools.org/2018/10/02/international-evidence-and-the-phonics-test/comment-page-1/#comment-3282)

    The fact that, in Year 1 in Ireland, the emphasis is placed on spoken language links very powerfully with Professor Snow’s comment, “Books provide ideal structure for ‘conceptually challenging talk’. But in addition, children need to have opportunities for rich conversations during mealtimes or family trips.” However, as Professor Gattis informs us about the, “many interventions that have been devised to target how parents read to their children. The interventions are expensive, difficult to implement and long-term effects are difficult to find.” Whereas the quality of conversation between parent and child aimed at encouraging interest in the child learning to read revolves around the issue of ‘parental competence’, the situation should be different in our schools.

    Research into workable interventions for parents is certainly important. Clearly such research will take time. However, children need these quality interventions now and it is in our schools that we should be developing different strategies that address the problem of teacher competence .

    As this recent article from Roger Titcombe shows, teaching for cognitive growth represents one of the most powerful vehicles for ensuring ‘conceptually challenging talk’ is built into a rich curriculum experience for all children and young people. Time to ditch the testing and prepare our children for their future not reflect a long-gone past.

    https://rogertitcombelearningmatters.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/in-praise-of-p4c/

  2. […] is important that pockets of low school attainment are effectively addressed. I refer you to this blog post from the internationally respected UCL Institute of Education and the comment from my colleague […]

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