From screen to page: Using pop-culture to encourage reading

James Bell

James Bell has worked in the education industry for Renaissance Learning for more than 10 years. Over this time he has worked with the National Foundation for Educational Research to assist them in completing an independent correlation study to confirm the reliability and validity of Renaissance Learning’s STAR Reading, STAR Maths and STAR Early Literacy products.  He also piloted Accelerated Reader in the United Kingdom with great success, and an independent research report was subsequently written by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust confirming outstanding results

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Results from a report published at the beginning of March shows that in Year 7, when students are making the transition to secondary school, children are choosing books six months below their chronological age and from then on reading difficulty plateaus or declines. However, in primary schools both the difficulty levels of books chosen and the accuracy with which they are read is on the rise.

The primary / secondary gap

The start of secondary school is therefore a crucial time to maintain momentum achieved in primary and continue that positive upwards trend. Lack of challenge is the likely culprit in the downturn in the difficulty of books being read at secondary transfer. We believe this marked change does not necessarily reflect a lack of ability, just that the choice of books by secondary school students represents significant under-challenge. This is not limited to struggling readers or high achievers, all groups are in need of greater challenge.

But often what educators need most is the information to understand where the starting point is to continue this upwards progression. How can you keep building on literacy in Year 7 if you don’t know what level it is to start with? It can be incredibly valuable to establish a student’s reading level to ensure they are guided towards suitably challenging books that they will actually comprehend.

Encouraging challenge

Teachers and librarians can make a huge difference by encouraging each child to challenge themselves with their reading choices at the appropriate level for them. One finding from the report is that where children are exposed to highly motivational characters and plots from a wide range of media, they are encouraged to try books which are often significantly above their chronological reading age.

This means that that the films and computer games adapted from books may actually encourage children to try more challenging reads. On a practical level, harnessing the Hollywood hype of a new film might be a good route to encouraging students to pick up a book that will offer them the challenge they need. And with new literary adaptations sweeping the film world every year there are plenty to be on the lookout for.

Film adaptations of three books voted as students’ most loved in the 2014 report are due to be released this year. ‘Divergent’ by Veronica Roth, ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green and the final instalment of J R R Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ could all offer a good challenge for late primary and early secondary pupils. For older students Lois Lowry’s award winning ‘The Giver’ is also set for the big screen this year, as is Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper taking on the central roles in Ron Rash’s ‘Serena’.

What’s really encouraging from these adaptations is that they cover a wide range of genres and styles opening up a broader avenue of choice for children. Allowing children this freedom of choice to decide what books they read empowers them as readers.

Children should be encouraged to read a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction texts and it is important that they don’t feel restricted. This is why whatever literacy strategy a school adopts it should encompass the widest possible range of books whilst ensuring that students can actually comprehend what they are reading without being under-challenged.

Pop-culture supporting literacy

In an increasingly multi-media world, these findings suggest that popular culture can support literacy, rather than acting as a distraction. Another example of this is the speed at which TV comedian David Walliams is making his way up the ‘most read’ charts. He made his first appearance this year as the fifth most read author in UK schools, making him the fastest rising author on the list. Undoubtedly the quality of his books and their appeal to children and educators alike is a contributor to his success, but perhaps a well-known name has helped him on the way.

Another tactic for getting students to pick up more challenging books is to direct them towards books written for older readers from names they already recognise. For example, Eoin Colfer, bestselling author of the Artemis Fowl series, also wrote the latest ‘Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’ book. Young football fans might be tempted by the story of Brian Clough told in David Peace’s ‘The Damned United’ or David Beckham’s autobiography. And budding comedians might get thoroughly caught up in ‘The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington’ which accompanied Sky TV’s hit series ‘An Idiot Abroad’.

Educators’ understanding of the reading age and interests of their students is the best start to providing recommendations of books that will challenge and progress their reading skills. Understanding what really appeals to children can open up a new range of suggestions. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to getting children to challenge themselves, but with a knowledge of what motivates them to pick up a book getting them to choose one that develops their skills is one step closer.

The 2014 What Kids Are Reading Report is available to download free from

Have you used similar tactics to encourage pupil reading? If so, tell us about it in the comments section.

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