How do primary children find information in books? Can they handle an index? Do they know how to make notes? There is masses of research devoted to the initial teaching of reading, but less that looks at the skills needed once children are up and running.
In the Exeter Encyclopaedia Project, funded by Encyclopaedia Britannica, we carried out an intensive study of 175 children aged 7 to 13 in five urban and rural schools in the Midlands and South. Pupils were given a number of tasks to complete, such as finding an entry in an index, and asked questions about ways of using encyclopedias, preferences, and favoured strategies. We also interviewed 12 of their teachers.
About half the pupils said they had used encyclopedias. Those who consulted encyclopedias at home tended to have a single-volume family book, rather than an alphabetical or integrated set of reference books. Few children in the seven to nine age group had any clear concept of what encyclopedias were. Three-quarters had never used one at all. Teachers felt that most encyclopedias were too difficult for this age.
The age group 9 to 11 is where understanding and use of encyclopedias takes off. About 70 per cent of pupils knew what they were, and just over half actually used them to get information on specific topics, particularly in science, history and geography. Some children from ethnic minorities said they used encyclopedias, but they were Afro-Caribbean rather than Asian, from homes where English was the first, not the second, language.
It was in the 9 to 11 age group that teachers made greatest use of encyclopedias. Children were often asked to work independently, and many reported using encyclopedias to find out more information on specific topics, again particularly in science, history and geography: muscles, plants, places, lakes, events, Neil Armstrong, animals, sharks, "How babies are born", World War II, Henry VIII.
Children of this age were generally aware that their teachers would not approve of blatant copying. Almost all said they were not allowed to copy, but were expected to sum up ideas in their own words. Many seemed well organised in terms of taking notes, looking for key terms and using maps and diagrams.
Primary children love colourful and detailed entries, especially when there is a strong human interest. Pictures are important, not just because they are pretty and break up the text, but because children learn a great deal from them. We studied their strategies when finding information, and discovered that about 60 per cent said they looked at the pictures first and the text second.
One nine-year-old, fascinated by the picture of the inside of a castle, suddenly exclaimed: "Oh, did they keep sheep? I didn't know that!" A 10-year-old, studying a picture of a camera cut in half, became very animated: "Oo, look at that! I had no idea what was inside a camera."
When it came to using an index, the younger pupils struggled. Only one child in seven of the seven to nine-year-olds could handle alphabetical order comfortably, compared with two-thirds of 9-to-11 year olds. Finding the third letter of an entry was often the problem. When looking up CASTLES, for example, the children found the C-A part easy, but got lost at the C-A-S stage.
Even older primary pupils had difficulty with the separate index volume of a multi-volume set of children's encyclopedias. Conventions that are much beloved by compilers often baffle children. For example, many did not understand that 6:210 meant the relevant entry could be found in volume 6 on page 210, or that the abbreviation "illus" meant there were pictures as well as text.
The teachers we interviewed felt that the written language of children's encyclopedias was too difficult for many children in the 7 to 11 age group. Our analysis of the reading difficulty of a number of children's encyclopedias confirmed this, as the reading age required was often 14 or beyond.
If primary schools are to make better use of children's encyclopedias then a number of steps must be taken. First, publishers will have to ensure that the language level is more suitable for the age group. Some are simply too difficult for 7 to 11-year-olds.
Second, teachers will need to decide how best to use them in class. They are convenient for start-up information, giving an overview of a topic, often with informative pictures, diagrams or maps. For children of this age a well-conceived encyclopedia entry can open the door to understanding and lead them on to more detailed books.
Children in turn need guidance from their teachers about what encyclopedias offer and how they can fit in with their studies and research. Many may want assistance with alphabetical order and index conventions in particular, if they are to avoid frustration.
Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University