Literacy quizzes hold the answer
Schools should consider introducing a reading scheme that is fostering a love of books in hundreds of thousands of American pupils, one of the Government's leading education advisers has said.
Sir Cyril Taylor, chairman of the Specialist Schools Trust, is pushing ministers to back the Accelerated Reader project, a system of online quizzes that, he says, is capturing youngsters' imaginations and making it "cool" to read.
Pupils take quick tests on a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books.
Advocates say it promotes independent reading as pupils compete to get the best scores and progress to harder books. Around 1,500 UK primaries and secondaries already run the scheme.
Sir Cyril's call comes as the Government is putting fresh emphasis on English skills, but with teachers concerned that national curriculum tests are strangling pupils' enthusiasm for independent learning.
Sir Cyril is also urging heads to give pupils a period of supervised reading every day.
Accelerated Reader is a computerised testing system operated by the American firm Renaissance Learning, and is offered in more than half of US schools. It costs pound;6.99 per pupil per year.
The firm sets multiple-choice quizzes on thousands of books, graded on a scale of 1-12 (see box).
Writing in today's TES, Sir Cyril highlights Herbert Ammons middle-school, in Miami, which he visited earlier this year.
Every morning, pupils spend 35-40 minutes in supervised, independent reading, then do a quiz about their book. Results contribute to students'
subject grades. Successful readers can also win prizes including sweets, hamburger vouchers and gift tokens.
Sir Cyril said the tests differed from national curriculum assessments in emphasising independent reading for enjoyment.
He said: "The kids taking these tests are absolutely engrossed. The questions are fun, the whole thing is fun. Every child can benefit. To go into a busy school at 8.30am and see every classroom is full of children quietly reading books - it's quite amazing to see that."
The trust is backing a partnership between 14 schools in London that use the scheme and 14 in Harlem, New York, supported by a leading US philanthropist.
Sir Cyril has written to Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, urging her to send officials to the US to see the system in action.
But he admitted the scheme could face problems in the UK. Schools are supposed to have skilled librarians and 10 books per pupil to run it, he said.
Graham Taylor, director of the Educational Publishers Association, said:
"It's all very well saying let there be lots of independent reading, but that implies that pupils have lots of access to books and libraries. In fact, provision is extremely patchy."
Sir Cyril also urged the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to ensure that secondaries know pupils' key stage 2 results before they enter Year 7,.
Kathy Heaps, head of John Kelly girls' school, in north London, which has been running the scheme with 155 Year 7 pupils since September, said: "I'm delighted with this project. Early results have been startling."
Two-thirds of pupils had improved their reading over the past six months, she said, with one in five making dramatic improvements.
Simon Wrigley, chairman of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said he was in favour of any scheme that motivated children to read, but said multiple-choice questions had limitations as a testing method.
HOW IT WORKS
Pupils take an on-screen quiz on one of 7,000 books. Their score determines whether they move on to the next level. They get a print-out that shows their scores and their average results for that term and year. Teachers get a breakdown of all scores and reading levels.
The scheme's founders say the system is better than national curriculum tests because teachers get regular feedback, helping to target pupils who need extra attention.
Example question on Of Mice and Men:
George thought he and Lennie would get the job if:
A. The boss could see Lennie work before he heard him speak. B. He could keep Lennie out of sight until the boss was gone. C. The other workers could see how strong Lennie was. D. He could think of a good lie to explain their presence at the ranch.