The Importance of Book Selection - Renaissance Australia
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January 22, 2019

The Importance of Book Selection

By: Ruth Atkinson (Renaissance UK) & Jay Wheatley (Renaissance AUS)

The importance of selecting the right book, at the right level with the right interest cannot be understated when building a students enjoyment of reading to improve their literacy skills. Using a one book fits all approach will leave struggling or dis-interested students seeking out other forms of entertainment, further slowing their progress.

Our reading practice program Accelerated Reader, or AR, has proven to be incredibly popular because of the way it helps educators guide students to books that will provide an appropriate level of challenge for them. Here’s how it works:

  1. Teachers in schools that use AR regularly test students with our Star Reading assessment program, which determines each student’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD).
  2. The ZPD gives students a range, e.g. 4.5-5.4, telling them the book levels they should look between when choosing their next book. The book level is a measure of the complexity of the text.
  3. The AR program spans over 40,000 book titles and every single one has been assigned a level and a quiz.
  4. The student picks a book with a book level that’s within their ZPD to read next. By choosing from their ZPD, they can be confident that the book isn’t too easy (which would mean their reading skills won’t progress), or too hard (which would mean that it’s too frustrating).

But how do you know what level to give a book?

A book’s book level is determined by the ATOS readability formula, which has been applied consistently to all 40,000+ books that are included in AR. The formula analyses the full text of a book, not just passages of it. The book level is determined by three of the things that most influence readability:

  • average sentence length;
  • average word length;
  • word difficulty level;
  • and the number of words in the book.

Word difficulty levels have been determined for over 100,000 words. They’re based on data from the world’s largest database of words from actual books, which analyses more than 170,000 books and nearly 2.5 billion words. The Accelerated Reader Bookfinder is publicly available. So if you’re curious about how we’ve rated your favourite children’s/young adult books, take a look!

The Mr Greedy Phenomenon

So with all this in mind, the ATOS formula has given Mr Greedy a book level of 4.4, and Of Mice and Men a 4.5. Bearing in mind how these levels are calculated, it’s not as mad as it seems – if you can recall the Mr Men stories, you’ll remember that part of their charm is Roger Hargreaves’ creative use of slightly unusual words and his habit of stringing them together in long sentences. For example:

“Over on the other side of the table stood the source of that delicious smell. A huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic colossal potatoes the size of beach balls, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.”
– ‘Mr Greedy’ by Roger Hargreaves, 1971

This extract may be talking about a simple, lighthearted subject matter, but the ATOS formula doesn’t analyse that – remember, it analyses words and sentences alone.

So you see, it’s not all about the book levels…

Of course, you wouldn’t expect a young child to finish Mr Greedy and then select Of Mice and Men for their next read, and neither would you expect them be to understand it to the same degree. This one extreme example illustrates that book levels don’t paint the whole picture.

ATOS book levels are consistent, reliable and objective measures of text complexity. Objectively, the formula considers the most important factors in determining the complexity of text and uses the largest data sample of its kind in the world to determine the results. ATOS is reliable in what it measures and is an extremely useful guide for students, librarians, parents and teachers.

But – and it’s a big but – ATOS book levels are not the only way to determine how suitable a book is for a student: as the Mr Greedy Of Mice and Men example demonstrates. There isn’t a scientific formula in the world that can read and analyse the plot of a book, the maturity of the themes addressed, or the sophistication of the literary devices that the author uses.

More than a book level

You might be surprised to see us admit that book levels aren’t the be all and end all, but we’re not ashamed of it! Here’s the thing: Accelerated Reader was never intended to replace the role of the educator. It’s important for students to be able to independently find and choose their own books, and this is a key skill that AR tries to foster and nurture. The guidance of librarians, teachers and parents is essential to the successful implementation of the program, and therefore critical to creating lifelong readers.

Some themes explored in a book might be unsuitable for particular readers, some literary devices used in a book will not be fully appreciated or understood by students who can otherwise follow its plot. Some books will simply be too long for a particular child to read, even if they are able to read and enjoy shorter texts that are just as complex. No formula could possibly identify all the variables involved in matching the right books with the right child.

So, how can you choose the right book?

At Renaissance our goal is to help educators create the most authentic learning opportunities for their students. So as well as book levels, all books on Accelerated Reader are given an Interest Level – either Lower Years, Middle Years, Middle Years+ or Upper Years. This is a rough guide for teachers, librarians and parents will indicate how appropriate a book is for certain age groups, and it’s decided by the real-life members of our amazing content team who read the book and write the corresponding quiz on it. Mr Greedy has an interest level of Lower Years, while Of Mice and Men has an interest level of Upper Years. This tells you that the adult themes in Of Mice and Men would make it inappropriate for those who would normally be reading Mr Men books.

Length of a book matters too. In Accelerated Reader, the number of ‘points’ awarded to a student for passing a quiz on a book is partly determined by the book’s length. Mr Greedy is worth 0.5 points, while Of Mice and Men is worth 4.0.

Want to find out more about what kids like to read?

We have launched the first annual Australian edition of the What Kids Are Reading Report for 2018. This study reflects the reading habits of K-12 students across the country. With insights and opinions from authors, booksellers, schools and students this report is a must read!