The evidence on Chatterbooks

I defy anyone to feel anything other than a sense of gratitude and optimism when reading about a charity dedicated to getting people reading, particularly one with a focus on young people. I used to teach English and have experienced first-hand the tremendous joy, intrigue, horror and myriad other states encountered by young readers engrossed in a great novel, or rolling the words of a poem around their minds. The development of able readers is an unimpeachable priority for any system, district, school or teacher.

With countless commercial packages available to teachers and purporting to improve the reading ability of their students, the decision to allocate precious resources (money, time, effort, in particular) by investing in one is an undertaking not to be taken lightly. Sitting firmly alongside this resource allocation argument is, however, a simple question (which is hard to answer): Is it likely to have a positive impact with our children in our school?

I’ve written before about the need to stop asking ‘Does it work?’ and replace this question with ‘To what extent did it work and under what circumstances?’  Unless we change the language we use, we’ll consistently be asking the wrong question and leading ourselves down blind alleys. And so, with this latter question in mind, I was interested to look at the best available evidence on the impact of Chatterbooks, the extracurricular reading scheme designed to increase children’s motivation to read by bringing young people together in local libraries and announced by the DfE as a programme intended to increase literacy among English children.

The EEF published in May 2014 an independent evaluation of Chatterbooks (conducted by NfER) which found no evidence of impact on the reading ability of those children in the control group. This evaluation was an efficacy trial designed to see if Chatterbooks held promise; its results must not be construed as offering a representation of the programme’s effect in all schools. While there are limitations to the findings, this is the first independent, formal evaluation of Chatterbooks. It found – on average – no evidence of impact on the reading ability of children in the treatment group.

If Chatterbooks increases motivation to read in young people, that’s a great thing. That said, we must make a distinction between motivation to read and reading ability: while increased motivation to read may help a child improve their reading ability, the two are separate entities.

While looking through the EEF’s trial reports, I came across another evaluation report of a reading programme; this time, it presented findings on the impact of Accelerated Reader on reading ability and was published in February 2015. As with the Chatterbooks trial, this is another independent, formal evaluation (an efficacy trial) of a reading programme, though this one is designed to increase the habit of independent reading among children. The trial found that, after 22 weeks, children receiving the Accelerated Reader intervention had made around 3 months more progress in terms of reading age scores than those in the control group. In a nutshell, there is evidence that Accelerated Reader had – on average – a positive impact on the reading ability of children in the treatment group, though the same caveats applied to the Chatterbooks study should be kept in mind here, too. Nonetheless, this efficacy trial revealed promise.

Accelerated Reader and Chatterbooks are designed to promote habits of reading in young people, though in different ways. The per-pupil cost appears to be similar (around £9-£10 per pupil), but the best available evidence (with all caveats presented in the reports taken into account) suggests that Accelerated Reader is a better bet for improving reading ability than Chatterbooks.

I write this not as some veiled criticism of a policy decision, but as recognition that the challenge of aligning the best available evidence and policy-making (with the constellation of political, economic and other factors which influence it) at the system level is a significant one, just as it is at the school or classroom levels.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.