The Promise and Perils of ‘Book Gifting’

In Closing the Reading Gap by Alex QuigleyLeave a Comment

You can watch my short video on book gifting on my YouTube page, ‘Exploring Evidence in Education‘:

If you cannot read, you cannot access the school curriculum and so much more beyond. If you have little or no access to reading, you are unlikely to practice reading habitually. In turn, you are unlikely to thrive in the classroom.

These depressing truths are self-evident. With the Coronavirus crisis seeing so many pupils being shut out of the classroom, so many of the barriers and issues related to reading are made more acute.

I repeatedly share the sad statistic from the National Literacy Trust that as few as 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in England own a book of their own. For me, this statistic is the ‘canary in the coal-mine’ – if you possess your own bookshelf, or not, it is likely to be a leading indicator about how well you are able to read to learn in the classroom.

‘Just gift them books!’

In a recent House of Commons Education Select Committee meeting, on the topic of addressing the issues posed by the Coronavirus on education.

The ‘digital divide’, so important to school access right now, was discussed at length. The politicians also mooted that ‘book gifting’ should be enacted as a policy to mitigate the challenges currently faced by pupils not being taught in the classroom.

It is both an understandable and desirable solution for many children who don’t have a bookshelf of their own. It may well make an important difference; perhaps as much as the relatively expensive solution of providing additional tech access.

And yet, simple solutions like gifting books have promise, but they are not without peril.

Chastening failures

When you dig into the research evidence on book gifting, here and in other countries like the US, there are some saddening findings. Complex problems are seldom fixed by simple solutions.

In an EEF book gifting trial in 2014 – the Summer Active Reading Programme – there were small positives to be gleaned from the trial, but – rather counter-intuitively the book gifting had a negative impact on reading enjoyment for disadvantaged (FSM) children, whereas it was positive on their wealthier peers.

Another ‘book gifting’ trial, labelled ‘The LetterBox Club’ – focusing on supporting foster children with book gifting in Northern Ireland. There was no difference in outcomes. In fact, interviewing some children revealed that the book gifting had inadvertently created a sense of a ‘book burden’ for some children.

Both trials, and other research in this area, shows that book gifting likely needs to be supported with attention to reading motivation and the reading skill of pupils. Not only that, it likely needs additional support factors e.g. explicit guidance along with support/training for parents and caregivers.

Complex problems are not solved with a simple gift. A multi-stranded approach to complex literacy problems are needed.

This is not an argument to say we should not gift books. It may prove a very valuable approach and make a crucial difference during extended time away from school. But we should be very careful to implement book gifting with great care.

Conclusions:

  • Book access is a problem, but there are no silver bullet solutions
  • Book gifting needs to be supported with attention to reading motivation and skill of pupils
  • Book gifting likely needs additional support factors e.g. explicit guidance; support/training for parents and care givers
  • Book gifting needs to be a part of a multi-stranded approach to developing reading and literacy.

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