sábado, 27 de junio de 2015

Young people as researchers of reading

From the beginning of the project we wanted to awaken  a curiosity about reading in the participants, not in the sense of motivating them to read (although we trusted this might happen), but in the sense of encouraging them to reflect on reading practices and how they have changed in the last decades. As we have said before, our overall aim was to investigate this topic through the creation of a space in which to share experiences and reflections about reading. Starting from the students’ ‘Rivers of Reading’ (see entry from 9th December 2014), we talked about what ‘counts’ or doesn’t count as reading, particularly from the school’s perspective. We also spoke about the reading done by other family members, younger children and friends. We discussed ‘young adult literature’ and speculated about reading on screen, not only about books but also about the different texts generated by virtual social networks and also about the way in which other visual media such as film or videogames invite new forms of reading.

Once we were well into the project, we asked them to help us carry out interviews on the theme of reading. The idea was that they could claim a bit more ‘ownership’ of the project in this way and participate, not as subjects but as researchers. Participatory research with young people has become the theme for an increasing number of publications (for example, Alderson 2008; Kellet 2005 & 2011; Powers & Tiffany 2006) most of which stresses the importance of involving them in a way that the experience becomes significant for them (rather than being a token activity). In our case, we tried to achieve this even if it was only a small part of the overall project given the time limitations. Ideally the project would have been conceived from the beginning with the group of young people but this was not possible in this case. However, brief as the experience was, we consider it a small step forward in a context where the agency and voices of young people are not taken into account and, as we have said before, the balance of power is almost totally inclined towards the adults – whether they be teachers or researchers. In other words, this was a pilot attempt to show the potential that a more participatory approach can have (and which could also be easily adapted as a pedagogic strategy in the classroom, for example, for media studies).

To start the session, we reminded the students of the project’s objectives and we explained what the research process involved (collecting and analysing data, reaching conclusions, publishing and disseminating findings…). We then invited them to help us with the research by taking a more active role although we also asked them to take the activity seriously give it implied a greater level of responsibility and ethical conduct. They would have to design the interview questions in groups, supported by the researcher, and then each of them would interview someone they knew, over 18 years old. They would first have to explain what the project and the interview were about and obtain their permission. They all accepted the invitation and showed themselves surprised and intrigued by the idea, it was obviously something new for them to be considered as part of the “team” and, of course, they were also enthusiastic about using the mini-recorders.

There is no room to enter into detail here about the design of the questions but it must be said that the simple fact of having to decide what questions to ask and how, led to important conversations about the objectives, themes and expectations of the exercise and also about some ethical considerations. For example, the fact that not everyone knows how to read was raised but also that directly asking the question ‘Can you read?’ may be uncomfortable for some people. One group therefore decided to begin asking ‘Do you like to read?’ so that, as Rodrigo said, ‘they will not feel offended’. Another interesting discussion arose around a question suggested by Alma, ‘Where are you from?’, as her peers argued that this didn’t have anything to do with reading. Nevertheless, Alma persisted, ‘It may be that (in other places) there are different forms of reading books…’

The final lists of each group included questions related to preferences in terms of formats for reading (‘computer, tablet, mobile or physical book’) and also related to opinions about the changes in reading. The responses to this last question proved most interesting given that the range of age of those interviewed was between 18 and 70 years. For example, this was the response of a secondary school teacher aged 32 years:

Lucio: What do you think of how reading has changed since you were little or a young person?

I don’t know if reading has changed but what I have noticed is that now young people I think read a little bit more compared to when I was that age, I don’t remember having a single teacher in primary or secondary school that tried to foster the reading habit in me. However, as I come from a family of teachers, well I was always close to books and even then I don’t completely have that habit, sometimes because of lack of time, lack of interest, but I think that young people now are reading a bit more, perhaps not the books they should read, but they are doing it.

After asking the group questions, Lucio continued this interview, adding questions on his own initiative:

Has reading a book helped you keep going forward in your daily live, despite problems or adversities you have had?

If you could make a book, what would you like to put in it?

If you had the opportunity of telling a young person how to change their life, through a book, what book would you recommend to them to change their life?

Not only did we all learn from the responses but we also learned from the questions that the young researchers formulated.

Most interviews were too short for in-depth analysis and we did not really have enough interviews to be able to make any generalizations (there were also a few technical problems with the recorders). However, the range of ages did allow us all some insights into the differences between generations. For example, it was fascinating to know that The Iliad was the first book that a man of 69, a peasant farmer in the state of Morelos, remembered reading and this generated discussion around the reading of the ‘Classics’. But the most important thing about this activity was not the information that the young researchers obtained from their interviews but the fact that they became more active agents, more curious about and conscious of the theme that concerned us and that they felt their contribution was valued and would be part of the overall research project.


Alderson, P. (2008) Children as researchers: participation rights and research methods. In: Christensen P and James A (eds) Research with children: perspectives and practices. London: Routledge, 276-290.

Kellett, M. (2005) ‘Children as active researchers: a new research paradigm for the 21st century?’ ESRC National Centre for Research Methods, NCRM/003 www.ncrm.ac.uk/publications

Kellett, M. (2011). Engaging with Children and Young People. Centre for Children and Young People Background Briefing Series no.3., Lismore: Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University.

Power, J. L. &Tiffany, J. S. (2006) Engaging Youth in Participatory Research and Evaluation, Journal of Public Health Management & Practice 12 (6), S79 - S87.  http://www.nursingcenter.com/journalarticle?Article_ID=676564

domingo, 7 de junio de 2015

Good questions for research on reading and response

                                                 Mural on a school wall painted by students

Our “Reading Changes” project is entering a phase of deeper analysis of the conversations we had with the students about their reading practices and the ways in which they constructed meaning from the three texts we read. The re-reading of the transcripts has led me to reflect about the way in which we ask questions when we work on response to reading and about the questions themselves. We all know the value of asking good questions and although in what follows I will refer mainly to the role that questions play in research, I think that this reflection can be relevant to teachers, librarians, parents and anyone else who ‘mediates’ between children, young people and books.

Since the time of Socrates philosophers have employed questions as a basis for stimulating free and critical thought and, even today,  ‘Philosophy for Children’ is an approach that centres on a community of enquiry where, among other things, participants learn how to formulate good questions. Asking questions has many functions: in the case of research it has to do with the core query that launches the project and with obtaining information from participants; in the case of pedagogy, it has to do (or it should have to do!) with stimulating reasoning and reflection. An ethical enquiry in an educational context therefore has to consider the impact of the research in terms of pedagogy and this is why our ‘Reading Changes’ project was based on the idea of workshops where collective dialogue, rather than formal interviews, were encouraged as well as the use of questions (and visual strategies) that had an educational potential. It may seem obvious but it is easy to take for granted the fact that in traditional educational contexts it is the adult who has the ‘right’ to ask questions and the child or adolescent, the ‘obligation’ to respond – and in a certain way.

In research, this imbalance of power also exists, not only because researchers are adults working with the permission of the relevant authorities but also because they normally have a certain academic level and are backed up by a university. Young people may feel obliged to respond to questions and, perhaps, to answer what they think the researcher wants to hear. On the contrary, they might refuse to say what they really think, refuse to participate or remain silent as a form of resisting that power and hierarchy. Any teacher or mediator will recognize this situation, indeed, any parent of an adolescent will too! If we add to this situation the impact of traditional didactic methods which assume there is a “truth” to be discovered through questioning and that there is a “correct” answer or a “proper” response, the resulting context can discourage participants to share the information we are looking for and even less to share their thoughts and ideas. This is why it is important not only to prepare the space but also the questions that will in some way compensate for that imbalance of power and create, within all the limitations, a dialogic situation that is more democratic and authentic.

Many books have been written about conducting ethical qualitative research which takes into account the voices of the participants and aims for more participatory methods. Many books have also been written about how to formulate questions, either for interviews o. When a formal interview is conducted for an empirical, quantitative project, questions are normally constructed with little flexibility and to be asked in a particular order. In qualitative research, questions are also carefully formulated but there is more flexibility. However, when the research is about inviting a child or adolescent to talk about a literary text (whether it is a picturebook, a novel or poetry), the questions need to be even more fluid given that we are trying to enquire about a process that is not only cognitive but very personal (Morag Styles and I wrote about this in 2003 in our book on research on response to picturebooks and have just completed a new version of the book in which we emphasize this particular point because we have seen so many other research projects, some by our own Master’s and PhD students, that have proved just how important it is to ask good questions). If closed and objective questions are asked, as they tend to be in the classroom, we will not be able to learn much about a process that is so unique and intimate as the act of reading.

As well as doing our best to create a welcoming space for the students who participated in our workshops (in a psychological rather than a physical sense given the limits we had), we created questions that we hoped would stimulate their interest in the project itself and through which we could integrate a more complete picture of their acts of reading. For example, we asked if they thought that books and reading were still important in the digital world, how new technology had affected their practices and preferences or what they would suggest to encourage reading among their peers. We also asked them, among other things, what role image played in comparison to words in the texts we read, about empathy, and about ambiguous endings and characters.

There is no space here to write about their responses but I do want to mention five points about asking questions which came up repeatedly and which have taught me much about creating a conversational space for research. First, I have learned that it is important to tolerate the silence that can follow a question. It is very hard to avoid trying to fill these silences given that they sometimes seem endless but if we remind ourselves that we all need time to order our thoughts before answering a question, we realize we have to be patient. Second, we must really allow participants’ voices to be heard. Given that the book and the theme of the conversation is exciting to us, it is easy to allow ourselves to talk too much and even answer our own questions. Third, unless there is a specific pedagogic intention in the research, we must avoid the impulse to “teach” given that, on one hand, this reasserts hierarchies and on other, they will learn enough from reading and the conversation with others.  Fourth, it is important to pay attention to the questions that the participants ask, even when they seem irrelevant or misguided; there will be a rationale behind them although we may not see it immediately. Finally, I’ve learned that good questions lead young people to create their own good questions and it is precisely at the moment of asking their questions when a real dialogue begins and the balance of power inclines a bit more towards equilibrium.
E Arizpe