As children journey through reading, there are markers along the way which can inform the librarian-educator about their understanding, deepening engagement and discernment of the written and the spoken word. These markers are an approach to a formative assessment in the library that is truly continuous and ongoing. In the environments where I cared for the library and its users, the key factors I looked for were movement and growth in reading complexity along with making meaning, both direct and implicit. Resistance or hesitation to read were some of the main hurdles I faced in my thirty years as a library educator. In this article, I will share how I perceived these aspects and how my own strategies and/or fortuitous circumstances conspired to help overcome these seeming barriers.

A preliminary comment: my experience has been mainly with middleclass children coming from homes with educated parents who are, by and large, comfortable with their reading skills. I also worked primarily with small groups of children. However, for the last five or six years I have been working more closely with larger groups of children from a range of backgrounds, languages and income groups, and prima facie I do not see a problem with the methods I used being acceptable and valid in these situations as well.

My assessment approach has three segments.

  1. Preparation for assessment is a process of familiarity with the children’s abilities and includes taking pre-emptive action.
  2. Continuous assessment consists of regular monitoring and mentoring of children’s reading patterns.
  3. Assessment leading to the librarian’s learning includes methods for tracking ‘tortoises’ (slow readers), ‘bulls’ (raging readers) and ‘burros’ resistant or hesitant readers) and devising individualized strategies to spur them on.

Preparation for assessment

The task is to recognize slow and hesitant readers and give them more attention right at the start. If the gap between them and the other more ready readers widens, it gets harder and harder to woo them and win them over. So it is necessary to find time for one-on-one interactions to identify specific difficulties without conveying a sense of judgement or superiority.

Here are some effective strategies:

  • Have a word with the class teacher and other teachers, mainly in art and craft and sports, to gain more insights into the child’s interests.
  • Try to find interest-specific or relevant books to create an interest in reading.
  • Talk to parents and give them tips on gentle ways of encouraging reading (if parents are themselves able to help).
  • Ask children to predict their rate of reading and the kind of books they will read and let them see for themselves whether these were realistic, optimistic or pessimistic (much can be learnt by the library educator in this exercise).
  • Have a friend to read with the child during library time, but make sure the book is chosen by the slow or hesitant reader.
  • Take help from children for book repair, book sorting and arranging, selecting for display, creating new book jackets and making book marks. Each of these activities has a possibility for awakening the children’s interest, besides making them feel valued members of the group.

Continuous assessment tools

  • Story-telling: A good deal can be learnt during this activity about the children’s level of comprehension and engagement, especially if the librarian pauses to note the attention level of different children and asks some simple questions.
  • Browsing: Watch a child’s ability to navigate the collection, select interesting material and settle down with something to read. This is a tremendous way of learning about the child’s growth and movement in library awareness.
  • Treasure hunt: This activity affords the library educator plenty of scope to observe the child’s level of awareness and familiarity with different kinds of books and their locations. A treasure hunt is done by the librarian for the children and, as a return engagement, children ask for their chance to set the hunt for the adults!
  • Book auction: This is a fun activity in which children advertise the merits of a book they love and their audience ‘bids’ tokens to borrow it. Children’s comprehension of the game and their familiarity and interest in the kinds of books being auctioned can easily be gauged.
  • Book chats: The child talks about a book she has finished reading. The librarian can immediately see what level of understanding and engagement there has been during this chat as well as by the questions that follow from the participants.
  • Book selection and purchase: Taking children to book fairs and book stores is an invaluable experience both for the children and for the librarian. This can be done from as young an age as seven years. Their level of comfort among many kinds of books, ability to focus on the task at hand and to demonstrate the beginnings of discernment for quality, value and price are all good pointers for assessment.

The child’s borrowed-book history

A quick way to get an overall feel of the child’s reading is to go through their borrowed-book history. Too much, too little, not much variety, not adventurous, too simple, too advanced or nothing being read! Generally, intervention can be gentle, with a suggestion here and there or even a reading challenge. This works remarkably well, but the ground for it to happen is a strong relationship between the child and the adult, as well as a complete knowledge of books available in the collection. It also helps to keep in touch with books and authors not in your collection! At the end of each week, I documented a quick review of each child’s reading. Alternatively or additionally, as I awaited the children’s boisterous entry into the library for the period, I would take a quick glance through their cards or borrowing records. So I was ready to meet each child with just that awareness for possible action.

At the end of each year or term, library reports were written by me for every child to be read by the teacher, the parent and the child herself, for the understanding of where she is in her journey in reading and making meaning. These reports were written by referring to the notes made about each child. The reports also covered what had been done with each group, thus providing an assessment of the librarian as well!

Assessment leading to learning for the librarian

An inherent aim of assessment is to bring about supportive action in the case of hesitant or resistant readers. Therefore it is essential to hold assessment with a light grip because we have often seen that children take quantum leaps, making the assessment outdated. I would like to share some examples of this.

Manushi was with me in the school library from age six. Her father is an artist and seemed to have unknowingly conveyed a lack of importance to reading. As a result, Manushi struggled with the skills of reading and became more and more resistant and defiant when books were suggested, even for leisure reading. The two of us had a silent struggle for a number of years which soon developed into stances taken by each of us. I was sure she was a lost cause as far as books went, and she was sure I was a hateful librarian. Two more years went by, and I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable at the breakdown in relationship. Then came the breakthrough! In our school we have community work each morning where children are assigned different places for work. I had noticed that she was a meticulous cleaner, and so I secretly asked that she be put into the library cleaning group. Then days followed with the library displaying shining floors. I moved her to dusting shelves, and slowly I saw a change. From just mechanically dusting books, I noticed her opening a book and getting absorbed in it. More and more books were being looked at, and fewer and fewer books dusted. But I could not care less! Until the day when she came up to me to ask, ‘This book looks very interesting. Can I borrow it?’ We hugged and the book was taken home. She did not become a voracious reader but became a very discerning one. She always knew what she wanted, and her choices were excellent. As a senior student, her choice of place to study was the library!

Pramod always had a ready answer when a book was suggested to him: ‘No way. You can’t get me to read.’ One day he apparently missed the bus home. Next morning when I reached the library, a beaming Pramod greeted me. ‘Aunty, you don’t know what fantastic books you have. You must read White Fang by Jack London. I discovered this book when I got left behind and spent the whole evening reading it.’

Sanjay was an avid sports player and felt strongly that reading and sports were mutually exclusive. When I went to the table tennis room one evening, he looked askance at me, but was red in the face when I beat him completely! Next day I saw a face peeping into the library. ‘Aunty, is there a book in the library that I will be able to read?’ That was the beginning of a slow but sustained relationship between Sanjay and the library!

Ayesha was a slow reader and therefore avoided the library. But she had a passion for animals, and my ploy was to reach out by reading out animal stories to her and others until she was ready to try a simple book. I asked her to come in after lunch, and we would read together for a while. Her parents too were roped in to help her get over her inhibitions by reading out a few pages to her, after which she read a few pages. Her page of borrowings slowly began to fill, so much so that in a year or two she was hounding me to get more books by a classic writer of animal stories, which was a challenge for me.

Priya was wonderful with her hands and seemed to feel that the library was an alien place. I invited her to display her craft in the library. Gradually, as teachers and other students recognized her abilities, I could see that she felt welcome to the library. She began by glancing at some craft books. Gradually, as her comfort level in the library grew, she began to try other books. Now she tells me how valuable it was that I did not give up on her.

These examples did not happen according to a set of strategies I had tried, but were more serendipitous. So the point is that in assessment, one has to leave room for such small miracles. As a librarian, these instances taught me never to give up on a child and to try different approaches.

A library educator can create a rubric to reflect this assessment approach. One of the prerequisites for creating such a rubric is that he be in close contact with the child’s growth and reading patterns. He must also have a wider picture of the vital role played by reading and reflecting for children from a young age. In the words of educationist Krishna Kumar:

Children have a natural drive to explore and understand the world; hence, reading should give them the opportunity to make sense of printed texts from the beginning. ‘Making sense’ as an experience involves relating to the text, generating a personal engagement and interpretation. If children are not encouraged to relate to the text, or if the text they are given has little meaning or relevance, the outcome will be a crude kind of literacy, which will remain isolated from their intellectual and emotional development. If this wider meaning of reading is applied to make an assessment, our system of primary education will arouse far greater concern than children’s test scores in achievement surveys do.

From Reading is Basic to Democracy, The Hindu, January 20, 2011.

(This article is adapted from the one originally written for Library Educators Course supported by Sir Ratan Tata Trust and held in Vidya Bhavan, Udaipur, in 2013-14.)