How do I choose a good assessment book?

During the circuit breaker (the Singaporean term for having restricted movement due to the pandemic), I had to think about what I could do with my kids so that they would still have some form of “learning” at home. I went to the bookshop to pick out some activity books for them (a nicer term for assessment books) so that this could fill up some parts of the day but stepping into a bookshop to choose assessment books can be a very daunting affair when there are rows and rows of books with various colours, attractive covers and seemingly similar content.

I am in a privileged position in which I have an educational background and I understand how important it is to scaffold my child’s learning. I am also not keen on rote learning and I always believe that the best motivation to learn is to provide them with the environment and materials that would ignite their interest. My kids actually look forward to “activity books!” instead of dreading “assessment books” (which I associate with boredom and repetition in my own childhood) so what do i look out for when I buy an assessment book? This is the most important question I ask:

Is this book suitable for my child?

By this I mean two things. Firstly, can my child handle the level of the content? Is it too easy (which will lead to boredom) or too difficult (which may lead to discouragement)? 

Secondly, is it formatted in a way that can sustain my child’s interest?

For example, when I was buying books for my first child, I had to find books that had stimulating content and in fact, because this child could read well and was engaged with the content itself, i did not have to be so concerned with the formatting because the content itself can keep my child focused.

My second kid, on the other hand, had more basic understanding of concepts and more simple logic and reasoning. This meant that I had to find content that was manageable for her. It had to be slightly above her level but not so difficult that she would be turned off. Because she had a much shorter attention span, I also had to be more careful about the formatting. 

Given a choice between a book that was black and white versus another that had colours, I opted for the latter because colourful pictures kept her interested. When I browsed through the many books in the science section, I chanced upon a book that used comics to explain concepts before the activities were displayed. This, compared to other more traditional delivery methods (i.e. chunks of texts with some illustrations and diagrams), would probably keep her more interested due to the large number of pictures with short text. When we read the comic strips at home, she was very motivated and willing to participate in the activities after that. 

Interestingly, a child may also be strong in some areas and weaker in others. As with human nature, we tend to resist doing things that we aren’t so good at so when I was hunting for Chinese assessment books for my son, I was conscious that a thick assessment book might put him off so I was happy to find an assessment book in which I could easily remove each chapter or certain pages for my child to work on (so he wouldn’t faint at seeing a whole book each time). It also helped that the chapters followed the topics of the textbook closely so I knew that the words that were appearing were going to be similar and not completely foreign to my child. I was trying to manage his emotions and feelings of anxiety.  

So what are some key principles to consider when hunting for assessment books for your child?

I’d say that the following would be helpful:

  1. Know your child’s abilities – What is their understanding of the content? How strong are their logical and reasoning skills? How strong is their conceptual understanding? This helps us consider which assessment books to introduce at each stage while we are trying to scaffold their learning (see bloom’s taxonomy)
  1. Understand what keeps your child interested – What topics are they interested in (e.g. animals, sports )? Beyond the content, does the book and its formatting look attractive to your child? For some children, colours and pictures are helpful (especially for preschoolers and students in lower primary) For some, the number of pages they are assigned to do also weighs on their mind so certain font sizes which would affect the actual number of questions they need to do, should also be considered. 
  1. Evaluate the content and format of the assessment book – Is the content suitable for my child? Is the formatting attractive and will it keep my child focused? 
  1. Decide on what is suitable now and what may be suitable later – Make a mental note of the books that might become suitable for your child later: Is this book difficult for my child now? Is this the level that my child is supposed to attain? If so, you may want to work towards this book at some point of time. 

Ultimately, our school-going children would have to tackle examination questions so it would be helpful if the questions in the assessment books model after them.  On our part, we try to manage their emotions and confidence by choosing books that scaffold their learning so that they would want to continue learning.

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