From the Chalk Face, School-wide Literacy
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Promoting a Reading Culture – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 7)

Following up the long list of questions from our researched Home presentation on 30 April 2020, we are providing more detailed answers in a series of short blogs about different aspects of the topic.

A number of questions dealt with the roles of the school librarian and parents in supporting reading in secondary schools. They open up the wider question of how a school builds a reading culture. This is the final post in the series.

Promoting a Reading Culture

How can school librarians with no teaching training/responsibilities support this learning and progress? I am a new school librarian with an English Degree but no teaching training or responsibilities, how do I best support the children’s progress?

Librarians are key allies for teachers in the struggle to improve children’s reading. They tend to have an extensive knowledge of books and authors, and are well placed to make book recommendations for students. Unfortunately, in many schools, much if not all of the librarian’s time is taken up administrating programmes like Accelerated Reader. Many school leaders think that such programmes do the work of encouraging students to read and matching them to books, but the reality is that they often take away time that would otherwise be spent working with students, and diverting it into administration. Our primary suggestion would be to resist being taken away from the front line – the more work you can do face-to-face with students, the bigger your impact will be.

There is a particular concern for librarians around those students who are poor readers and are therefore not engaged with books. The librarian has an essential role in acquiring books that are high-interest, with challenging content and useful background knowledge (which is not easy!). They then need to promote these books to staff and students, and lastly, they need to counter any stigma attached to reading ‘easier’ readers. Librarians are a precious resource for schools and need to be supported and encouraged.

When it comes to matching students to books, there is also the issue of pushing competent readers to read more challenging material. In our experience, any given library session will usually have at least three students reading The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or one of its offspring. There is nothing wrong with an amusing book, but many secondary school readers avoid books with more challenging content, and as a result don’t maintain their earlier progress.

Lastly, given the librarian’s unique position, it makes sense to give them training in how to help students to read more accurately, so that they can be part of the school’s strategy for resolving reading problems We have often trained librarians to do this, alongside other members of a school’s intervention team.

How would you deal with parents who are not supportive of reading intervention, perhaps due to their own literacy issues?

The fact is, we don’t actually need parents to be supportive of reading interventions for us to put them in place effectively. Parents don’t dictate the curriculum for their child in any other area – why would we give them a veto over this most essential of curriculum skills? As teachers, we are (or should be!) the professionals who are trained to solve such learning problems. Effective intervention is part of the school’s provision for these students, and we, as professionals, need to take responsibility for progress. When planning, we suggest that It is best to assume parents aren’t able to help, and if it turns out that some can, that’s a bonus. And, to be fair to parents, they are usually very supportive once they have clarity about what the school is doing and why. That’s one reason why concrete, measurable initiatives (like Thinking Reading or other Direct Instruction programmes) are better than broad, vaguely defined ones (think ‘metacognition’).

We have an expectation that children read at home and have their home record signed by adults. Currently the engagement of this is minimal – do you have any suggestions on getting parents interested in supporting reading?

Bearing in mind the point above, that our plans should include parents but not rely on their support for success, here are a few suggestions:

Regular tips to parents on engaging children with books. These can include: how often they should expect their child to read, for how long, and how to discuss the reading with them. In general, nudges are more powerful than pushes, and parents need to be made aware of this.

It’s also important to give parents advice on how not to discourage children. Children can sometimes be averse because they see their parents taking on a teacher role. ‘Interested adult’ and ‘positive role model’ approaches are likely to be far more influential than ‘demanding parent.’ That said, it depends on the student!

Be careful not to be patronising with parents – we like to think of ourselves as experts, but 99.9% of parents know their children better than we ever will. Be helpful to parents, rather than seeing them as helping you, and your advice is likely to be adopted more readily.

Provide students and parents with reading lists / hot takes to promote books across a range of genres and topics. We all love to hear and read recommendations, and providing a wide range of topics, genres and perspectives is likely to resonate with more people.

Survey adults to find out about why they read. Remember that many people only read for information, or to help them get specific things done. They are not interested in ‘reading for pleasure’, which they may see as ‘sitting around’. That’s okay – our concern is not what people read, but whether they have a choice to read at all. But it may mean that to get more parental buy-in, you will need to include texts that they see as interesting, relevant and practical.

Depending on your context, you can also run adult literacy classes. A few caveats: make sure that they make significant progress – don’t just talk about books in these sessions. They need to actually get better at reading, so they feel more confident working with their children. Ideally, more children seeing their parents reading, providing powerful modelling. It goes without saying that this is an area that requires great sensitivity!

When we enable children who have been struggling for years with reading to make rapid progress, parents are likely to feel a great sense of relief. They may feel for the first time that school is making a difference. Capitalise on this response by building a sense of partnership with them – after all, you both share the same goal, to help their child succeed.

DEAR and SSR

I know many schools implement compulsory silent reading at the beginning of every KS3 English lesson, and even 1 hour library lessons once a week for silent reading, would you suggest that this is an effective approach to help improve students reading or does it instead demotivate and increase the gap for students who are already below their chronological reading age?

Perhaps this question is best answered by this this extract from 7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read:

It would be fair to say that most secondary school literacy co-ordinators and English teachers have a love of books, which is wonderful. We have seen kids get hooked into reading when they find an author or a series of books that they really enjoy. Surely, that is the answer – find the right book? I love the concept of Drop Everything and Read and Sustained Silent Reading as a reader – that precious uninterrupted 20 – 30 minutes to bury one’s head in a book. But imagine for a moment, the student who can’t yet read: being forced to sit in silence, looking at some squiggles on a page. Then consider why he or she always moans or kicks off during DEAR. This article by Jan Hasbrouck argues that there are better ways to use students’ curriculum time, especially if they are weaker readers.

Yes, keep creating wonderful, magical reading spaces, inspiring and encouraging kids to read, and introducing them to great books. But please do something about the ones who can’t yet read. Don’t leave them on the outside looking in. Make sure that they are taught – it’s not too late!

And finally, never allow your school leaders the soft option of buying in a reading promotion system that doesn’t actually enable struggling readers to catch up. Ask them for the evidence of its effectiveness for those reading two or more years behind, not just an ‘average’ progress rate for all readers. Such figures can be used to hide very poor impact on students with the greatest needs. On this issue, you may find this post helpful: 8 DIY Steps to Building a Reading Culture.

You may also be interested in:

Assessment – The Bridge Over the Reading Gap revisited (Part 1)

Reading is Knowledge

Seven Steps to Building Reading Comprehension

7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read

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