When I wrote Practical Reading Strategies I focused the entire first half of the book on providing instantly usable activities that a teacher could pick up and take into the classroom, adopting and extending them to suit their own students. But in the second half of the book, things get a little more philosophical, and one of the most popular chapters – based on feedback from teachers who’ve read the book – is actually right near the end: Creating a Culture of Reading.
Last week I co-hosted a webinar on the Power of Reading with Clare Mackie, Head of Middle Years English at Haileybury and Victorian Academy Master Teacher of English. Clare and I have worked together a number of times over the years, most recently as part of a series of workshops with the Haileybury team around developing their reading culture. Haileybury is an incredibly successful school in terms of its results, and Clare had taken on the challenge of bringing up reading engagement to levels that matched the academic achievements of the students.
When I first engaged with Clare and her deputies for some 1:1 time and small group work around developing a vision for Haileybury’s reading program, it became clear that Haileybury’s challenges with reading were much the same as any school. Low engagement, students selecting texts which were not challenging enough, and apathetic attitudes towards reading are common in schools of any context, from a small regional Catholic school like mine through to a huge multi-campus, international like Haileybury.
Start with why
It’s tempting to begin with whats – what are we going to do to improve reading culture? What are we going to do to increase library borrowing? What can our teachers do to get students to read more? But before diving in to the strategies and tactics of creating a reading culture, it’s important to first articulate why you want to.
It might seem like an obvious question, but it bears some serious thought. The why of reading will be highly context dependent. All schools across all sectors benefit from improving reading. The advantages of reading are well known, from the impact on academic achievement through to the wellbeing benefits. But in every school there will be a slightly different lens over that why. Does your school want to improve reading in order to improve results? To help bridge a socio-economic divide? Are there a high number of English as an Additional Language students? Do the students already read, but you feel like what they’re reading is not challenging them? These kinds of context dependent variables are crucial for engaging your teaching staff and students as you develop your reading culture.
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The first part of the process when I work with schools on creating a culture of reading is to develop a shared vision. I can’t tell you what that will look like from school to school, but here are some of the things we discuss:
- Why do we want to improve the reading culture at our school?
- How, when and what do our students currently read?
- What outcomes would we expect to see if we improved the reading culture?
- Who are the key stakeholders in improving the culture? The teachers? The students? The parents? Library staff?
- What tactics and strategies will we use to improve the reading culture?
- What can we control? What is out of our control?
- How will we know that we have started to improve the reading culture?
Once we have established the unique why, we can start gathering data around the current picture. What do library borrowing stats look like? What are parental and community attitudes towards reading? Do the teaching staff read, openly and often? Are there books in classrooms? Is there a library (and is it parmanently staffed)?
These are the kinds of questions that a faculty leader – or a team in the case of a large school like Haileybury – should be able to answer before developing a vision for reading. Once these points are clear, it’s time to broaden out to the rest of the faculty and start working on changing the culture.
I should actually have called this post (re)creating a culture of reading. In many instances, children of a very young age love reading. As part of natural language development and a child’s innate curiosity, reading and speaking are integral to the developmental process. Primary schools are fantastic at nurturing this intrinsic desire to read. Regular reading programs in class, dedicated blocks of time for literacy, communication with parents and efforts to maintain reading at home: all of these crucial elements are often much more present in the primary sector than secondary.
Once we reach secondary school, however, reading often starts to slip from the agenda. Partially it’s due to the sudden jump in the volume of subject areas and content. Partially it’s pressure from the shift in narratives around assessment. It’s also got something to do with peer pressure, societal (and contextual) attitudes towards reading, and a whole host of other things. Whatever the reasons, reading culture starts to degrade somewhere between upper primary and junior secondary.
Changing culture is incredibly hard. There needs to be constant attention paid to the process, like nurturing a plant from a seed. Once the vision for the school is established, heads of faculty and their teaching team need to consistently provide opportunities to show the value of reading. In Practical Reading Strategies I provide a number of ways a school might do this, creating small, quick wins which celebrate reading and cumulatively add up to a robust culture. Things like:
- Structured silent reading, for example in a 50 minute period per fortnight, or for 10 minutes at the start of every lesson
- Role modelling, including times when teachers are visibly reading for pleasure
- Classroom mini-libraries
- Engaging with authors through seminars, panels and workshops
- Celebrating reading through local and national events like National Simultaneous Storytime
- Book clubs for students, staff, and a mixture of students and staff
Context, context, context
Like everything in a school, context is incredibly important when selecting the right strategies to create a culture of reading. At our school, for example, a very high proportion of our students travel by bus, so after school book clubs would not be an option. Lunch times are largely taken up by sports, and students who use the library generally do so to play games, chess, Dungeons and Dragons, or take part in groups like the coding club. So we find opportunities elsewhere for reading, like 10 minutes per 7-10 English lesson for silent reading, or allowing students to go to the quiet spaces of the library to read during study periods.
Finding what works for your students and staff is a long but rewarding process. For many reasons, putting a culture of reading high on a school’s agenda brings lots of rewards, so it’s worth the effort.
I’m very excited to be launching a new series of workshops based around Practical Reading Strategies, including Creating a Culture of Reading, which has been highly successful at Haileybury and elsewhere.