Mind the reading gap: Developing a reading culture

Written by: Aimee Cave | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How can we develop a successful reading culture across our primary school? Aimee Cave, a SENCO and assistant head, explains her school’s approach

Nearly a third of primary children who start their education behind their peers never catch up and the gap simply widens, according to the latest Department for Education statistics (DfE, 2020).

One way to help close the gap is to encourage children to curl up with a good book. Among many interesting statistics compiled by the Reading Agency (2020), we are told that children who read books often at age 10, and more than once a week at age 16, gain higher results in maths, vocabulary and spelling tests at age 16 than those who read less regularly (OECD, 2010).

Encouraging a love of reading is hugely beneficial for all pupils, including those with SEND. But it requires the space and the time to focus on books and, in a busy school environment, it is not always easy to achieve this.

Reading for pleasure

We have been working to develop a love of reading in our school for a long time. Over the last few years we have introduced time for all pupils to read in class through dedicated daily class stories. We have also invested in new books, new library furniture and tried to create spaces in school which lend themselves to reading.

And although reading for pleasure conjures up images of “curling up with a good book”, we have come to see it as much more than this.

In our school, we are passionate about getting the right book in front of the right pupil, so we make it our objective to find out about each child’s interests. There are probably only a few children who would be thrilled to read The Bake Off Book of Amazing Cakes, for example, but for that one child who cooks with nanny at the weekend, this book is pages of comfort and memories.

Developing curiosity

We have also made reading the basis of learning, with a curriculum built on developing and stimulating children’s natural curiosity.

Like most schools, we have our structured, formal curriculum which lays out what children will learn each academic year, but there are no strict rules about the context for learning these skills and knowledge.

We have worked this to benefit our pupils by developing a library of topics that bring out their natural curiosity. We help the children to write their own key questions to answer, such as “What impact does Greta Thunberg have on the world?” and “What is the human cost of plastic?”

In the classroom, our teachers then use these themed questions and tie them to the knowledge and skills in the curriculum. The basis to this is reading. Pupils read both fiction and non-fiction across a wide range of subjects in order to answer these questions. It gives reading a real meaning for the child.

The lightbulb moments, which both the teachers and children love, come from discovering more and seeing children form opinions about some really challenging topics. By knowing which topics light up our students’ interests, we can find the books they enjoy the most.

Parents in the picture

We are committed to getting parents involved as there is a much bigger impact in the classroom if reading is encouraged at home. During the summer holidays, we ran a competition for children to read in unusual places and bring in photos. They had great fun taking part and parents loved it too. We also offer drop-in sessions where we share the tactics we use in school to help parents encourage reading at home.

Removing barriers

Developing a reading for pleasure ethos rests on two key elements. First, empowering children to share their passions and then encouraging them to read more about these topics. Second, helping ensure that reading is as fluent and as easy as possible for the child.

Early identification of potential barriers to reading is key to this. In our junior school, we do not see first-hand every child’s journey through the stages of early reading, so spotting any signs of dyslexia, or issues with comprehension or phonics really matters.

We have not been afraid to make use of new technology, which helps us identify any reading issues, so if a child needs more specialist help, we can act on it immediately. As a SENCO, it means I can easily spot who needs extra support and immediately concentrate my time on putting the correct interventions in place.

A change in culture

So, has our approach worked? Well we have seen more children coming into school talking about enjoying books, the new things they have learned and how something they are reading fits into being able to answer the current class question.

But what is encouraging us all to continue is that both reading attainment and general progress are starting to show a consistent upward trend. The icing on the cake for me personally is that reading has become an integral part of nearly every child’s own passion, which is the most beautiful reward for us and a lifelong reward for the children we teach.

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