Case study: Creating an inspiring reading environment

Written by: Lucy May & David Murray | Published:
Escape: Features of the Nafferton School library provision (pictured above) include (top to bottom) the Narnia wardrobe, the sports themed area, Little Red Riding Hood’s cottage, and the quiet reading and study area

Drawing on research evidence, Nafferton Primary School has gone all-out to create a reading environment to inspire its pupils and make them want to pick up a book. Lucy May and David Murray explain how

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” Albert Einstein
“When in doubt go to the library.” JK Rowling

A headline last year on the Independent website caught my eye. It stated: “One in eight schools do not have library.” The report added that primary schools were less likely than secondaries to have a dedicated library (Busby, 2019).

A range of research shows that school libraries have a positive impact on pupils’ general academic attainment, reading and writing skills – as well as a positive impact on attitudes towards reading (Teravainen & Clark, 2017). Having a well-stocked school library is one of the keystones in developing an effective reading environment.

At Nafferton School, a decision was taken to relocate our library to a more central location. The purpose of the move was to raise the profile of reading in the school.

In its current location children pass through the library area several times each day. The library forms a central hub in the school and is in use throughout the school day. This has also led to other areas around the school being created, such as our French area, the sports themed area, the Narnia wardrobe, and Little Red Riding Hood’s cottage (see images).

As requested by the year 5 and 6 children, there is also an associated “study” with soft furnishings that provides a very quiet area for personal reading. Due to the library’s central location it has become a dynamic resource with displays, new books, story bags and school reading initiatives being changed regularly.

The National Literacy Trust’s annual literacy survey (Rudkin & Wood, 2019) finds that school library use is associated with increased reading levels. It states: “Overall, children and young people who used the school library had better levels of reading enjoyment, reading for pleasure, reading confidence, writing for pleasure, writing confidence, and reading attainment than those who did not. They also tended to read and write a greater variety of material relative to non-library users.”

The research indicates that having a school librarian provides additional reading benefits thorough direct guidance and led activities. Of course, in our current climate of squeezed budgets, having a dedicated school librarian is beyond the reach of many of us. However, we have tried to gain the benefits associated with a school librarian without the significant overheads.

To achieve this, the practicalities of maintaining a well-run functioning library are covered by a teaching assistant who has the responsibility of maintaining the computerised library loan system and who is the first port of call for any teachers or children requiring specific support.

Our librarian, Julia Dodgeon, who also works as a teaching assistant in year 4, completely renovated our library system and alphabetised by author. This also included labelling books and sections of the library and creating a reference and resource area. Her main weekly responsibilities are inputting of new and donated books, generating class lists for borrowing, changing the books on display regularly and keeping the library tidy, and creating a attractive environment with interactive displays and welcoming seating areas.

To support her work, there is a team of year 6 children. They have all had to apply for a position as a school librarian in writing and were interviewed before becoming eligible to support the library. The children run the library every lunchtime, offering advice and guidance to the younger children as well as maintaining the bookstacks. The librarians also share books and undertake paired reading with younger children, an activity that has been shown to have a positive impact on reading (Shaper & Streatfield, 2012).

The headteacher and another member of staff, who has interior design expertise, regularly change displays and keep the library relevant to topics being studied in the school. The use of the library is monitored by Julia and fed back to the senior leadership.

The library is a very public expression of the school’s attitude to reading. By keeping it well stocked with dynamic, regularly changing content, having a dedicated staff member, and promoting the aspiration of the older children to become librarians, it becomes an environment where children can see how important reading is.

Expanding the reading experience

In a recent Headteacher Update article on year 6 reading attainment, Sarah Gibb drew our attention to two key areas with which children struggle: inference and vocabulary (Gibb, 2020).

That has also been our experience, which is why several years ago we introduced recommended reads for each year group. The purpose is to expose children to key texts that stretch their understanding and vocabulary while simultaneously exposing them to some fantastic reading material.

We used published book lists, such as the BookTrust’s 100 must reads for children (see further information), to begin building our own personalised lists. Left to their own devices, we found that children neglected many classic or more challenging children’s books in favour of newer books, often with less challenging content.

Our recommended reading lists are not static and selected topics are often temporarily added as required. When selecting books we take notice of research, such as the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s 10 key points in choosing effective texts for children (2018), which include:

  • Allow children to see themselves reflected in what they read and to have the opportunity to investigate other lives, worlds and perspectives.
  • Take risks with the books you read and introduce to children.
  • Respect children’s tastes and choices, ensuring that the texts you choose foster and increase their experience of literature as well as supporting current interests.

The children keep a record of the books they have read and their successes are displayed in the classroom. Teachers encourage children to read a recommended reading book in addition to any reading scheme books they have. For less able readers it is encouraged that the books are shared together at home or audio versions can be made available.

Digital reading

Much of the reading that many of us undertake is now digital and the place for on-screen reading in school needs to be carefully considered in our practice.

Some researchers have suggested that the typical on-screen interactions between individuals and screens may cause users to associate devices more with leisure than learning. A significant body of research considers the extent to which technology invites browsing and scanning rather than consideration and reflection, and how such behaviour may change the nature of reading (Picton, 2019).

This research needs to be considered when creating our reading environments and it reinforces our ethos that print media must still form the core of our reading programme. This approach is further supported by a Norwegian study, which found a positive correlation between reading print books and digital reading skills (Støle & Schwippert, 2017). The study concludes that 10-year-olds who chose to read print books in their free time perform better in digital text comprehension tests than those who do not.

The proviso in all this is that our children are growing up in a fast-changing digital landscape and research is lagging behind our understanding. Incorporating digital media into core reading programmes needs to be regularly re-evaluated.

Reading in practice

In addition to the above, our reading environment includes:

  • Each classroom having a dedicated reading area which displays recommended reading books and includes a chart showing the frequency of reading of individual children in the classroom.
  • Class readers – each class has a book which is shared with the class in a combination of reading in turn and the teacher modelling reading. Older children record their own responses to the reading.
  • Whole school reading challenge – children receive bookmarks for every multiple of 50 reads they have in their reading records.
  • Classrooms display what the teachers and support staff are currently reading, along with reasons why they have chosen that book.
  • A dedicated year 6 reading room.
  • A book club for children to discuss shared reading.
  • Daily quiet reading in the classroom, often right after lunch time.


  • David Murray and Lucy May are teaching assistants at Nafferton Primary School in East Yorkshire.

Further information & resources

  • BookTrust: 100 best children’s books (to read before you are 14): http://bit.ly/38VG0qL
  • Busby: One in eight schools do not have library and poorer children more likely to miss out, study finds, Independent, October 2019.
  • Centre for Literacy in Primary Education: Choosing and using quality children’s texts: What we know works, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2HOY7CE
  • Gibb/Headteacher Update: Reflections on year 6 reading attainment, January 2020: http://bit.ly/2wExYUI
  • Picton: Teachers’ use of technology to support literacy in 2018, National Literacy Trust, April 2019: http://bit.ly/37M2JoM
  • Rudkin & Wood: Understanding the impact and characteristics of school libraries and reading spaces, Nottingham Trent University, October 2019: http://bit.ly/2PmN8EK
  • Shaper & Streatfield: Invisible care? The role of librarians in caring for the ‘whole pupil’ in secondary school, Pastoral Care in Education 30, 2012.
  • Teravainen & Clark: School libraries: A literature review of current provision and evidence of impact, National Literacy Trust, June 2017: http://bit.ly/2upW1WI


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