School libraries and reading development

Written by: Clare Brumpton & Elizabeth Hutchinson | Published:
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Recreational reading. Reading for learning. Reading for life. The school library and school librarian has a vital role to play in supporting pupils to read. Clare Brumpton and Elizabeth Hutchinson look at how they can do this


In a recent article, we unpacked the way school librarians might support “levelling up” (Brumpton & Hutchinson, 2022). Here, we would like to focus on the role and core purpose of the school library and librarian.

Many schools believe that they have a library when they have a room full of books that they issue and return. However, in order for a school library to meet its core purpose, it needs a school librarian – not only to manage the collection but to engage with students and teachers across the curriculum as well.

We understand that employing a librarian is not possible for some smaller schools but there are ways around this, perhaps via a shared librarian working across several local schools or via access to a Schools Library Service.

School librarians offer value and engagement in literacy and academic attainment, therefore it is important to ensure the librarian is employed on the correct contract and salary level. Librarians are educators and should be recognised as such. Too many librarians are employed and remunerated as unqualified or less experienced support staff. This is a problem if you want the real value of a professional librarian who can go beyond issuing and returning the books.

It is also important that the librarian is line-managed by a member of senior leadership responsible for teaching and learning. The library is an academic department within the school and the librarian, as head of the department, should be required to create a strategy for development and growth, provide line management to any assistants, hold the departmental budget, and be responsible for an annual review of the department. A head of department role will empower your librarian to be proactive in terms of their role in teaching and learning across the school.


The core purpose of a school library

Schools that have school libraries and librarians have access to a very powerful resource but it is often overlooked by a lack of understanding of its core purpose.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions school library guidelines state: “The core function of the school library is to provide physical and intellectual access to information and ideas.” (IFLA, 2015).

Most of us feel comfortable with our understanding of a school library’s physical collection, but what does “intellectual access to information and ideas” mean? In order to understand this, we need to look further into the five core instructional activities of the school librarian again as stated by the IFLA.

  1. Literacy and reading promotion.
  2. Information literacy (information skills, competencies and fluency, media literacy, transliteracy).
  3. Inquiry-based learning (problem-based learning, critical thinking).
  4. Technology integration.
  5. Professional development for teachers.

It is true that libraries take a lot of time to manage, from stock selection to day-to-day running, but what if there was more and you had a school librarian who was ready and willing to work more closely within your curriculum? Are you able to support them and enable them to do this? In a series of articles, we'd like to look at how the school librarian can support each of the five aims listed above. Here we will focus on literacy and reading promotion.


Literacy and reading promotion

Apart from being an expert in managing your collections, school librarians have other areas of expertise too. We are going to focus specifically on literacy and reading promotion in this article. Many schools believe they understand the role of the school librarian in reading for pleasure.

Reading, as we all know, is one of the core purposes of a school library and education. Reading is in all elements of education and quite simply leads to increased academic attainment.

Investment in library stock is money spent on building the culture of reading and learning that every school should aspire to.

Every school setting is different and it is not possible to create a one-size-fits-all recommendation to the work of the librarian across the curriculum within literacy and reading promotion. Instead, we have created some suggestions as a “menu” of possible opportunities to get the most from the library and librarian in your specific environment.

Many of the suggestions have been used by ourselves in the schools we have worked in and will work across both primary and secondary age students, but there are some fundamental principles that the school will need to adopt in order for some of the suggestions to be successful.

Reading as a practice can be viewed through three different lenses – the 3Rs of reading:

  1. Recreation.
  2. Results.
  3. Real life.

Each of these three types of reading can be approached differently but it is vital that all three are covered to ensure that students get the most out of their education in reading.


Ideas to consider

Recreational reading: More often known as reading for pleasure, but we have not used this terminology as reading is not always pleasurable for students and we are hesitant to use a term that will exclude anyone. Instead by using the term recreation it opens up the possibility to students (and staff) that reading about anything that they enjoy recreationally could count.

Sometimes, reading for pleasure is viewed through a narrow perspective of novels and traditional texts and this is something to bear in mind when you are looking to create or develop a reading culture within your school. Examples of ways your librarian might work on recreational reading, include:

  • Reading advisory sessions with students.
  • Book talks.
  • Using a termly set text with a class.
  • Reading picture books (for secondary as well as primary).
  • World Book Day celebrations.
  • Providing a time and place for reading (inside and outside lessons).

Probably the most fundamental role will be to provide every member of the school with excellent quality and well-curated collection of books, magazines, online options, e-books and audiobooks.

Alongside this, the librarian will know their stock inside out and will be able to recommend titles to all library users. The skill of finding a title for any library user is as much based upon the librarian’s relationship with the user as upon their knowledge of their collection, and to bring these areas of knowledge together is incredibly powerful.

Reading for learning or results: This is more obviously linked to the curriculum. It includes the skill of reading for meaning but can link with recreational reading for many students. Examples of ways your librarian might work on reading for learning and results include:

  • Linking fiction texts to non-fiction subjects to complement the topic being taught.
  • Non-Fiction November (Federation of Children’s Book Groups) is a national celebration of all things factual. The theme for 2022 is communication. The librarian may focus all library lessons in that month on non-fiction in general, or link to the shortlisted books by the School Library Association. The SLA’s Information Book Award is suitable for both primary and secondary age students.
  • Empathy Day (Empathy Lab, 2022) is celebrated in June and the website contains many great book lists (both fiction and non-fiction) that link to empathy and wellbeing, a great link for the PSHE curriculum.

For older students, the librarian will also be working to promote academic practices including reading for understanding, critical thinking, and independent learning.

The basics of these practices should be started in primary school or as soon as you can in secondary and linked with the curriculum. For example, a school librarian can teach a non-fiction unit to year 2 which covers understanding the structure of a non-fiction book and in year 7 supporting and understanding Tier 3 vocabulary. Both link to units within the curriculum.


Real life

This is a combination of all the types of reading that a student will need in order to function in adult life. While it is expected that most of these skills will be taught in the classroom, many students may struggle with reading as they see it has no purpose for them.

Examples of how your school librarian might work on reading for real life include:

  • Focusing on providing things they might need in the future, like the highway code, recipe books, forms for job applications, tax credits, etc.
  • Filling in forms and answering highway code questions.
  • Writing a shopping list based on a recipe they want to cook.
  • Planning meals for a week based on a particular budget.
  • Looking up travel routes for an interview or for a day out, etc.

The harsh reality is that there will always be some students who will never be and readers and will not respond to book recommendations, audiobook suggestions and so on, but if they can be supported to access everything that they will need when they leave school, then they will also feel successful and part of the reading culture of a school.


Conclusion

Establishing opportunities for the librarian to collaborate with teachers across the curriculum is powerful and effective.

This should be fully cross-curricular. The librarian needs to be able to share expertise which should be linked to the school’s academic integrity policy.

A school library is there for everyone but its core purpose is to support the education process across the curriculum for both students and staff. Understanding that your school librarian can add value is important. We have seen many schools lose their librarians and never get them back. Don’t let this be your school!

  • Elizabeth Hutchinson is a chartered librarian and fellow of CILIP. With 20 years in school libraries she is now a trainer and advisor and an advocate for FOSIL Inquiry based Learning. Visit www.elizabethahutchinson.com
  • Clare Brumpton has worked in school libraries for 25 years. She is head of research centre at the International School of London, an IB school where she is responsible for three libraries and the Research Institute.


Headteacher Update Autumn Edition 2022

  • This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Autumn Edition 2022. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital edition is also available via www.headteacher-update.com/digital-editions

Further information & resources


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