As another school year begins, it is a great opportunity to look at the challenge teachers, learning support assistants and school librarians will face in getting students reading. Below are seven tips, tricks and things to consider when encouraging students to read. These will be useful when either encouraging a single reluctant reader or implementing a whole-school literacy strategy. Please note that they are in no particular order except that the one I think is most important is first!
1. Share your enthusiasm
For me this is essential. If you love reading and books, then this love should enthuse everything you do in your position. Students will respond to this enthusiasm and it can be contagious. Students will want to read a book because you championed it. They will go to you talk about it when they’ve finished it. They will, most importantly, go to you again to find out what to read next. Creating and maintaining a reading culture has to begin somewhere. I believe that it should start with members of staff who are going to work to pass on their love of books and particular genres, authors and stories and will not be deterred when there are the inevitable setbacks that come with trying to get students reading.
2. Get the community involved (outside school)
Early this year I got the opportunity to listen to Jonathon Douglas of the National Literacy Trust speak. He emphasised the importance of community for improving literacy levels. The message of the necessity of reading to improve your literacy is so much more powerful when it comes from everyone in a young person’s community than when it just comes from a couple of loud voices in their school.
How to do this is a difficult question to answer but I think there are two useful starting points. The first is to get the student’s family involved. Communication with home is a vital tool and making positive phone calls home when a student succeeds in their reading can help ensure that they will continue to do so as they will have another hand patting them on the back. This year I also trialled 'come to the library' sessions where parents were invited to the library to see what their child did in their reading lessons, read with them and have a cup of coffee. Many parents got involved and it is a great way to ensure that students will get more support and motivation when it comes to literacy.
3. Get the community involved (inside school)
A second useful starting point is to get the whole school involved. The most effective literacy strategies take a whole-school approach with students seeing that reading is something that the entire school does from the new year seven intake to the head teacher. World Book Day is perhaps the most widely used event for championing reading as a community with students seeing what is fun and exciting about reading. However, there are countless other ways to show that reading is important to the whole school. What I am reading posters outside a teacher’s classroom, book giving days where staff give a book from home to a particular student and class readers are just three of the ways to get reading for pleasure out of the English department or school library and into the whole school.
4. Get students to spread the word
Having students that can champion literacy and reading for pleasure is so useful and many will love this responsibility. The students in my school's literacy squad love the opportunity to suggest books to other students, help in the in the library and get involved in the planning and delivery of literacy events. However, students don’t have to have an official title to help you encourage reading throughout the school. For example, we had a fantastic opportunity to take a group of students to see the amazing Carnegie-winning Sarah Crossan speak. When they came back they devoured The Weight of Water and One. Now I often do not have to explain why they are such good books to a student because one of their friends is itching to do it for me and students are much more likely to read a book when it has their friend’s seal of approval.
5. Help students to take ownership
Students are unlikely to read regularly if they do not understand its importance and feel that it is being forced upon them. It is essential that students see the worth of reading for their own personal development and take ownership of it. They will read after school for twenty minutes because they see its worth and they enjoy it. Developing this sense of ownership is a challenge but there are ways of working towards it. In library lessons in my school, students have minimum targets but I also encourage them to set their own targets. This might be to finish the Harry Potter series before Christmas or to read a million words as part of the Accelerated Reader scheme. I will provide encouragement and rewards but the student is aware that this is their intellectual development and they will reap the benefits. Students should then have their own drive to keep reading when you are not there to give support.
6. Sell the story
Over four years of working in school libraries, I have discovered that “selling stories” is my favourite part of the job. It is great to work with a student to find a title that they want to read by delving into the shelves, pulling out titles I think they will love and explaining what is great about each one. It is particularly fun to find a hook that will get a student to grab a book out of your hand and tell you that they want to read it now. For example, this year I have relied on the hooks "she can tell when you are going to die by looking in your eyes" (Rachel Ward's Numbers) and "a boy finds a body in the river and tries to solve the murder" (Kim Slater‘s Smart). This does not mean that you need to have read every book in your library, it just means that you need an awareness of what is in your collection and how to sell it.
7. Do not be afraid (to start at the very beginning)
This last one is something I have to remind myself of very September. Not every student in your class will be willing to pick up a book. You may have students who will drag their heels or complain or proudly exclaim that they hate reading. When this is the case it can be useful, especially with lower ability students, to get them into the habit of sitting down with a text and taking the time to go from page to page by using something they enjoy. Last year I sat down to read texts as varied as graphic novels, picture books and choose-your-own-adventure books with very reluctant readers before we moved onto something more challenging. This initial step requires time and patience but it can be essential to giving a student the confidence they need to get reading.
So these are my seven top tips for getting students reading. What do you think? If you have your own tips, please share them in the comments below.
Critical Literacy for Information Professionals
Critical Literacy for Information Professionals, edited by Sarah McNicol, is an edited collection exploring critical literacy theory and providing practical guidance to how it can be taught and applied in libraries. Joel Crowley is author of Chapter 10, "New media and critical literacy in secondary schools".
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