Building a reading culture

A little over a year ago, I had a vision for reading in my school. Inspired by the incredible work of Fiona Ritson, Alice Visser-Furay and Alex Quigley, I knew that we would have to be relentless in our aims, but that the results would make it worth it. Despite the enormous challenges of the past twelve months, we’ve come a long way. This post outlines the main steps we’ve taken in the hopes that it might serve as a guide for other schools interested in changing their reading culture.

A new library

Our old library was no longer fit for purpose. Crumbly and out-of-date, it was used as a classroom and breaktime visits from students were low. So step one was to create a new library space that would serve as a welcoming base for breaktime reading, an academic space for independent study and a learning hub for our reading programmes. Luckily, we managed to recruit the world’s best school librarian, Mrs Wynes, who has been tireless in transforming the new space into a warm, exciting library. She recruited student librarians; launched competitions, events and curriculum visits; and developed safe and clear systems which allowed pupils to continue to visit the library within our Covid risk assessment. It’s a pleasure to see it transform into a vibrant space in our school.

A consistent approach

In my school, all teachers are teachers of reading. Opportunities for reading diverse texts are embedded across the curriculum, including in homework, and all teachers also lead reading in morning form time. As far as possible, we take a consistent approach to the teaching of reading; children know exactly what is expected of them when participating in guided reading across their lessons in any subject. We’ve done a lot of research on the processeses which undepin reading progress (which I’ve written more about here). The approach we take is informed by Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered and Diane and James Murphy’s Thinking Reading. To summarise, it looks like this:

  • Teachers plan short pre-reading tasks (vocabulary/concepts/experiences) to link prior knowledge to reading material;
  • Pupils use rulers to support focus with reading;
  • Teachers use ‘control the game’ to hear a range of readers;
  • Questions are pre-planned to promote pupils’ understanding (we use the reciprocal reading strategies of predict, question, clarify and summarise);
  • Turn and talk and cold call are used to maximise the engagement ratio.

On any given day, you can tour lessons and see consistently excellent guided reading of challenging texts going on in different subjects.

Reading programmes

We knew that school closure was likely to have had an adverse impact on reading ages, especially for our most vulnerable students. So September saw us testing all the reading ages of children in years 7–9 using GL’s NGRT digital tests. From this influx of data, we identified children for three reading programmes:

These programmes ran from Sept-Dec and again when we reopened in February. But school closure didn’t mean an end to our reading instruction. As far as possible, we adapted to a new way of working. Reading mentors continued to come into school to read with our vulnerable pupils on site, and a dedicated team of LSAs and our brilliant SCITT trainee teachers set up remote reading sessions via GoogleMeet.

The impact has been rapid: of the children retested after a term, over 75% of reading ages went up by at least 6 months and 60% went up by a year or more. Sharing this progress with children is a source of huge amounts of joy, and their success has seen children renew their efforts with independent reading too.

Parents

I’ve long suspected that parents are vital if we are really serious about making confident readers out of our children. Last year, our inaugural Reading Evening saw over 300 parents come into school to hear how to help support their children with their reading. We shared our guided reading approaches with them and gave them time to hear their children read aloud to them and practice asking the same kind of questions teachers ask. You can see all the resources for the Reading Evening here. This event launched our home reading programme, which sees formal read-aloud homework set weekly across a range of subjects. Over the past year, our parents have been incredible in getting involved: they’ve logged their children’s reading progress and engaged brilliantly with our reading challenges.

Rich, diverse reading opportunities

Restocking the library with representative texts has to be one of the most enjoyable tasks of my career. We were expertly guided by Marilyn Brocklehurst of the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre (which if you ever have the opportunity of visiting, I thoroughly recommend it — it is a magical place). Our library is now stocked with brand new texts, including graphic novels, a range of non-fiction and an enormous YA selection.

We drew from children and staff from across the school to select our ‘Hethersett Canon: the fifty books which make a Hethersett pupil’. This diverse list takes pride of place in our library, and pupils gain merits for every book off the list they read.

Finally, we fill every possible corner of school life with reading. I often get asked what class readers we buy in, so here’s an overview of what we currently love for our reading for pleasure sessions:

Recommendations

Looking to develop reading across your school?

  • Remember that reading must be a team effort. Get a group together, if possible representing different subjects, to join your reading projects.
  • Watch Fiona Ritson and Alice Visser-Furay’s excellent session from the Team English National Conference 2020. Link here.
  • Read Alex Quigley’s books on vocabulary and reading, and buy copies for your school library.
  • Find ways to include parents in your plans, whether that be in supporting home reading or volunteering on site.
  • Create a procedure for implementing reading age checks that is as effortless as possible. There’s no point testing if you can’t act on the data it creates.

Please do get in touch with any other ideas for promoting reading across your school — I know there’s a huge amount of exciting work out there.

Elisabeth Bowling @elucymay

Considering education, schools and books. Elisabeth Bowling, Assistant Principal and Head of English. I tweet at @elucymay.