Promoting reading using the school library

Written by: Valerie Dewhurst | Published:
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A wise article, Valerie. We sometimes do worry too much about childten going through non-reading ...

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How does your school library support reading and reading skills? Valerie Dewhurst offers some practical reflections and ideas, including on engaging reluctant readers

I often raise an eyebrow when I hear questions such as “why aren’t children reading anymore?” or “what can we do to change things?”. They make me wonder why we try so hard to reinvent the wheel, time after time.

Reading as a priority will always be with us. But it is like the weather in that it changes regularly; over my many years as a librarian I have seen many changes in children’s reading habits.

It only takes a new addition to a popular series for some children to get back into the swing of reading, or maybe for them to discover a totally new series altogether.

Harry Potter is rekindled year after year, and it is so humbling to see a new cohort of year 7 arrive in the school library looking for the books. There is nothing needed here from the librarian – the flame just automatically re-ignites. Of course it does help having an exciting Harry Potter area within our library...

Visiting authors bring books to life

Children’s authors are doing great things and I know from the many conversations I have with them that they are extremely devoted to their fans/readers. If authors stay connected with librarians, then librarians can do so much for them in return.

A recent chat with author Cliff McNish (a past visitor to our school who won many hearts the day he came) gave me the chance to run yet another book promotion to highlight his new book. A montage of his books was enough to gather interest from his fans and before I knew it, his books were being reserved via our Click and Collect service (Dewhurst, 2020).

Having that link with authors is vital – and it is usually the librarian who has the time to do this. Getting authors into school right now is a little problematic, but when things do return to normal authors will be rushed off their feet again.

Our current plans involve the author of The Black Flamingo, Dean Atta, visiting us later this term (with a contingency plan for a virtual event if necessary).

It doesn’t matter how

It really doesn’t matter how a book is read – print or digital. It really does not matter where it is read – the school library, school bus, quiet reading corner in a classroom, at home. What matters is that reading is happening and being enjoyed. Using mobile devices and iPads to access eBooks is without a doubt something we should be promoting if this helps us to rekindle, restore or resurrect reading habits.

There will always be non-readers

It is a challenge for librarians and teachers to get students on our side (especially now since the Covid lockdown). We must push reading and encourage and enthuse those non-readers – and yes there will always be non-readers.

Reading is not only a skill but also a hobby – for some it can even become a passion – but it is not for everyone, not everyone is a reader. I have spoken to countless academics who have told me that they only read for their work; reading for pleasure just doesn’t exist for some.

For many, the excuse is time – even for students, especially those with examinations looming. However, we also know that young people are influenced by the reading habits of their parents and carers at home – or the lack of them.

Some students may not find time to read for pleasure but have their head in a book for a particular subject. Some students are not encouraged at home or do not have a quiet space in which to read. There are so many hidden factors that can and do set readers and non-readers apart.

Enthusing young readers

For me the passion doesn’t stop in my school library. The bright lights of fiction and reading for pleasure are a massive part of my working day and also my personal life. Sharing this passion is important to me and as an adult who reads I am proud and always keen to promote the wonderful books that authors write.

Personal passion has a lot to do with reading and enthusing our students to get on board – but how else can we get the message across?

Our form time book boxes help keep students focused and also help to calm our students before the busy school day begins. Competitions, quizzes and book challenges – they all help and if run annually really do get the message out that it can be cool to read.

Having everyone on board, not just the librarian, but involving colleagues from across the school, is vital too. What we really need is for all staff in school who read to shout about it, to share their own passion and to allow that passion to rub off onto our students. It has to be a joint effort – and although the school library can provide all the resources and of course the expertise, it is also important that other adults in school are seen as role models for reading too.

Before Christmas, for example, we launched a festive book challenge and, together with English teachers and form tutors, we rewarded those who read and encouraged those who do not. This kind of activity could be run at any time of year.

It is a constant promotion, year-in, year-out, but it helps. Other book challenges/awards such as the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals and the Royal Society Science Young People’s Book Prize are also popular and extremely rewarding.

Covid Building back better

Moving our services online this year due to Covid has in fact been a massive help in enthusing students and this work really has reached heights I never knew possible.

Reserving books by Click & Collect is proving to be fun and popular and now that word has spread, the service is much-used. We need to make more of our virtual libraries and consider which aspects are now here to stay as we “build back better” after the pandemic.

Elsewhere, to enable our library lessons to still function during Covid-19, I am currently pre-selecting books for our users across years 7, 8 and 9. For me this has been a challenge, but in a very good way. I have had the time to take stock, look back on past loans, and match-up books that I think (and hope) our readers will enjoy.

The books are then added to a large plastic wallet ready for a library lesson, when the pupil will have a choice of six to eight books – it is a kind of personalised pre-selection of books. So far, the approach is working well and is something that we could retain post-Covid.

Other ideas

Reading programmes: Having a reading programme in place also has a huge impact on borrowing and reading – this could be a subscription to a reading programme or an in-house one. These programmes are created with readers in mind and can help turn your under-used library into a thriving and busy one. We currently subscribe to two programmes, both of which are very well-received.

Class reads: Another brilliant way to get the library resources used is to have your librarian help select class reads – and why not? Having recently been a part of helping to choose a class read for a year 7 group, this is just a wonderful way to stay connected with colleagues and to share our expertise. We recently decided on The Goldfish Boy written by Lisa Thompson and I am sure our year 7 English group will absolutely enjoy every page they are about to turn.

Book recommendations: Fantastic Fiction and Love Reading are two of my favourite places to search for book recommendations. To be able to share these and similar websites with our readers is important – a quick guide to highlight “fun places to search for a book” is guaranteed to go down well with colleagues.

Audio books: Having an audio book to accompany a book is worth its weight in gold. Many students who struggle to read often find listening to the story helps – with some students even wanting to then read the actual book. The cost of buying these resources tends to be a problem, but when bidding for your budget it is always worth noting that audio books are a good way in which to support readers.

Listening to students read: Hearing students read during a library lesson has been in place in my school now for two years. It is so special to be able to engage with students and discuss what they are reading – it is a chance to get to know their reading habits, while generally talking about their book. It is also a perfect time for the librarian to help move the reader on, to try something new and encourage a wider reading choice.

Public libraries: Public libraries have so much to offer and during the pandemic, they have stepped up to the mark and tried hard to encourage new members. Most school libraries will promote their local libraries and indeed may well even have membership forms to help students to join. Online resources are excellent, thus saving students and parents a lot of money.

Benefits of reading

How much do we, as librarians, focus on promoting the benefits of reading? They are wide-ranging:

  • Mental stimulation.
  • Stress reduction.
  • Knowledge.
  • Vocabulary expansion.
  • Memory improvement.
  • Stronger analytical thinking skills.
  • Improved focus and concentration.
  • Better writing skills.

I am sure we can all add to this list. Reading is crucial and it is important that we stress the benefits. Reading is an acquired skill, one we must share and nurture as much as we can.

  • Valerie Dewhurst is head of library at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn. Read her previous articles for SecEd via

Further information & resources

Valerie’s further reading suggestions

Reading around the subject of reading can be useful. I recommend Closing the Vocabulary Gap and Closing the Reading Gap – both extremely good resources to stock in your staff libraries. Try also Reading Reconsidered: A practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction.

Attached to the online version of this article is our How the library supports reading document. This lists all of the activities at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School. Download this via the button above.

A wise article, Valerie. We sometimes do worry too much about childten going through non-reading phases as well, don't we? As a teenager I spent a couple of years reading almost entirely non-fiction. Did I never return to fiction? No, I came back to it more enlivened later, but it wouldn't have been a tragedy if I hadn't. The key, as you say, is making books available in every possible format to children, and encouraging them quietly to try things. What more can anyone do?
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