Last month (October 2022) Ofsted published a report titled “Now the whole school is reading”: supporting struggling readers in secondary school. I was immediately intrigued as to what their guidance suggested and it makes interesting reading as, for once, it mentions school librarians! Those who regularly read such reports will know that libraries rarely feature in them, even when the subject is relevant.
The findings are based on research visits to six secondary schools. The schools were selected as they had a higher-than-expected proportion of students who were poor readers get grade 4 or above in English GCSE. Evidence used included:
· Research literature
· Autumn term 2021 inspection data
· Discussions with English specialist inspectors
· Discussions with staff and students at the six schools
The executive summary states that the ability to read is “a fundamental life skill. It is essential to us all if we are to participate fully in society”. This should be obvious to anyone; without the ability to read, students are unable to succeed in exams and move into further education or training, and thus into employment. This has a lifelong impact. It also highlighted the fact that students who arrive in secondary school with poor reading skills are unlikely to catch up; only 10% of disadvantaged children who leave primary school reading below the expected level get passes in GCSE English and Maths.
The summary also makes a statement about those who are poor readers reading less. Reading is a skill and needs to be practiced but if you don’t like doing something and struggle at it, you tend not to choose to do it – I don’t like running so don’t choose to do it in my free time, even though the experts tell me it’s good for me, it fits into my schedule and is cheap! Studies show that reading increases vocabulary and general knowledge; clearly reading non-fiction will do this but it’s also amazing what you can learn from reading stories so students who are not reading won’t have those advantages and are likely to struggle with comprehension as they come across more advanced texts. This is why, as librarians, we try and get students to move out of their comfort zone and read a book that may be more challenging; reading the same story over and over again isn’t going to introduce new vocabulary, facts or ideas.
So what are the main findings of the report and how can we use these to provide a better service for our school communities?
Senior leaders prioritised reading.
This should come as no surprise; for most initiatives to be successful they need the support of the Senior Management Team (SMT aka SLT). In the schools visited, there were whole school reading strategies that were part of the curriculum and the SMT shared their commitment thus increasing the visibility of reading across the school. It is important that librarians are involved in this and have input into any reading policies and tactics – they are a natural fit. Are you part of the planning group for whole school reading? Are your SMT aware of your lessons and activities around improving students’ reading skills and the impact these have? Do you feedback any relevant information about students and reading to staff?
Schools accurately identified gaps
in students’ reading knowledge and shared information about struggling readers
with all staff.
There are various reasons why students may be poor readers. Diagnostic testing will ascertain whether this is due to fluency rates, word reading and accuracy, or phonic knowledge thus enabling bespoke interventions. Sharing this information enabled a consistent approach throughout all lessons – and this should extend to library lessons. We can’t provide consistency if we’re not given relevant information that enables us to support individual students – remember, one size doesn’t fit all and the more we know about why students are struggling with reading, the more we can help them.
Staff who taught reading had the
expertise they needed to teach weaker readers.
The featured schools trained staff who would be working with struggling readers so they had relevant expertise. These staff disseminated that training to others within the school. If your school is investing in such training then it’s essential that you, as the librarian, are involved as it’s likely you will be working with the weaker readers – it’s surprising how much teaching school librarians do, something that many people don’t realise.
Schools had clear procedures in
place to monitor this teaching and its impact on struggling readers.
By regularly assessing the progress of students, the effectiveness of any strategies could be ascertained and adjustments/changes made. This is so important; there’s no point in carrying on with something if it’s not working and any library programmes need to be included in this assessment. Do you monitor the success of your library activities? Do you report back to SMT what’s successful and why? This can help them make informed choices regarding future strategies.
A few other things jumped out at me from this report.
The first was that schools tended to stop additional support with reading once students reached Year 9 or moved into KS4. None of the schools monitored progress beyond this. I know this is probably due to time, budgets and the introduction of the very full GCSE curriculum but it’s such a shame. It meant that the schools had no idea whether students still struggled with reading – though I guess ultimately their exam results may show this – or the long-term impact of previous interventions. As some students remarked that they “felt less enthusiastic and motivated to read for pleasure by the time they reached key stage 4” there is clearly a huge role for the school librarian here. However, the caveat is that students need time to access appropriate resources and the library needs to consider promotional material and activities aimed at this target group. I know from my involvement with the UK Pupil Library Assistant of the Year the impact the library can have on older students, not only with their continuing reading for pleasure but also by providing a space for their good mental health and wellbeing.
Secondly, the report recognised the importance of skilled librarians. Not simply staff running the library and keeping it tidy but professionals who were able to be part of the whole school reading initiatives and play an active role - three of the six schools had at least one professionally qualified librarian. CILIP, the library and information association, offers librarians the opportunity to obtain professional qualifications and has a special interest group for school librarians (SLG) with resources and support available for those that wish to explore this further.
Finally, whilst there is plenty of research into primary reading there is little undertaken with older students and most of that is outside the UK. This is an area that needs to be addressed given how a lack of reading skills can impede older students’ life choices.