Monday 7 August 2023

The DfE Reading Framework - how relevant is it to school librarians?


Last month the Department for Education (DfE) published a comprehensive 176-page document titled “The Reading Framework,” accompanied by the tagline: “guidance for primary and secondary schools to meet existing expectations for teaching reading”. I’m always interested in any official documentation that centres around reading – as a school librarian, it’s one of our core functions – so I worked my way through it. I then found myself immersed in the delightful chaos of having my three grandchildren for the week; the 6 and 3 year olds insist on at least three books at bedtime and I’m working my way through Harry Potter 2 with the 9 year old so, by the time I’m finished all these reading escapades, there’s scant time or energy left. But I’ve now gathered my thoughts.

One of my initial actions with such documents is to search for the words “librarian” and “school library” – not sure why as they are rarely mentioned. However, in this document, the term “library” features 25 times, mainly in reference to public or classroom libraries and “librarian” occurs only 6 times. This is mostly in a sentence linked with other adults such as “Library time for every class led by an appropriately trained adult. This may be the school librarian, form tutor or other adult with a particular interest in reading” (p103). I have to admit that I’ve seen the latter part of this sentence featured in way too many job descriptions for school librarians; a disconcerting reminder that those responsible for appointing individuals to this role often lack an understanding of the contributions school librarians actually make.

Nonetheless, I approached the document with my school librarian hat on, not to analyse the whole thing, but to identify potential areas where librarians could support staff in delivering these guidelines and also whether there was any evidence that supported libraries in schools. While most of the content is aimed at primary schools, the advice and suggestions are also apply to secondary schools. It’s worth noting that I found some of the guidance contradictory (for example, it talks about using anything that helps to establish the reading habit but also says that children should not take home books beyond their decoding capabilities) and information is repeated in different sections, making it feel a bit haphazard. It also, for some strange reason, refers to library lessons or library time as “book club time”.

The key objective of these guidelines is to “help schools meet the expectations set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) statutory framework and the National Curriculum” thus the guidance encompasses primary years and key stage 3 with an audience of “primary and secondary schools in England, other key stage 3 educators, initial teacher training (ITT) partnerships, specialist provision and others” (p5). Its primary audience is not school librarians. However, while it's important to acknowledge that school librarians are not the primary figures responsible for formal reading instruction within a school, they do hold a significant role in the process

It is also crucial to recognise that many primary (and even secondary) schools do not have a librarian; if the document was aimed at school librarians it would be too easy for it to be dismissed with the comment that it’s not relevant because we don’t have that particular member of staff.

The introduction commences with the sentence “reading is fundamental to education” and I wish more senior management would take on this ethos to give support to school libraries who tend to be the main driver for cultivating a reading culture within schools. Section 1 looks at the advantages of reading, backed up by a wealth of quotable evidence and research. While most school librarians are already familiar with this, it could be useful to ensure your Headteacher and Senior Management Team (SMT) (at the very least) are aware of the latest studies as it’s unlikely that they keep up-to-date with school library research. It concludes with the statement: “All educators have a fundamental role in ensuring all pupils learn to read: this means teachers, support staff, senior leaders, Headteachers, local authorities, multi-academy trusts and initial teacher training partnerships” – something that might be worth pointing out as too often reading is seen as being the remit of the English department.

The subsequent sections delve into language comprehension and phonics teaching in Reception and KS1, along with the cultivation of reading fluency in KS2. If you are a primary school librarian a comprehensive grasp of phonics instruction is imperative; how reading is attained through language skills, decoding and comprehension. It’s equally crucial for secondary school librarians as you will have students who are still learning to read although it will be necessary to ascertain whether they need support with decoding or have issues with reading fluency as the strategies used will be different. This knowledge could be useful CPD or ask to be involved in any phonics training within the school.

Emphasising the need for students to read widely, both within school and in their own time, is underscored as is the significance recognising themselves within books and identifying with characters. The guidance also suggest that teachers should introduce students to a diverse range of cultures and perspectives and not just choose the books they loved as children, noting that “stories might be the only place where they meet people whose social and cultural backgrounds and values differ from their own (p90).” This is a positive comment given the recent issues with book banning in the USA but as Open University (OU) research highlighted, the lack of up-to-date book awareness amongst teachers often results in gaps in their knowledge and this is a further aspect where the school librarian can help. As the specialist “book people” within schools, it’s an inherent part of the job to keep up-to-date with new books being published, both by popular and debut authors; what books are being made into films or TV series (so will be popular); genres that are being asked for; what’s being talked about on BookTok, etc. Armed with our specialised knowledge and practical experience we are equipped to ensure classroom libraries and book corners remain current, maintain updated reading lists and furnish recommendations for teaching staff yet too often the invaluable role of the school librarian is overlooked when books are discussed.

Once students have learnt to read successfully then they need to develop reading fluency - reading is a skill and, as with all skills, it needs practice: “reading a lot is the principal way pupils develop as readers (p19)”. This section covers both KS2 and KS3 with the guidance acknowledging that reading aloud, both of stories and for information across the curriculum, increases students’ experiences of reading fluency which has a positive impact. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as often as it should at secondary level - can you help by providing fiction books linked to curriculum topics, engaging book starts, relevant articles, short stories? And do you read aloud to your students in library lessons? I used to read to my lower literacy students, often traditional stories and myths that they’d not had as part of their reading culture growing up. They would sit in silence, transfixed – and I noticed that older students working in the library would take off their headphones to listen too. You’re never too old for a story!

I have to admit, I did wonder if whoever wrote the section on choosing and organising books had ever visited a school library. In primary libraries, it’s customary for books to be categorised into levelled bands or colours but the guidance notes that a different approach is taken by public libraries and bookshops. It also contains the rather perplexing suggestion that students should only be exposed to books that they can decode. What happens with those children who haven’t learnt to read yet? I’ve spent many hours reading to my children (and now, my grandchildren) using books that exceed their reading capabilities. While they haven’t grasped every nuance or inference, they’ve enjoyed the experience and their questions demonstrate an understanding of the story plus they’ve been exposed to language they may not encounter in everyday conversations. I’m a firm advocate for Free Voluntary Reading and find it hard to classify “Biff, Chip and the Magic Key” as reading for pleasure.

I’m not going to dwell on the suggestions for organising book stock as I find them rather haphazard. Phrases like “very short, short and long page-turners” appear quite puzzling. I assume these labels refer to gripping stories although that term is subjective; what I find gripping isn’t necessarily the same as what would grip others. Moreover, the organization of libraries to facilitate easy access for the school community is inherent in the role of librarians. What is interesting in this section is the mention that core book lists should be regularly refreshed and not set in stone – another aspect where the librarian can offer assistance – and that “every book must be worth reading or help pupils to put in the reading miles. Books that are unlikely to achieve either of these aims should be discarded” (p93). A good argument for weeding and getting rid of books that haven’t been borrowed for years, although I know from experience that often the minute I remove a book from the shelves, someone inevitable asks for that title the following week!

Section 8 labelled “Developing a Reading for Pleasure Culture” is the one most likely to be of interest to school librarians and also the one most likely to frustrate as it expands on the role of teachers as influencers and being the best promoters of books. Within my social media bubble are some amazing reading teachers with fantastic book knowledge but sadly this is not always the norm. I’ve been into too many schools where teachers have been responsible for library purchases and filled the shelves with the same old tired authors and I’ve also worked with secondary subject teachers who have stated that reading is not within their remit. I even once had an English teacher who routinely recommended the same book to every single student.

This section presents compelling evidence supporting library lessons and activities. It states reading should be a priority in all schools, that a strategic approach is needed to develop a Reading for Pleasure (RfP) culture with time to read, role modelling, engaging in book discussion and the sharing of reading experiences rather than just a few sporadic book-related events scattered across the school year. The inclusion of storytime in KS2 and KS3 is NOT an indulgence but a beneficial practice as it improves reading fluency and wellbeing although sadly many schools discontinue this practice once students are decoding proficiently. It also mentions the benefits of adults reading aloud, encouraging public library use, and library lessons being part of the timetable (separate from the English curriculum). A couple of points resonated with me. I was pleased to encounter the statement “Teachers should also be wary of restricting pupils to reading books from within one coloured level or band or labelling pupils as being on a specific colour” (p100) – this directly addresses the tendency for some schools who run reading programmes to confine students to reading materials within their level which can diminish reading motivation. Moreover, “reading time should never be used as a sanction” (p102) establishes a foundation; if you have students sent to the library for reading during detention (yes, it happens) you can now cite the guidelines for a more constructive approach.  Reading across the curriculum is not forgotten as it supports knowledge and vocabulary and it’s suggested that talk and discussion should form part of every lesson.

Concerning the leadership and management of reading, the guidelines clearly attribute this responsibility to the Headteacher although they acknowledge that in a secondary school this aspect may be given to a member of the SLT. The guidelines also bring in the role of the literacy lead that manages and supports the teaching of reading in both primary and secondary schools. I think it’s important to distinguish between the pedagogical teaching of reading and its broader aspects, most of which aren’t really covered in any depth; reading for pleasure, reading for information (with the necessary digital and information skills required to access and analyse texts); the cultivation of advanced reading skills such as skimming and scanning; and in-depth sustained reading necessary for exam subjects. As I said in the first paragraph, the guidance is for the teaching of reading.

This is only a brief look at the document but hopefully I’ve touched upon some areas that may be useful to school librarians. My take from it is:

·         Keep your staff, especially your SMT, well-informed about relevant research on the advantages and benefits of school libraries and reading;

·         Explore opportunities for CPD related to phonics teaching and how you can support students requiring additional help, particularly at KS3;

·         Collaborate with your SMT and appropriate staff (such as the literacy lead/literacy coordinator) to develop school-wide reading initiatives;

·         Offer teachers suggestions for enriching their classroom libraries with a diverse range of books, provide reading recommendations and keep book lists up-to-date;

·         Provide suggestions for reading aloud including fiction relating to the curriculum, relevant articles, extracts and short stories.

These guidelines present numerous opportunities for school librarians to showcase their value and offer support. Yet, in order to effectively provide the dynamic and diverse reading material that engages students, caters for evolving classroom libraries and furnishes resources for teachers to utilise, a sufficient budget is imperative to purchase such material in the first place. When considering your next funding proposal, consider linking it to these guidelines.