I like visiting schools but I really like visiting schools which have a book culture. Sadly, they’re not to be found everywhere but when discovered they stand apart. You notice it the moment you walk through the door – there’s something in the air, an intangible sense of excitement, a kind of atmosphere of expectation and maybe even of adventure.
Yes, there’s fun on the menu and that particular excited/whispered chatter because they know that an author’s in town but it’s deeper than that. The children have grown to enjoy reading and because they enjoy it they want to share, to talk, to endorse, to discover what’s next. And it’s not just the kids – the staff are the same and everyone tends to be happier because learning is enriched and accelerated and the resulting achievement is continuous.
OK, that’s a simplified, rosy summary but it’s something I have witnessed several times. I see things through the eyes of a former teacher and I know when commitment to RfP (reading for pleasure) is embedded and bearing fruit. So, how to get yourself one of these fancy book cultures, eh? Especially in your school situated in an area of multifaceted poverty and deep-seated parental non-involvement (or even distrust of reading). It’s not easy. OK, it’s like turning round an oil tanker with broken engines in rough rocky seas. But it can be done.
So here are my thoughts on how to do it, written for educators. They’re based on years of experience of teaching, observing, visiting schools (around the world), reading research and following inspirational practitioners. But most of all they are based on the things I have done myself working with kids, both as an author and in other roles. It’s not a series of teaching tips – it’s about profound, embedded transformation. It’s not really a manifesto either – I just like the word manifesto.
Laying the foundations for a reading culture
1. Read children’s books yourself
Wordbite: You can’t share what you don’t have
This is essential and underpins everything. Yes, I do know teachers are busy and don’t have time.
So why do it?
- It makes you knowledgeable in the realm of kidlit
- It qualifies you to recommend and read aloud from the astonishing breadth of children’s books and authors (as opposed to trotting out Mr Dahl year after year)
- It sets a powerful example: modelling is massive
- It fuels enthusiasm: puts books in your soul
a) Read a wide range of books. Everyone loves a quality novel but it isn’t only about those (foisting Dickens on me age 12 did a magnificent job of putting me off him for 30 years).
b) Your healthy reading diet should include non-fiction, poetry, picture books, graphic novels, humour (including joke books), short stories, TV/film tie-ins, retellings of myths & legends, miscellanies, magazines, comic books and even the odd puzzle/activity book. Why? Because there are many routes to reading and different children like different things. Simple.
c) Don’t feel you need to buy. Borrow books for free from your local library. If you aren’t a member then, well, how can you look yourself in the eye? This is where you will find a huge range of reading material, plus the invaluable advice of librarians. It’s the beating heart of the book advocate’s world. What is more, libraries are closing at an alarming rate (an easy target for mutilated councils) and the way to help protect them is to use them. Libraries are essential in effecting the ongoing transformation of book-captured children from deprived homes: they are engines of social mobility. Furthermore you can reserve sought books online in seconds. Win-win-win-win.
d) Let kids see you reading. Read when they read. Read at breaks. Have a book with you.
e) Read aloud every day. Make the time special.
2. Have books around
Wordbite: Get fully covered
This sounds obvious yet I have been in schools where I would need the skills of Lara Croft to unearth a decent book.
- If you have a school library, consider how well it is being used. Can you do more with it? Do you have a librarian who feels resourced and loved? Seek out creative and effective ideas from inspirational school librarians such as Tracey Needham, Jo Clarke, Tanya Efthymiou, Nikki Cleveland, Matt Imrie (all on Twitter) and the SLA.
- School libraries are wonderful but books should not only be found in the library.
- Ensure attractive, quality books of all kinds are in classrooms, on display, around the school and in your hand.
- Make it plain for everyone who enters that building that books are loved, valued, important, enjoyable, incredibly varied, beautiful, interesting, funny and essential.
- Talk about the books.
a) Books must not be there for show – they must be there for picking up and reading
b) Having books around throughout the school means they are always on hand to read, recommend, share, browse, reference for info/pics, inspire and generate valuable book-talk.
c) Research (proper in-depth, university-led, international, validated studies) shows that children who come from book-owning families – of all social classes – are not only more likely to read for enjoyment but to succeed academically. So create a book-rich environment in school.
Wordbite: share the lit-love
Enthusiasm is infectious, attractive, positive, engaging, refreshing and good for the world-weary worker. Because enthusiasm is catching, sharing enthusiasm for books doesn’t just work with children but with big hairy grownups too. I know it gets results because I deploy it ruthlessly – I love watching hard-faced tough guy Y6s (or older), long inoculated with cynicism and apathy, start to get excited about stories and facts.
- This can only follow from number one (i.e. having read a book): don’t tell me you’ve seen the film…
- Enthusiasm has to be genuine. It’s just too potent to fake.
- There is no secret to it – just be natural and distribute your delight
a) It does not matter that a significant portion of any audience will not enjoy a book as much as you – what counts is that they see that books can make a person happy.
b) Be aware that if you really big up a title, every child will want it. Plan for this.
c) Don’t pretend every book is great. There’s a fair bit of dross out there. If a book isn’t grabbing me after a handful of pages I don’t grab it. I move on quickly.
4. Get everyone on board
Wordbite: together we conquer
This is obvious yet remarkably difficult. Everyone in a school has their roles and commitments and interests. But if the head and senior management are fully behind the instituting of a book culture then it has a good chance of happening.
- Prioritising RfP need not replace other initiatives. It can underlie all the other things that a school needs to be doing.
- Where large numbers of children are reading, all sorts of benefits begin to accrue: improved academic performance; higher levels of concentration; the development of thinking skills; increased awareness; more empathy; the unlocking of imagination; lower levels of stress and worry, and more.
- Once a book culture is embedded it runs itself, fuelled by enjoyment and enthusiasm: teachers read, children read, books are freely available
- Getting parents on board is a big challenge and needs to be a long-term goal but if they see the benefits they will buy in.
- It pays to invest in an inspirational speaker to inform and fire up governors and parents as well as staff: someone who can explain what the research says, elucidate the benefits and summarise the essential strategies required to build a RfP ethos.
a) Make it fun
b) All staff should be encouraged to take up the role of book advocate
c) Learn from schools which have a reading culture: The District CE, Sacred Heart Barrow, Moorlands Norfolk, East Whitby Primary and Horfield CE are great places to start.
5. Budget for books
Wordbite: invest in the best
I know it’s a very bad time for school budgets (it affects me too – school author visits are a vital part of my income) but a book culture cannot be established without a certain level of commitment to spending on books.
- As more children read, the most popular books will become worn and will need to be replaced.
- New and exciting titles need to be added throughout the year to maintain the bookbuzz.
- Of course if your school has been hit by cuts and is losing staff then it’s hard to contemplate but you may be able to find alternative sources of funding (suggestions below).
a) If you want to prioritise RfP and establish a book culture then it may be a good idea to have a conversation about the relative value of spending on expensive IT equipment.
b) Books can be bought in packs from specialist suppliers to save money.
c) It’s worth seeking advice from experts such as SLA, Just Imagine, Marilyn Brocklehurst, Madeleine Lindley or your local school library service.
d) Use your SLS if you still have one – these people know books.
e) For funding try every kind of potential source, outlining your ambitions and rationale: PTA, grants, local Rotary Club/Lions/Soroptimists/Round Table; set up an appeal; crowd fund; try the Siobhan Dowd Trust and similar charities. Or find a way to use some Pupil Premium money.
6. Get authors in
Wordbite: go the write way
This applies to book illustrators too. Schools with a successful reading culture have an ongoing programme of author visits. They know that writers can change lives. I have a whole collection of letters, emails, tweets, messages and cards from teachers, heads, parents and children. These are some of the most treasured things I possess because they tell of joy and pleasure and fun and inspiration but they also describe how individual children became readers and set themselves on the road to achievement and opportunity. You can read some of these here.
- A great author visit is the ideal way to kick-start a programme of RfP plans: there’s an electricity in school which can capture even the most reluctant children.
- Ensure that you check out what authors/illustrators are prepared and able to do in a day before booking them (asking for 7 sessions because you have 7 classes may not be the best starting point!)
- Seek recommendations from other schools.
a) If possible, find an author who can inspire across the widest age range so that all children in school are excited and motivated to pick up a book.
b) Try to avoid World Book Day week. Not only has it become something of a circus with the dressing up issue but for many schools it has lost its impact because it is just another established day in the school calendar. Furthermore, the best authors are booked for years in advance for these dates and so many schools end up with a writer who is less appropriate in terms of what they are trying to achieve.
c) Use funding ideas mentioned in number 5 to help pay for the visit. See my blog post mentioned above for reasons as to why it’s worth spending the money on an author.
e) Discuss with the author the best way to prepare for the day to make the most of the visit. There are some basic pointers here.
f) Consider a Patron of Reading.
7. Establish good habits
Wordbite: Join the big book club
When school staff value and enjoy being book advocates then wonderful things can happen.
- Good RfP habits take time to grow and will hopefully naturally develop as teachers and support staff read more children’s books and share their particular favourites.
- There is a whole community of supportive people and organisations committed to promoting reading for pleasure and who frequently share smart ideas, good practice, recommendations for reads and, most importantly, help to maintain enthusiasm, the life-blood of a book culture (suggestions below).
- Do everything you can to get families registering for the Summer Reading Challenge and other shared book experiences.
a) Sign up to hear about events such as conferences from key organisations including BookTrust, The National Literacy Trust, FCBG, The Reading Agency, Seven Stories, Reading Rocks, Beanstalk and the OUP’s nattily titled Research Rich Pedagogy.
b) There are many wonderful RfP advocates to follow on Twitter and other platforms: authors SF Said, Dawn Finch, Michael Rosen, Cressida Cowell, Tom Palmer, Chris Riddell and Brian Moses for starters; teachers/heads Jon Biddle, Sue Wilsher, Simon Smith, Heather Wright (Reading Rocks), Scott Evans, Ashley Booth; bloggers/school librarians BookloverJo, Library Girl and Book Boy, Acorn books, Library Mice, The Book Activist, Zoe Toft, Minerva Reads and many others [please add suggestions by commenting]. Do follow me on Twitter as well!
c) Join the excellent Facebook group Reading for Pleasure in Schools, run by the amazing Jon Biddle, who also oversees Patron of Reading and is involved in so many superb RfP initiatives. This group is a very good source of ideas, recommendations, solutions to problems, people to follow, effective strategies and more. Post a RfP question and get answers from teachers, librarians, authors and people in the know!
d) There are many other good habits to establish: go to book festivals; support independent bookshops; get to conferences; ask local authority advisers for network days centred on RfP, visit schools who have a working book culture and see what they do.
Of course I have missed lots of things out, so please make suggestions via comments.
Attempting all of the above is a big challenge and it takes time, commitment, money and passion. Schools have a million other priorities, I get that. But if you can get your children reading books because they love reading books then, in a world full of bad, you have done a beautiful thing.