Earlier this year, Adam Lancaster, former assistant headteacher and SLA School Librarian of the Year 2012/13, was interviewed by Education Today to discuss the importance of instilling a love of reading in children and how using the Impact Through Reading programme and Micro Librarian System can help with raising literacy levels.
Tell us about your school
Monk’s Walk School is based in Hertfordshire and has around 1350 girls and boys aged 11 to 18 on roll, with the number of students eligible for free school meals, pupil premium or having special educational needs below the national average. The school became an academy in 2012 and has an ambitious school improvement plan which aims, amongst other things, to enhance the visibility of literacy development in the classroom. In its last Ofsted report, the school was rated ‘good’ with reading and literacy rated ‘outstanding’.
What inspired you to create Impact Through Reading?
We have always worked hard to support our students’ reading by finding out as much as we could about their interests, motivations and abilities to recommend appealing books. Collating information on the topics individual students are interested in was the best way to demonstrate more widely how the right book selection can turn even the most reluctant student into an avid reader with ever improving abilities, and show the impact a well-used library can have on a child. We previously didn’t have a system in place where we could record this information or prove it was effective, and I wanted to change this.
Over time, lots of spreadsheets morphed into the first version of Impact Through Reading. It’s a unique tool that focuses attention on the individuality of students, allowing us to really understand what inspires them and how to stimulate a life-long love of reading.
Can you tell us how it works?
It starts with children taking an online survey in September, which asks questions around their hobbies and pastimes outside of school and their attitude to reading. Examples of questions might be; how often do you read, do you enjoy reading, what is your favourite genre, do you enjoy playing computer games? These responses are built into a profile for each student, including a diagnostic attitude to reading statement and a series of data reports for teachers. Correlated with reading and spelling age tests, the tool can help librarians and teachers eliminate any barriers that might be stifling a child’s enjoyment of reading. Teachers can use the information to tailor learning in class and there is also supporting information for parents to help with their child’s reading at home.
As the survey is embedded into the Reading Cloud school library management system, results can be analysed to see which suitable resources are in stock. For example, a reluctant reader might like to read a book based on their love of hockey, especially if it doesn’t stretch their reading too much. When the child next logs onto the library system, they will see an available list of their personalised recommendations, including books about hockey, and can chose what they want to read.
What effect do low literacy rates have on schools?
Schools face many pressures, the most important of which is ensuring children fulfil their potential – and literacy skills are key to a child achieving their learning goals.
Without good phonics, decoding and comprehension, children are automatically on the back foot by the time they start secondary school. Year 7 is when we want to introduce students to more advanced forms of literacy – more challenging concepts, critical thinking – and it is a much harder job for staff and children if the basics aren’t firmly in place. Gaps need to be quickly identified and addressed, otherwise we run the risk of children falling behind and even disengaging from school. This can have a major impact on children’s achievement by the end of Year 11.
How does improving literacy help pupils in other academic areas?
I think most teachers would agree that literacy is the first building block to success in all areas of the curriculum. At the most basic level, if a child can’t read well, they could struggle with their school work and learning across every subject, not to mention the impact on their confidence and self-esteem. At secondary level, literacy proficiency gives children the platform to develop a broad and subject specific vocabulary – selecting the right words to meaningfully express a specific point in an English essay, for example, or preparing a scientific report with the appropriate terminology. This all helps them to achieve all they are capable of. We are trying to ensure our students are able to find meaningful work in the future, and that they have plenty of opportunities open to them. Helping them to develop a joy of reading can only support this.
However, it’s really important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that good literacy is a skill forever, not just for school. Reading for pleasure builds empathy, broadens minds and can be hugely inspiring at all ages – it is the gift that keeps on giving.
How has Impact Through Reading improved outcomes in the school?
There have been improvements in reading ages across Key Stage 3. We have seen children who started school with literacy levels two years below their chronological age make up to 15 months of progress in just eight months. As we share strategies for improving literacy with teachers, and not just English teachers, learning is constantly personalised and barriers to reading are continually being chipped away.
We have used Impact Through Reading for six years in our school and have seen a corresponding upturn in our English GCSE results. This is, of course, testament to the quality of teaching, but the fact we are all able to work together, reinforcing the same strategies across lesson time and in one-to-one sessions, plays a part.
How have the children taken to it?
It has been a huge hit with the children, who take great enjoyment from completing an online quiz all about them. When boys can often trail behind girls at reading, it is a good way of levelling the playing field and opening up a world of literacy for even the most unenthusiastic teenager. I have long been a passionate advocate of the importance of libraries and the amazing work many librarians do. It is wonderful to see a child who has previously been unmotivated to read rush in, enthusing about a book they have just read from the library and desperate to choose their next one. Hearing children talk about how their improved reading is helping them to participate more in class is also intensely gratifying.
What do teachers think of it?
The feedback from teachers across our school has been very positive. It has encouraged all departments to get involved and adopt similar strategies to boosting literacy skills, which makes for a very streamlined approach for our students. Impact Through Reading is a simple and straightforward way of gleaning information that helps teachers do their jobs. It’s the equivalent of turning a weekly timetable of 25 lessons into 25 hours of reading reinforcement. And that can only spark an upwards spiral across the curriculum.
What advice would you offer to other schools looking to improve literacy rates?
The first step is understanding why a young person struggles to read, and then ensuring the focus is on enjoyment.
The experience for some children is a constant ‘stop-start’ when reading as they attempt to decode difficult words. The key to breaking this cycle is to focus on the fun and embed reading as a good habit, in schools and at home. Frequency, quantity and complexity of reading can be slowly built up, but if you get the fun part right from the start, the rest will follow.