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Considerations of the whole-school reading environment when redesigning the English curriculum

Written by: Natasha Crellin
7 min read
Natasha Crellin, Headteacher, The Hill Primary School, UK

Ofsted’s changes to the inspection framework in 2019 prompted schools to consider and refine their curriculum offer. Within our mainstream maintained primary school, the development of our English curriculum led us to reflect on the whole-school reading environment and the impact of this on our pupils’ interaction with books at school. When we looked at our whole-school reading environment, we realised that the books and resources available to pupils were poorly presented and often in a shoddy state. Our library was crammed with damaged books in which pupils were not interested. The library was underused, and no other areas of the school could be described as a positive reading environment. 

Research on school libraries suggests that effective school libraries have a direct contribution to academic achievement (Lance, 2007) and that strong libraries lead to higher student achievement, regardless of socioeconomic or educational levels (Lonsdale, 2003). 

After considering research about the importance of libraries and a whole-school reading environment from these authors, we created a two-year development plan, which focused on enhancing the reading environment throughout the school. The key areas for development were:

  • improving the library
  • developing classroom book corners
  • purchasing software to support pupils’ independence in accessing books
  • creating leadership opportunities for pupils to run and manage the library as librarians.

 

This was part of the larger task of the English curriculum redesign, and our aim was to make books, and reading, the central part of the school environment, ensuring that reading materials were readily accessible to pupils, with a large variety of resources that would interest and inspire readers of all ages in the school.

Research indicated that if pupils are not confident readers, they would not be able to access other areas of school life (Lonsdale, 2003). We identified many aspects of our English curriculum that needed development, including the planning, phonics and book resources, and the reading spine. However, it was clear that the first place in which we needed to start was the reading environment. 

We were mindful that for any initiative to have an impact, it needed to be supported and driven by the leadership team. Reviews on school leadership, such as those led by the Education Development Trust, suggest that headteachers are central to school improvement (Day and Sammons, 2016). BookTrust suggests that leadership is an extremely important criterion in contributing to the success of school libraries (Greenwood et al., 2008). In reflection of this, the headteacher became the link between the stakeholders who needed to drive the project, and took responsibility for making sure that the project had the resourcing that it needed for implementation.

The school has a large space for the library but it was tired, overstocked and unkempt. Software to borrow books worked only intermittently. The books on offer, both through the structured reading scheme and free-to-choose, interest-led books, were poor quality. Pupils were accessing books that no longer reflected correct scientific information, that were no longer culturally significant or that represented dated stereotypes. Some books were torn or had pages missing. Many of the books had been repaired several times, and there was little evidence of books that supported topics on diversity. We developed a statement that reflected our aims with the reading curriculum and environment. Staff contributed to this statement in CPD sessions aimed at making reading central to the English curriculum. This statement reflected our school values and centred on providing a reading environment that offered children a chance to be immersed in books that presented a variety of issues, including differing cultures, race, socioeconomic status, disability and other social issues. In this way, the statement reflected the school’s aspirations to use books to support and challenge children’s thinking about the world around them. 

The school has a strong, well-supported PTA. The fundraising efforts allowed us to redesign and restock our tired library. We invested in wall art and furniture that reflected the school motto and had a dramatic impact on the library environment. Alongside this, a cull of the book stock allowed us to focus on book presentation, ensuring that the books on offer were high quality. Books that were over 10 years old or damaged were removed, with the exception of some classics. BookTrust (2021) suggests getting rid of old books, tired books and books that are past their best. We aimed for many more titles to be displayed with the cover facing outwards, which ended up being a game-changer in terms of catching the eye of pupils as they browse. This could only be done by reducing our book stock. The bookshelves that we bought were low enough to ensure that all shelves could be reached by all age groups, meaning that no book was beyond the grasp of any pupil. 

We used a simplified Dewey system, meaning that pupils could understand where to find books that interested them. Being a primary school, our youngest library users are four years old, so the simplification involved removing the decimal number classification and using a wider, more specific classification, such as ‘Science-500-700.’ Three general areas were created, including older fiction, younger fiction and fact. 

We purchased furniture that reflected how young pupils enjoyed books, with a focus on reading while lying stretched out and in a relaxed manner. Tables and chairs were removed and replaced with cushions, beanbags and informal tiered structures. Plants added visual interest and natural woven baskets were put on the floor to hold non-book reading items, such as comics. 

Librarians from Year 6 were recruited and trained and were solely responsible for the running of the library. Their tasks include:

  • returning books to the shelves and ensuring that book presentation is attractive
  • using the borrowing software, including the cataloguing of new stock
  • opening the library at lunchtimes and supporting pupils with their book choices
  • writing book reviews to display beside books
  • monitoring the ‘Suggestions’ box and telling the headteacher which books children want in the library
  • fixing or removing damaged books
  • watering the plants.

 

We considered it essential to have the pupils running the library, as student librarians are a critical success factor in the best libraries (Greenwood et al., 2008). The role of librarian was seen as a prestigious leadership responsibility, and younger pupils began to consider this an aspirational role for which they would aim when they became Year 6 pupils. Librarians had to apply for the role, submitting an application form that detailed why they would be good at working in a library and why it was important to promote reading throughout the school. Librarians began to extend their duties themselves as they became more immersed in the job, and this year they have supported key events like bookfairs, produced book reviews for the library and run reading and writing competitions.

Alongside the development of the main library, teachers were asked to develop class book corners in classrooms as mini-libraries. These contained fact, fiction and poetry books and the theme was chosen by the teacher to represent the age and interests of their class. The class libraries contain copies of texts used in class and texts that expand on topic work covered in subjects such as history, geography and art. 

Other events that linked to the development of the reading environment were held. These included:

  • making links with the local bookstore, who offered a discount to families of the school
  • making recordings of teachers reading stories that pupils could access on our homework platform (virtual) 
  • book-swap bookshelves for pupils on the playground
  • staff book-swap bookshelf in the staffroom 
  • termly bookfairs in the library.

 

The reading environment is still under development but the impact is starting, evidenced in attitudes to the library. Pupils have asked for reading dens in the playground to allow them to access books during their breaktimes. There is much more discourse around reading from pupils, and they actively seek out people with whom to discuss book choices, different authors and the quality of books.

Data taken from pupil surveys conducted before and after the environment was developed show a change in attitude towards the library (Table 1). The same survey was conducted twice. Children were asked to respond to the multiple-choice questions at home with their parents. 

Table 1: Attitudes towards the library before and after improvements
Before improvements After improvements
How often did you borrow a book from the library?
Weekly 17% 78%
Monthly 24% 12%
Every few months 27% 7%
Never 30% 3%
How much do you enjoy using the library?
Not much 4% 1%
It’s okay 37% 13%
I like it 37% 34%
I love it 19% 52%
How many times a week do you visit the library?
0 times 33% 0%
1–2 times 66% 94%
3 times or more 1% 6%

Giving pupils ownership of the library improved the confidence of these pupils, as they developed leadership skills and contributed positively and meaningfully to the whole school. This had the overall impact of raising the profile of the library and reading throughout the school. Librarians became sought out by other pupils on the playground to help them with book choices and ideas for what to read next. 

Developing the whole-school reading environment alongside the redesign of the English curriculum has had a marked impact on pupils and their use of the library. It has also been instrumental in getting staff to reflect on the importance of the learning environment to support learning objectives in lessons. Pupils are leading the use of the library and other reading areas throughout the school, such as class book corners. It has become clear to us that the reading environment plays an essential role in supporting reading development and is an essential component of our redesigned English curriculum. 

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