April 13, 2021

The transition from primary school to a secondary setting is a milestone in every young person’s life. In addition to new routines like reliably packing a school bag and perhaps travelling independently to school, there is also an increased emphasis on academic results. But what happens to the focus on reading around that time?

During Key Stages 1 and 2, pupils learn the skills to decode and read phonetically – but after that’s achieved, parental input often takes a step back. The tradition of a bedtime story can fall by the wayside. It is during Key Stage 3 that students with access to a broad and current library collection can really learn to love reading and firmly establish it into their daily routines. Pre-teens are the formative years for young people to become readers proper, and of their own accord.

Surveys show us that the time spent reading for pleasure decreases when children start at secondary school. However, OECD research also tells us that reading is the most important indicator of educational success in a child.

This means that, regardless of a child’s circumstances and their familial lifestyle – for example, whether their parents went to university or left school at 15, whether they live in a tower block or a gated residence, own a yacht or use public transport… reading is a great leveller. It can give students the edge on those all-important results. It is how we understand each other and the world around us. Every leader is a reader. It is powerful stuff.

Reading activates the areas of the brain responsible for increasing emotional intelligence and empathy. As many parents will attest, teenagers can seem to lean more towards apathy than empathy. The global Covid pandemic means empathy is needed now more than ever.

Year 7 2020-2021 – the lost year?

Year 7 is such a special time. Friendships can be made for life and students can be malleable and keen. School librarians are in a unique position, often knowing all students as they progress through the school from their KS3 timetabled library lessons. But Covid-related school closures have had an impact. Many schools have closed their school libraries to avoid the spread of the contagion on surfaces. Books with plastic jackets need to be quarantined for three days between users – a logistical headache for library staff. Some schools are running Click and Deliver services, but browsing, an important information retrieval skill, is lost. Our local schools’ book award was cancelled due to the logistical problems caused by national school closures in early 2021. So that opportunity for book chatter was lost. “We don’t know the Year 7s” is a common refrain amongst school librarians now.

With lockdown guidelines discouraging taking children to the supermarket unless unavoidable, even exposure to (mostly) celebrity authors is limited. The Guardian recently reported that supermarkets, which usually only have just one shelf for children’s books, accounted for 16% of all children’s book sales in 2019.

Public libraries’ reduced opening hours even in a pre-Covid world mean that libraries may no longer be a go-to place for young people when they need to find things out. I recall running errands in town one lunchtime with my then toddler and then waiting for the library to open its doors for the first time that day – at 2pm on a Friday. I knew it was worth waiting for because my parents took me regularly as a child. But without that experience, would I know to hang around? Having said that, Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera dedicates his latest book to his father, who although illiterate himself, took his son to the local public library fortnightly.

With this literary isolation, how will our young people know which kind of reader they are? Do they prefer the escapism of dystopia or the gritty reality of representation where they see their themselves on the page?

And do our lifestyles encourage reading for pleasure? Teenagers know that screen time close to bedtime is not a good thing, but are we forceful enough in encouraging reading as an alternative? During the first lockdown of 2020, J.K. Rowling published a new chapter of her fairy tale Ickabog each day, free and online (check out the hard copy for the amazing illustrations submitted by children around the world as they interpreted the characters in pictures). This was a nice way for me and my then 11-year-old to connect after a day of balancing working from home and home-schooling. But if you work long hours, shifts, or have to work outside of the home, it’s hard to make the time. Plus, there’s the belief that once children are out of primary school, such quality time is neither expected nor a necessity.

What can educators do?

During library lessons we use Renaissance’s suite of products to keep the momentum up and provide structure to our lessons. Each term, students take a Star Reading test. This identifies students who have a reading age below their chronological age, so we can target intervention. It will also identify our high performing students, so we can provide them with stretch by recommending richer language literature to them.

The results of Star Reading tests are not totally proscriptive because a broad range of reading is recommended. So, if – as often happens – a child wants to read a book from home which is outside of their reading range, we can support them with reading that, because Renaissance advise 60% of reading is within the assessed range.

We set targets to help students build up the stamina to finish a longer book. Targets can also help students manage the progression from celebrity author to something more highbrow. Diagnostic reports can be circulated to parents to explain their child’s attainment and progress and what can be done to support them from home.

The Accelerated Reader (AR) programme has quizzes for over 38,000 books, so the bulk of any secondary school library collection will be quizzable. AR provides at-a-glance data, so we can easily see who is reading and passing quizzes, and more importantly, who is reading but perhaps not passing quizzes i.e. not understanding what they are reading. AR quizzing tests understanding, not memory.

Rewards are important too. The plasma screen in our library gives recognition to students who have read one million words (that’s roughly equivalent to the seven Harry Potter books). We also reward readers who would struggle to read that many words but have passed the most quizzes in their year group: perhaps by reading several quick reads. Students run in to see their name in lights on the digital league tables. A “Get Caught Reading in the Library” raffle ticket is given to students who are spotted at break or at lunch engrossed in a book. Names picked out of a hat attend a party to celebrate reading, with edible book covers for cake toppers and music from films based on books performed by our very own students.

The Home Connect function on AR alerts parents to their child’s successes and provides a nice visual representation of the books their child has read. For students with English as an Additional Language, the myON resource has a useful read-along sound function, which is particularly valuable during periods of remote learning.

We ask students to think mindfully about their lesson dedicated to reading by explaining that reading for pleasure is something which many group-ups would love to indulge in during the middle of their working day.

Penny Joelson, author of three unputdownable YA thrillers and mysteries, says:

“I know teenagers are hard to engage and I try to make my books very engaging and accessible to grab readers and keep them hooked. Saying that, although an avid reader at primary age, I read little in my teens. I found the transition to adult books really hard and there wasn’t YA [when I was growing up].

“I’d have really valued a librarian who might have guided my choices. I think help to find the ‘right book’ for that Year 7 child can make a big difference. If any students who don’t like reading or can’t find a book they like got a 1:1 with a school librarian, that could make a big difference. I imagine readers have read avidly in lockdown and those who are not book lovers have not read at all, though audio books may be engaging more.”

The launch party for Penny’s latest book, Things The Eyes Can’t See, took place online, and I enjoyed the unusual experience of meeting both her young children and overseas parents in a Zoom breakout group from the comfort of my pre-teen’s bedroom – something that definitely would not have happened in pre-Covid times.

Where do we go from here?

Competition for young people’s time is fierce. They have infinite entertainment in the device in the palm of their hand. I am a Kindle convert, and one of my New Year’s resolutions was to recognise when I was spending too long mindlessly scrolling through social media, and instead switch to the Kindle app on my mobile phone. This allows me to seamlessly continue my reading as it niftily syncs to the last page I read on my Paperwhite Kindle the night before. We encourage our students to use our preferred e-book platform from any device they have access to.

It is such an exciting time for young adult literature, with new voices being represented all the time. There is something for everyone to relate to or escape to. I recently asked colleagues and students to imagine they had woken up in the setting of the book they are currently reading. The point was to illustrate how books can take us to far-flung places in history, the present day, or the future. And all regardless of any Covid-related restrictions currently in place on our movement.

Growing up, my secondary school library was often locked. Decades later, there is still no statutory requirement to have a school library, although they are, of course, mandatory in prisons. The writer Jacob Ross notes that reading is the only mode of communication which engages three faculties at the same time: the rational, the emotional and the imaginative.  So, it is definitely more valuable than an evening spent in front of Netflix.

There will be much work to be done to draw young people back into the realm of reading.  Like exercise, young people may struggle to want or make time to pick up a book: however, they’re guaranteed to feel better afterwards.

It’s all about routine and helping young people to manage their time and priorities.  As ever, educators and families alike will need to share this responsibility.

Roshan Hunt is the Head of Library at a state secondary school in North Hertfordshire.

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