School libraries supporting literacy

By Stephanie Ellis

Steph Ellis, librarian at Napier Boys’ High School, shares a range of library programs to promote a reading culture and increase literacy skills in schools.

Makerspaces. Innovative learning environments. Online communities. Augmented realities. Digital citizenship. In these times of rapidly changing technologies, increasing amounts of information, and often futile attempts to keep up with the latest trends in school librarianship, it is sometimes handy to be reminded that the core business of a school library is literacy.

A growing body of international evidence shows the significant impact that a school library can make on student achievement. However, simply having a building that is dedicated to the usual library resources is not enough; that building must be adequately staffed by librarians who can implement effective school library programs. These programs may aim to increase student knowledge of and skills in information and digital literacies, though it is important to remember that reading literacy underpins all of this. After all, despite the proliferation of digital devices in schools, our students still require the skills to function in a text-based society.

A refocus on literacy is exactly what happened at the School Library Network meeting facilitated by the National Library of New Zealand in Hawke's Bay earlier in 2016. Participants at the network meeting were asked to share an activity or strategy that they have used in their schools to promote literacy. This exercise exposed attendees to a number of new ideas, and they were issued with the challenge of implementing at least one of them before they met again.

The literacy strategies shared are all ‘doable’. For the most part they do not require a significant investment of budget or time, and many allow for one of the key factors in effective library programming: teacher collaboration.

Below is a summary of the activities and strategies that were shared.

How school libraries can support literacy

Woman sitting in a library reading a book

Book of the week

Promote a selected book either using your library management system, or by making a quick and easy-to-change display.

Create a reading environment

This could be as simple as changing shelving to create more eye-catching arrangements, or as a long-term option, by investing in more suitable furniture to create fun reading spaces for students.

Set up book talks

Talk to classes about new books, favourite books, or books on a particular theme. Five to six books per session will work best, and these books will almost always be issued afterward.

Know your book stock and your students

It is much easier to match students to appropriate or appealing books if you have a good understanding of both. This is not a quick-fix strategy, but it is one of the most rewarding.

Use the library TV

Display book trailers, or, even better, create videos of teachers or students talking about good books they have read. This will help to create a reading community in your school, and students will see that teachers are readers, too.

Create a summer reading program

Many school libraries insist that all books are returned at the end of the year, only to lock them up for the summer break. Why? Consider letting the students borrow books over the holidays. They will love you for it.

Buy student-recommended titles

Ask students to make recommendations, especially reluctant readers. This helps give your students ownership of the library.

Host themed library nights

Invite students and their parents along to a themed night at the library where they can participate in activities. Examples include genre themes such as action or fantasy.

Build a reading tree

One primary school commissioned a Year 13 student from a local high school to design and build a wooden tree. Paper leaves were then hung from the tree when students finished reading a book. Not only was this a great display and a great way to promote reading, the students also liked to sit under it and read — just as under a real tree.

Create shelf reviews

Bookshops have some wonderful ideas to promote titles, and we should consider adopting some of their strategies. Shelf reviews don’t need to be long, and can be placed right beside the relevant book so that it is easy to find.

Set up forward-facing book displays

This is another bookshop strategy that is so simple and works wonders. If you don’t have enough space for forward-facing displays, you can weed your collection. Nothing is more daunting (or boring) to reluctant readers than rows and rows of spines.

In these times of rapidly changing technologies and increasing amounts of information, it is sometimes handy to be reminded that the core business of a school library is literacy.

Host a book quiz

. . . but call it something cool, like ‘Battle of the Books’. Lots of kids love competition, so why not make reading a competitive sport?

Display books in classroom windows

One school runs a whole-school read aloud time after interval every day. Teachers put a book that they are going to read in their classroom window, and students can then ‘shop’ around for which book they would like to hear. This would be a great idea for Book Week if you want to sample it on a smaller scale. Students get to hear different teachers read, and teachers will soon get a gauge on whether they are picking the ‘right’ books — or whether their read aloud skills are up to scratch.

Create a reading wall

This is an idea adapted from Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Use a door or a wall to show what you have read, what you are reading, and what you’re thinking about reading next. The idea is to promote discussion with students and they get to see you as a reader, too. Students will love to recommend which book you should read next.

Set yourself a reading challenge

Try to be more creative than setting a numerical goal. Display your challenge for your community to see so that they can help to monitor your progress. Again, this can start lots of conversations with students and teachers, and reminds students that even experienced readers can be challenged. Ideas for challenges include: reading a stack of books as tall as you (or a local sports hero); reading around the world; reading banned books or the classics; reading through the alphabet; or play reading bingo.

Show your community as readers

As students leave the library, take a photo of them holding the book/s they have checked out. Display these pictures on your library’s TV, and students will see themselves and others as readers. This will also provide recommendations for other students and promote discussion.

Offer ‘blind dates’ with books

Shield the covers of five to six books, assign a number to each, and hold book talks about them. Students can enter a draw by writing their name and the number of the book they are interested in on paper. Entries are drawn until all the books have been claimed. This adds mystery and competition to the usual book talk. It also means that students aren’t able to select books based on the book cover, and allows them to read outside their comfort zone.

What else can library staff do?

Of course, school librarians can also support literacy in the day-to-day running of their libraries. Special events or activities such as these are not the only way to champion reading and readers. By taking stock of your library’s services through the eyes of your students, you can make changes to encourage even the most reluctant readers.

It could be as simple as checking that you still enjoy working with young people. Being friendly and welcoming to all students and teaching staff has a big impact on how they feel about the library and what’s inside it. It could involve a bigger review of library policies and procedures, and thinking about whether the ‘rules’ are there to support literacy. For example, low borrowing limits and strict overdue policies discourage both keen and reluctant readers. So who are they really for?

While we still live in a text-based world, the focus of the school library should continue to be on literacy. There are numerous events and activities of varying scale and impact that you can use to promote reading literacy and the library’s contribution to it. Some of the most wide reaching ideas involve staff collaboration, which can help to develop a wholeschool reading culture. As well as these special displays and events, the policies, practices, and attitudes of the library can help to support student literacy. By welcoming students into the library space and removing barriers to their library use, we can encourage borrowing and help to develop positive attitudes that could extend to lifelong library use.

This article is an extension of a blog post written for A Thoughtful Spot to Rest. There you will find attributions for the literacy strategies shared. Because school librarians are such a creative and collaborative bunch, if you have ideas you would like to add to ours, please leave a comment on the blog or tweet me: @StephEllisNZ. Attribution will be given.

Image credits:

© Nicole Richardson.

Stephanie Ellis

Stephanie Ellis


Napier Boys' High School, NZ

After 12 years of classroom teaching, Stephanie Ellis realised that all the fun was happening in the school library. She has now spent nearly six years in the library at Napier Boys’ High School and still thinks it’s the place to be. As well as being slightly addicted to learning new things, Steph loves to have adventures – whether they are in the pages of a book or in the great outdoors.