How to Promote a Reading Culture in Schools

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Reading transcends class, race, age, and gender. It’s a free magic carpet ride to anywhere on Earth (or beyond), at any point in time. Every child, regardless of age or ability, deserves to be able to access the written word. Readers who go on to develop a life-long love of literature not only decode, segment, and blend with ease, they have a genuine adoration for the power of prose. In order to stimulate a lasting love of reading, it’s crucial that we build a strong reading culture in schools.

In this article, we’ll be addressing the question: what is a reading culture? We’ll also look at the importance of creating a reading culture in schools, and the innumerable benefits it brings. Finally, we’ll end by outlining how you can promote a reading culture in just 15 steps.

Whatever your role may be, headteacher, head of department, literacy lead, classroom teacher, governor, or budding reading champion, read on to discover how to promote an effective and impactful reading culture in your school.

Children listening to the teacher reading a book to the class

What is a Reading Culture?

A reading culture is an environment where reading is championed, valued, respected, and encouraged. Reading lies at the heart of the curriculum, and it’s of the utmost importance to a child’s personal, social, and academic success, as well as their general wellbeing.

Creating a reading culture should not be the responsibility of an individual. It takes dedication, perseverance, and effort. It’s led by an enthusiastic and dedicated senior leadership team and advocated by every pupil, parent, carer, and staff member in the school community.

In a report commissioned by the National Literacy Trust, research indicates that “if reading is to become a lifelong habit, then people must see themselves as participants in a community that views reading as a significant and enjoyable activity. Parents and the home environment are essential in fostering a love of reading.”

A reading culture takes more than quality-first teaching. Where a reading culture exists, children read of their own free will, on a regular basis. Students select their own reading material, at a time and place of their choosing. They are willing and active participants, who anticipate the satisfaction they’ll get from picking up a book.

To make sure children don’t experience reading difficulty and demotivation, we should ensure students become fluent and engaged readers from an early age. Creating a reading culture where students are disaffected, hold negative attitudes, and whose reading ages are well below chronological, can be challenging, but not impossible.

Reading a book in school

Why are Reading Cultures Important in Schools?

People cannot be active or informed citizens unless they can read. Reading is a prerequisite for almost all cultural and social activities.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2003)

Building a strong reading culture puts reading at the forefront of school improvement. A creative and exciting reading culture not only breeds capable and committed readers, but also boosts wellbeing, community connectedness, and student outcomes.

In a recent report from The Department for Education, Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, states that reading is “the key to unlocking the rest of the academic curriculum.”

Children will need high levels of literacy in so many aspects of their lives. Everywhere children look, there’s a sea of information for them to digest – in school, at home, on public transport, on the roads, and on digital technology interfaces. Not only is reading required for success in future employment, but an ability to read will also help children in future relationships, when running a household, and when navigating all aspects of their personal lives.

We know that reading fluency is a strong indicator for achievement in further education, higher education, and future employment. The government acknowledges that reading can achieve something teachers and policymakers have been trying to attain for years: to lessen, or even eradicate, the impact of early life disadvantage.

In short, only competent readers will be able to access the wonders of the curriculum and thus improve their life chances.

School children reading in the library

How to Build and Promote a Strong Reading Culture

1. Live and Breathe Literature

Place reading at the core of your school’s improvement plan. Headteachers should actively prioritize reading. Their aim should be for every student to become a fluent, and motivated reader.

Create a mission statement that will drive future agendas, targets, and personal development plans. Make sure the language used is accessible for everyone in the school community to follow, including pupils. Give prominence to this statement on displays throughout the school.

2. Spark Curiosity Within the School Environment

Create vibrant displays and unique installations which celebrate a love of all things reading. Think a bubbling cauldron in KS3, with Macbeth quotes hanging from the ceiling, or a school book tree in reception, filled with reviews and recommendations.

Place key words throughout the building, and accompany them with visual stimulus. For example, an equipment display of the main items students use in physical education, with the name of each apparatus clearly labelled on each item.

Create reading nooks throughout the school, where pupils can escape from the world, and sit and read their favourite book.

A young child reading a book

3. Keep Talking

Build a language-rich environment where adults talk with children regularly throughout the day, and where students are given opportunities to get involved in a variety of conversations. This will boost their vocabulary awareness, and support them with their comprehension.

Where possible, feature prose in every assembly and form time session. Read stories or extracts of texts in assemblies. Ask staff to share their favourite poem, or character description. Similarly, invite children to share a text which they find inspiring.

4. Make your Library Space Magical

Transform your school library space to make sure it’s creative, engaging, and welcoming to all. Fill it with colourful displays, and comfy seating. Yes, a brand-new library can be a costly investment, but a re-design doesn’t have to cost the Earth. See if any local businesses would be prepared to partner with you in the process, or donate materials. Equally, consider enlisting the help of local college students, or willing parent volunteers to help with the painting.

Make sure every child is timetabled in the library, ideally once a week, so that they can renew books regularly. Host library inductions to inform children how to use the library safely and respectfully. Once the library is complete, ask older students to run lunch time story clubs, and ask for volunteer library helpers to restock shelves, and keep the room neat and tidy.

A young child reading a book

5. Run DEAR

DEAR, or Drop Everything And Read, is a daily designated reading programme. Run on a rolling rota, DEAR gives every child 15-minutes every day to just sit and read, in a quiet, calm environment conducive to reading. Everyone in the school community should drop everything and get involved, from the head teacher to the caretaker. Through DEAR, reading becomes a habitual and consistent act.

6. Host Guest Speakers and Organise Trips

Memorable experiences can deeper learning, so give your students the opportunity to get out and about on as many curriculum-linked school trips as possible. Think The Imperial War Museum, a forest, a National Trust property, or the local farm. Where possible, let the children hear extracts of the text whilst on location. Immerse them in the narrative.

Similarly, invite guest speakers to come in and talk to the children about their texts. Schools might not have the money to host authors, but many community representatives will visit for free, or for a nominal fee. Whether it’s a picture book aimed for the early years or a KS4 set text, find links to enrich the curriculum, and engage with the wider community. For example, a local artist could lead an outdoor craft and painting day linked to the children’s current text, or a police officer and local solicitor might visit the children for a question-and-answer session linked to a character’s wrongdoings. Equally, local college students might also be willing to organise and deliver a drama session linked to your chosen text.

7. Create Competitions

Motivation is thought to be a critical factor in learning outcomes, determining their success and quality. In a report commissioned by The University of Maryland, Guthrie and Wigfield found that, “outstanding teachers invest substantial time and energy in supporting students’ motivation and engagement in reading.”

For some students to become intrinsically motivated, staff may have to use extrinsic motivation at first. In certain demographics, we may have to incentivise the act of reading until it becomes as natural as breathing.

Staff should offer children acknowledgment and praise for their reading achievements, however small they may be. The school’s behaviour policy should detail how staff can do this effectively. For example, staff could be given six wristbands every half-term to give out to the children who’ve shown the most commitment, or made the most progress in their reading. These wrist bands can then be exchanged for a prize. 

Using on-screen reading programmes, such as Accelerated Reader, students can take online quizzes on their reading books. If they receive a certain percentage pass mark, they’ll begin to build up a word count. Schools can use this information to set children specific targets to achieve by the end of the year.

Teachers can build a bespoke reward scheme around their online reading programme. For example, pupils could get a treat from the reading treat box if they pass their book quiz at 80% or more, or two if it’s 100%. Work with the school’s parents and friends’ association, or reach out to local businesses for sponsorship in order to fund these prize boxes. Similarly, hold a word count war to see which classes can achieve the highest word count each term.

Parent reading with their child

8. Empower Children with their Next Steps

If we want children to take ownership of their reading, they need to be able to verbalise their next steps. Clear and accessible targets should be used in order to boost children’s self-esteem, rather than to make them more accountable. A consistent, whole-school approach to target setting will highlight the profile of reading across the curriculum, and remind students that we’re all readers, and we’re all in this together.

9. Host Events

Throughout the year, host events to celebrate all things reading. Whether it’s Shakespeare in the sun, campfire storytelling, book-themed cake sales, or second-hand book fairs, use all the monies raised to replenish your library stock to keep it fresh and inviting.

At the end of the academic year, why not organise a festival of reading to celebrate all of the children’s reading achievements? Think fairground rides, bouncy castles, makeup artists, tribute acts, and sweet stalls.

10. Utilise your Students 

To support the school in raising the profile of reading, invite students to help. Create a peer-to-peer reading scheme, where an older, more competent student supports a child whose reading age is below their chronological age. Similarly, ask for volunteers to be part of a reading committee – who meet regularly to discuss the school improvement targets, reading incentives, and ideas to further promote a strong reading culture.

11. Work with Local Businesses

Reach out to big companies and local businesses for support in meeting the school’s reading targets. This could be reading posters from a local book shop, a gift experience from an outdoor adventure company, or a voucher from the local shoe shop to use as a reading prize.

Ask members of the reading committee to write to local suppliers to see if they would be willing to help. For example, they may be willing to provide the hot chocolate and marshmallows for the next campfire reading event. Get in touch with the local press to feature key events, and mention the names of suppliers and businesses who have helped.

Teacher reading to students

12. Make Sure your Titles are Engaging and Accessible

Children should be aware of which library texts are pitched at their level. By creating a colour code linked to reading age ability, students can confidently and independently select texts which are accessible. This will help them to become assured and resilient readers.

13. Celebrate Literacy Days

Whatever literacy day it is, celebrate it. Events such as World Book DayRoald Dahl Day, and National Poetry Day bring fun-filled opportunities for students, and help to build a vibrant reading culture across the school.

Furthermore, why not create your own days to celebrate? In October, could you host a Harry Potter Day? Think dressing up, themed school dinners, potions, spells, drama, broom stick races, and animal encounters.

14. Get Parents and Carers Involved

Not all students have the support of committed parents or carers at home. As a result, engage with parents and carers as much as possible. Run webinars to introduce the school’s online reading programmes. Host live question-and-answer sessions to inform parents how they can help from home. Run family reading challenges and competitions, and host a virtual book club for parents and children. 

15. Unite your Staff

Take all of your staff along with you in your school’s reading journey. Involve them at every step of the way. A committed team can achieve wonderous things. Ask for their feedback, and value their contributions.

Train them on the reading programmes the children will use, so they can feel informed when providing support, and keep them up to date with effective differentiation strategies. All teachers should be aware of children’s reading ages when planning, as materials used must be appropriate and accessible to all students. Providing glossaries, word mats, and visual stimulus, for example, can help weaker readers to access the curriculum.

Finally, continually make staff aware of the incredible power they possess. Hearing a teacher read a text aloud can be transformative for some pupils. If teachers read with passion, and varied intonation, they really can capture hearts and minds.

Children reading

Sadly, children can become reluctant readers, whether this be through low self-esteem, boredom, or an inability to compete with peers. We need to work together to provide creative and innovative solutions to eradicate disengagement in reading. Schools can promote a reading culture which allows all children to shine, academically, socially, and personally. We hope that this article has given you the inspiration needed to revolutionise the reading culture in your school.

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