School reading corners: do they actually help?

Is all the work that teachers put into creating a fancy ‘book nook’ worth it in terms of encouraging more children to read and, ultimately, improving literacy? Christina Quaine finds out
5th February 2021, 12:00am
School Reading Corners: Do They Actually Help?
Christina Quaine

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School reading corners: do they actually help?

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/school-reading-corners-do-they-actually-help

Squishy bean bags? Tick. Jazzy floor rugs? You bet. Carefully curated book displays that would look right at home in Foyles? Yep. Elaborate papier mâché installation of The Gruffalo, complete with its own deep, dark wood? Naturally.

Reading corners have become a common sight in primary classrooms and, depending on your point of view, they can be a joy to put together or another job that requires time and resources you just don't have.

The idea is that they are a welcoming space in which children can foster a love of books, but what is the evidence for them?

According to a 2017 report by Oxford School Improvement, which draws on research and case studies, a school's reading environment - and that includes classroom reading areas - plays a big part in shaping its reading culture.

"Spaces should be well organised to ensure there are areas for working and reading for pleasure," the report advises. "Displays of books and resources need to be attractive, advertising the books in stock. The displays, and the books themselves, can be rotated around different age-group appropriate classrooms each term to keep the spaces fresh and prevent them being neglected."

It goes on to offer examples of classrooms with themed reading corners that are updated each month, and "wandering book boxes", which allow children to donate a book from home when they've finished it and choose another (not the most Covid-friendly option, admittedly, but a nice idea all the same).

Studies on how the physical environment of a school affects learning are fairly thin on the ground, but in a research project that spanned several years, Peter Barrett, honorary research fellow in the department of education at the University of Oxford and emeritus professor at the University of Salford, found that effective classroom design could boost learning progress by up to 16 per cent a year - and a reading corner can form part of a well-designed classroom.

In the 2015 study, published in the journal Building and Environment, Barrett and colleagues looked at data on reading, writing and maths attainment for 3,766 pupils in 153 classrooms across 27 UK primary schools.

They found that well-defined learning zones - such as reading corners - are important for facilitating learning, particularly for younger pupils.

Corridors of power

Barrett's findings suggest that we should pay attention not only to the classroom reading corner but also to dedicated reading spaces in other parts of the school.

"We found that schools with good navigation, which includes wide corridors, seemed to do well for reading.

"We weren't expecting this, so we went back to analyse the data and these schools tended to have corridor libraries [areas with books and seats for reading], which seem to be really beneficial for the performance of the children in reading, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds," Barrett says.

"That was really quite fascinating. It could mean that, for children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, perhaps freely available books in those open areas is particularly beneficial."

The National Literacy Trust's director of school programmes, Fiona Evans, agrees that reading areas may be especially pertinent for disadvantaged children. In recent research, the trust compared children's reading habits before and after the first national lockdown, and it showed that many children were reading more during that time of isolation.

"They had more time to read for pleasure in the comfort of their own home, as competing priorities took a back seat," says Evans.

"One of the things children highlighted was the importance of having a quiet space as this would help them to concentrate and relax.

"They also highlighted that they needed time, the opportunity to choose what they wanted to read, and opportunity to share and discuss books.

"But not all children will have calm, space or books at home. So teachers who can replicate these positive conditions at school, through their thoughtful use of welcoming and well-stocked reading corners, will be having a beneficial impact on their pupils' reading and on their wellbeing.

"This is so important for children in disadvantaged areas, as our research shows that one in 11 disadvantaged children does not have a book of their own. Reading corners can also be particularly important when schools don't have a library."

Striking a balance

So, having a calm, well-stocked reading space could be a good way to support some of the most vulnerable pupils in schools.

However, there is a balance to strike when designing your reading corner. You want to create a welcoming reading environment but one that doesn't take up all your time, energy and resources, according to Sarah McGeown, senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Edinburgh, whose research specialism is children's reading development.

"In some ways, reading corners are great in providing opportunities for books to be more visible in the classroom. They are also spaces for children to sit, relax and read in a comfortable environment, a chance to escape, have an immersive experience," she says.

"But the flip side is that reading corners require time and resources from the teacher and, ultimately, I would say that it is more important for teachers to know the children's reading interests, what they do and don't like, and to really know about the world of children's literature. There needs to be a balance. A reading corner is part of the whole picture in promoting reading for pleasure within the classroom."

However, as long as teachers remember that there is no substitute for their own knowledge of children's reading habits and what books might suit them, a reading corner can be well worth the time and effort to set up, whether that is in the classroom or in the corridor.

So, what should a decent book nook be like? "Include a wide range of reading materials. Newspapers such as First News, magazines like The Week Junior, comics and non-fiction, such as joke books and Guinness World Records," suggests Evans. "We have also seen audiobooks work really well in book corners," she adds.

Teachers can find useful strategies in the work of Teresa Cremin, professor of education (literacy) at the Open University. In her study, Teachers as Readers: building communities of engaged readers (2009-11), teachers participating in the research reconfigured their classroom reading areas with the aim of enticing children to read, borrow books and discover new authors. That reading environment became a "learning tool" to support children's development as readers.

Cremin and colleagues offer practical advice for teachers off the back of their research, including the need to make time for children to use reading areas. "This might need to be timetabled but could also include spontaneous times during the week," says the research.

The academics also highlight the need to include children's views in shaping the reading corner, in terms of what it should look like and what texts should be available.

This last point chimes with Barrett's research. He found that a "book nook" appeals to young children because it taps into a sense of ownership.

"Reading areas are often seen as a reward for children and teachers confirmed this," he explains. "The teacher would say to a child, 'OK, now that you've finished your work, you can go to the reading space'.

"The children would see that as a massive reward. You could see that they were really positive about being given the chance to go to that space."

He adds: "There's a whole thing about ownership, which impacts learning and leads to better progress." A room (or corner) of one's own, if you will.

Christina Quaine is a freelance journalist

For more information on Peter Barrett's work, visit cleverclassroomsdesign.co.uk

This article originally appeared in the 5 February 2021 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...the reading corner"

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