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How school libraries can close lockdown literacy gaps

We know that some children will be behind with their literacy after lockdown, and that's where school libraries can make a huge difference, writes Gemma Corby

Gemma Corby

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Libraries had been having a hard time for a while before the Covid-19 shutdown.

Funding cuts meant local libraries were closing or having to drastically reduce opening hours, and many schools let their librarians go in a bid to balance tightened budgets.

But as the pandemic plonked us all at home, reading became a lifeline for many young people, as did school libraries. One school district in the US even began delivering books to its students by drone.

We know, however, that not all young people will have spent their lockdown on adventures with Gangsta Granny or heading to Hogwarts.

The well-documented literacy gap – which leaves some students years behind their peers in reading ability by the time they start secondary school – is likely to have worsened after almost six months without formal schooling.

But as we return to school and a kind of normality, libraries can play a vital role in redressing this imbalance. Here’s how:

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1. Bring the library to students

Alison Tarrant, chief executive of the School Library Association, highlights the many examples of good practice she has seen during lockdown, including delivery and/or click-and-collect book services; interactive online activities such as quizzes and book reviews; running Carnegie Medal shadowing groups using Google Classroom; sending out weekly newsletters; hosting remote creative writing and book clubs via Zoom; and publishing book reviews and recommendations on YouTube.

Now that these activities are embedded, they can continue in the new school year and beyond, bringing the literacy benefits of the library to students who may not have engaged otherwise.

2. Work together to find the best resources

When lockdown began, there was understandable panic as staff scrambled to create a fully online provision with no notice.

Now that this initial shock has passed and we are returning to a kind of normal, where online and face-to-face learning complement each other, we can think more strategically.

Terri McCargar, librarian at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, has been supporting teachers throughout lockdown in finding useful online materials related to the curriculum, and has been directing students towards the school’s online subscriptions to newspapers, journal articles and e-books

In her blog for the Great School Libraries website, she talks about how she compiled resources for a Year 11 essay-writing competition in order to “save heads of department some time, while reminding staff and students just how much is accessible online in their subject area”.

Adam Lancaster, head of literacy and charities and literacy adviser at Monk’s Walk School in Welwyn Garden City, says that creating these links with departments can bring benefits for students and staff.

He says: “There needs to be a central hub for resources, with one person overseeing and curating it, rather than a disparate number of departments struggling to find the right information, before they can even use it.

“Libraries have a key part to play in helping to guide us on online resources, acting as a filter from fake news and [guiding staff towards] reliable online resources.”

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3. Make reading personal

Getting some young people to engage with reading can be a challenge at the best of times and, after a long gap, it could prove even more challenging. But, Tarrant says, the age-old joy of having just the right book recommended for you can be a powerful motivator.

“Many school librarians suggest books for individual students, based on their knowledge of the books, and of the pupil,” she says.

“[They] are also encouraging their pupils to take part in the Summer Reading Challenge – and the current Silly Squad theme is providing some light relief for many children across the country.”

And, Lancaster says, this is exactly where school libraries can play a vital role, because their “sole focus is to develop readers who read for pleasure”.

“Interventions can guide those who struggle, without forcing reading upon them,” he says. “When things are forced in schools, the effect is always negative. If it is a natural process, where the library is fully involved in a school and everyone values it, the impact is definitely positive.”

He recommends using Capita Reading Cloud’s software Literacy 360, which incorporates the Impact Through Reading methodology and Attitude to Reading survey he created and has used with more than 3,000 children over the past 15 years.

“It allows a school to gauge a young person’s reading personality and their attitude to reading, allowing them to identify any barriers they might have,” he explains.

“Resources and interventions can then be put into place and all of this tracked to provide evidence of the improvements made. Importantly, this information can be shared with teachers, too.”

4. Embrace the social benefits

School libraries can offer a haven for students who struggle to study at home – another issue that may have been exacerbated by lockdown – but they’re also social spaces.

Libraries are one of the few places where students of different ages and cohorts intersect. They offer a space for young people to meet and mix in an organic way, creating connection and community, which will be crucial to readjusting after the many months away from school. For students who may have had a tough time during the lockdown, this sense of a safe and welcoming environment could be transformative.

There are challenges ahead for schools, staff and students, but libraries can help overcome them, and make sure that no young person has to find themselves falling further behind with vital literacy skills.

Gemma Corby is a freelance writer and a former Sendco and library assistant

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