What do you look for when you visit a school? As an inspector, and someone who visits both private and state schools regularly, I always head for the library and talk to the team that runs it.
For me, the library is the hub for learning, the gravitational centre that should pull in pupils of all ages and abilities, mixing them up with a shared curiosity, and a desire to learn. If I visit a school and the library is lively, then that can be a useful indicator of the academic health of the school. The library and its team should be at the centre of a learning web, its influence reaching into every area of the school, promoting literacy at every key stage.
Libraries are under pressure as never before, but whether children are reading physical books, or digital books on an app, shouldn’t really matter. Ensuring that students are progressing as readers, so that they’re being set new and enjoyable challenges is key, and technology can actively support this.
Making it work for your school
As an English teacher, I’ve always relied on my school’s library. But, increasingly, I’ve have found myself using library management systems such as Reading Cloud. At their best, such programs can organise and extend a teacher’s understanding of pupils' reading needs. Reading Cloud is easy to use and adds real depth to the school’s catalogue: by simply scanning in a barcode the software takes over, adding details about the author, title, synopsis and even images. Whether or not a pupil is reading an eBook or a paperback, Reading Cloud makes it easy for the librarian to see what’s being read and by whom.
For school leaders, the data provided by such tools is invaluable. For instance, knowing that Year 6 boys are not reading as many books as Year 6 girls, or that pupils with Send in Year 10 are not challenging themselves, can be the foundation for making effective interventions. This means that schemes of work and lesson plans can be adapted based on information Reading Cloud has collected.
Making it work for the pupils (and parents)
The process of self-discovery at the heart of reading is supplemented by Reading Cloud because it allows students to widen their experiences when they want to. Positive feedback, from their peers or teachers, can be hugely affirmative, especially for reluctant readers. Schools can provide each student with their own account, enabling them to create their own avatar, and share book reviews with their friends. As a teacher, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked by parents is: "What books would you recommend?" With a program like Reading Cloud the school can quickly compile reading lists that parents can access.
Making it work across departments
One of the biggest challenges facing schools is getting departments to work together on meaningful projects. But cross-curricular planning can be a powerful tool for learning: ask English teachers, or art teachers who have worked with their colleagues in the history department about teaching the First World War and you’ll probably be met with real enthusiasm: key moments in that conflict are brought to life through poetry and art, revealing the very human experience of war.
But departments often need an initiative to bring ideas in to focus. Take a look at National Non-Fiction November, promoted by The Federation of Children’s Book Groups. This year the theme is "food and festivals around the world", which can immediately bring in teachers responsible for PSHE, biology, food technology, wellbeing, music, art and many others. And what’s great about this is that children can read about their own cultures, and learn about others, and even involve parents and grandparents to talk about their own traditions (and of course their own food!).
Reading Cloud already has functionality for non-English speakers which enables navigation tabs to be switched to a variety of languages and can be configured to appear in a specific language for individual student users, and there are ambitious plans for many more languages to be added in the future. The layout of Reading Cloud’s homepage allows students and teachers to explore ideas in depth, and make them connect with other ideas from different cultures. So, Word of the Day opens up discussions about the complexity of words, and how they have evolved and have been adapted by different languages through migration and changing media; the Fact of the Day feature can test cognitive thinking, as well as promote children to think abstractly about ideas (for example, why do the opposite sides of a dice add up to seven?). Interconnected learning is another simple, but effective, consequence of using a really effective library management system.
Making it work for the teachers
As a deputy head academic, much of the focus for my work is to look at results. I know that results improve the more a school has an embedded culture of reading. That said, I worry that if a school approaches reading from this angle there is a danger that the fun of reading will be lost. Sure, Reading Cloud allows me to see trends developing across the school, and I value that, but it does a number of other really useful things that promote literacy, too.
Firstly, it moves the library outside its physical space, making it mobile and adaptable. Students can build up their own portable libraries using this technology. Secondly – and most importantly – it helps make things fun – and this matters whether you are in Year 5 or Year 13. Reading Cloud’s Word of the Day is a great way for form teachers to kick off discussions in the morning, and teachers and students can explore new words that are trending in their school. There’s also the power of happenstance, of browsing, as new authors are featured on the home page.
Some teachers and students will want to blog about their reading, and Reading Cloud has a very user-friendly facility to help promote that. And that is where significant improvement becomes visible because when a school sees a community of readers beginning to write about books they have enjoyed reading together then something personal, and very human, is articulated.
Reading has always been a sociable act, a conversation between an author and a reader, and it is too easy to demonise mobile phones or laptops as the main enemies of literacy. But in order for libraries to survive – and thrive – schools have to ensure that technology is used to suit their students’ needs. Reading Cloud allows that to happen, and before you know it you find yourself forgetting about the technology, and, instead, thinking about the stories, the themes, the characters and amazing worlds that only books can open up.
David James is deputy head academic at Bryanston School