As librarians, we are in the unique position of being able to influence an entire school. We have the responsibility to harness that influence to foster a culture of reading.
You can begin by assessing the reading culture in your building. As you walk through the halls, try to imagine what a visitor to your school would see. Is it literacy-rich, with evidence that students read? Are students engaged in literacy activities beyond completion of worksheets? How much time do students spend reading every day? Do students have authentic choices in reading matter and literacy activities?
You have the greatest influence on your immediate environment. Impacting reading culture within your library comes from knowing your students, knowing your collection, and making your policies work for your students.
Interest inventories serve several purposes: providing knowledge of students, guiding collection development, and focusing students on book selection. They can be used for data collection and they work for students at all levels. Another useful tool for assessing elementary students is the Motivation to Read Profile-Revised which assesses literacy out loud, reading self-concept, and value of reading. Librarians looking for literacy data they can directly relate to their program will want to look for this tool.
If you are new to your library, or if it's been a while since you examined your collection, there are ways you can quickly get yourself acquainted with your books. The first four chapters of The Readers' Advisory Handbook are a quick read with strategies for "dating" your library collection and getting to know many books and series quickly. After that, mark your calendar for April 2018 to participate in The Shelf Challenge, http://slmshelfchallenge.blogspot.com, by reading a section of your collection.
The constant examination of your collection through weeding gives specific knowledge of your students' interests and the contents of your collection. It doesn't matter how you tackle the weeding process as long as you are at your shelves taking that close look at your collection.
Once you have a handle on your students' interests and the state of your collection, it's time to identify and purchase new books. Look at best book lists, consult with colleagues, but don't forget your students. Student requests, suggestions, and students' advisory groups are all easy to tackle in most library settings.
The math is simple: your knowledge of students + your knowledge of the collection = the space for reading promotion. Enthusiastic promotion of books is a cornerstone of improving reading culture. Vibrant displays and exciting booktalks give your collection life. Even if you're not the most artistic or the best speaker, you can hone these skills. We know you're not excited about every book in your library: "fake it 'til you make it." Troll Pinterest for display ideas. Recommend a book you haven't read. Recommend a book you didn't like. But always be real with students.
"Being real" with students is an essential element of reading culture. Authentic conversation is more valuable than the contrived language often used when discussing books with students. Think about what we say when we talk to kids about the books they're reading. Would we say the same to adults? When you talk about books with your friends, do they ask you about the character traits of the protagonist or if you made any predictions while you were reading?
Allow students to be real when making book selections. Many libraries restrict students to "good-fit" books only. While this may reinforce the work of the classroom or reading teacher, it often prevents students from having access to the popular books their classmates are reading, simply because the books don't "fit." It may be frustrating to see a non-reading second-grader checking out the Diary of a Wimpy Kid that is in high demand by older readers, but it's still helping that second-grader become a lover of books. When we enforce the Five-Finger Rule and require checkout of good-fit books only, we are killing our reading culture. Giving students the freedom to choose what they read is the best way to make sure they keep reading.
What other policies affect the literacy climate of your school? Policies can create readers or create barriers. Access is often tied to staffing and schedules with challenges originating far outside the library walls. What ways do you make sure the doors are open for your students when they need a great book? How do you handle lost or overdue materials? We know what it's like to have small budgets, to want every book returned, and to want students to learn responsibility. But when we hound students over lost or late books, we risk losing more than the books; we risk losing readers. What is worth more in your reading culture—a book or a reader?
When our policies are as welcoming as our library space, we grow readers. A teacher who visits the library every day with her class hesitated one fall Thursday morning before asking, "Since we've been coming to get new books every day and students are in the read-and-return habit, can we get an extra book on Fridays?" She was obviously expecting the answer to be "no." Instead it was an excited, "Absolutely!"
Beyond your immediate sphere of influence lies the ongoing challenge of advocating for school-wide literacy. What strategies can you use to partner with your teachers to grow reading culture?
To effect any changes in our schools, we must be literacy experts. Be ready to make professional recommendations to teachers. When teachers move between grades or curricula, there may be a gap you can help fill in literacy instruction. A fellow librarian said to us: "I had a teacher who had never taught language arts. I gave her The Book Whisperer and No More Independent Reading without Support and she used those as foundational texts for her literacy instruction. Students in the classroom showed such growth as readers that other teachers wanted to follow her 'plan'."
Independent reading is one of the best strategies for reading growth. What does it look like in your school? Are teachers actively engaged with students during this time or are they reading, too? It is important to model what good independent reading looks like, but students don't really learn to read by watching someone read. Independent reading time should be for students to practice reading skills and for teachers to conference with students. If teachers already have a strong independent reading practice, support this by stepping into classrooms during this time for reading conferencing. If independent reading is an area ready for growth in your building, start small: partner with just one teacher to begin an independent reading habit. Visiting a classroom for fifteen minutes a few times a week will grow readers and strengthen that teacher's connection to the library.
Preserving library access is crucial to establishing and maintaining a positive reading climate. Teachers closely guard every minute of instructional time with students, but a daily or weekly library routine is essential. Advocate for open doors between their rooms and your library and encourage browsing. The second-grade teacher with the established routine of visiting the library with her students talked every day with her students about the books they were selecting, encouraging them to choose books to make them stronger readers. At the close of the year, she reported that all of her students made one or more years' reading growth. Isn't that the ultimate goal?
Reading culture begins at our shelves but is not limited to the library walls. It extends beyond, throughout the school and the community. Use the physical space to promote literacy by encouraging teachers to display reading and writing. A book walk is a great way to maximize school walls and sneak in some extra reading. Go beyond your school building to include public library partnerships and community involvement. Work with public librarians on a library card drive. Host family nights in your library. Solicit donations from the community to create a little free library for your neighborhood.
Whether your school could use a serious literacy mind-shift or already has a phenomenal reading culture, the time is always right to think strategically about the culture of reading at your school. Write "STRONG READERS" at the top of your to-do list. Think about your library from the inside to the outside and add a few simple steps to get started. Growing reading culture is just like growing seeds: start small, nurture patiently, and enjoy the blooms.
Malloy, Jacquelynn, et al. "Assessing the Motivation to Read: The Motivation to Read Profile-Revised." Reading Teacher 67, no. 4 (Dec. 2013/Jan. 2014): 273-282.
Miller, Debbie, and Barbara Moss. No More Independent Reading without Support. Heinemann, 2013.
Miller, Donalyn. The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child. Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Moyer, Jessica E., and Kaite Mediatore Stover. The Readers' Advisory Handbook. American Library Association, 2010.
Shelf Challenge. http://slmshelfchallenge.blogspot.com/