Australian schools constantly strive to improve the literacy outcomes of their students. Supporting literacy achievement for struggling readers is particularly important because these readers have their disadvantage compounded: capable students develop “richer” skills through continued exposure to reading, and the gap between them and struggling readers widens.
The number of Australian students deemed “low performers” in reading literacy proficiency has been rising over time. Our percentage of high performers is shrinking – nearly one in five adolescents are in the low performer category.
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With school about to start for the year, we should consider how we can optimise support for struggling readers. Young people’s literacy attainment significantly shapes their academic, vocational and social potential. More than seven million adult Australians have their opportunities limited by their literacy level.
Research suggests the presence of qualified library staff in school libraries is associated with better student performance in literacy. But until now, little was known about what specifically they do to achieve this. My new research gives us insight into these key practices.
What do they do?
In 2018, I visited 30 schools in urban and rural sites as part of the Teacher Librarians as Australian Literature Advocates in Schools project. I interviewed teacher librarians to explore a range of questions, including the role they play as literacy educators.
There are 40 recurring literacy support strategies used by teacher librarians. But my recent paper focuses on ten strategies that have a particularly strong link to supporting struggling readers:
1. Identification of struggling readers. Teacher librarians support the timely identification of struggling readers through the data they collect on student performance. The sooner struggling readers are identified, the sooner the school can help them.
2. Providing age and skill-appropriate materials for struggling readers. Teacher librarians match students with age-appropriate materials they can manage and topics and genres they prefer. The more a student enjoys and is interested in reading, the more likely they are to keep it up.
3. Teaching students how to choose books they like. Both children in primary and secondary schools have suggested they would read more if it were easier to choose books that appeal to them. Teacher librarians teach students how to do this.
4. Support for students with special needs and readers at risk. For example, Hannah, a teacher librarian, described working with “a young boy who is dyslexic, and I was reading to him and made a dyslexic error, and went back and explained what I’d done and he said, ‘Yeah, I do that, too.’” She then connected him with age and skill-appropriate materials, and he went on to read “an enormous amount”.
5. Matching struggling readers to appropriate books for their skill level. Research suggests when struggling readers have texts matched appropriately with their ability and personal interest, they are more persistent, invested, and use more cognitive skills. Teacher librarians show expertise in making good matches.
6. Promoting access to books. Access to books is positively related to reading motivation, reading skills, reading frequency and positive attitudes toward reading. Teacher librarians make their books accessible. Francesca described regular use of a pop-up library:
We take [it] out into the wilds. And you know, kids will come up and go, ‘oh, what have you got, what have you got.’"
7. Making books and reading socially acceptable. Where young people believe books are socially acceptable, they’re more likely to read and have a positive attitude toward reading. Reading frequency is associated with literacy benefits, so this is ideal. Teacher librarians use a variety of strategies to enhance how books are viewed socially in their schools, including facilitating peer recommendations.
8. Reading to students beyond the early years. Reading aloud offers a range of benefits in the early years and beyond, including an increased enjoyment of reading and increased motivation. Libba described reading aloud to the teenage boys in her classes as a wonderful experience that was very well received. One boy even stated: “that was beautiful”.
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9. Facilitating silent reading time. Though opportunities for silent reading at school may be limited, for some struggling readers, it’s the only book reading they do. Teacher librarians act as keen advocates for silent reading in their library and more broadly in the school. And something is better than nothing, especially for readers who struggle.
10. Preparing students for high stakes literacy testing. Achievement on high-stakes literacy tests is essential for graduation in Western Australia, a controversial move which has seen graduation rates slide. A similar initiative has been explored but rejected in NSW.
Teacher librarians supported struggling readers to achieve this essential academic goal through a range of initiatives. For example, teacher librarian Stephanie supported students to use practice online testing programs in her library, which gave students the practice they needed to sit both NAPLAN and online literacy and numeracy assessment (OLNA) tests.
Why does this matter?
Teacher librarians in Australian schools are a valuable resource often taken for granted. They have faced significant budgetary cuts in recent times, despite a 2011 government inquiry into school libraries. Teacher librarians noted they play an important educative role in our schools.
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Recent findings suggest teacher librarians’ morale and related sense of job security may be low. If schools and policy-makers wish to improve students’ literacy outcomes, they should invest in school libraries and our dual-qualified teacher librarians.