What has the pandemic taught us about helping children to read for pleasure?

We recently teamed up with the Schools and Academies Show for an expert panel webinar, “Prioritising literacy - reading and reading for pleasure in the new normal”.

Library and literacy experts on the panel were Christine Lockwood, Assistant Honorary Secretary of the UK Literacy Association, Adam Lancaster, Librarian and Safeguarding Lead at Monk’s Walk School, Tricia Adams, founder of All Around Reading and Dawn Wood, Member Development Librarian at the School Library Association. The webinar was hosted by Alessandro Bilotta, Content Lead for the Schools and Academies show.

In this article we look at some of the interesting themes that emerged in the discussion: the role of school libraries and how librarians and teachers stepped up to help students; approaches to literacy now that most students and teachers are back in class; how remote learning can continue to support reading and reading for pleasure; and finally, the panel discussed how the role of the school librarian is evolving. 

Reading: The lockdown effect

The panel felt that overall, the lockdowns led to a greater interest in reading and more children reading for pleasure. This is supported by research published on the World Book Day website that found that during the pandemic, parents read more with children and encouraged children to read more too. In addition, the survey also found that 40% of young people reported that reading helped them relax during the pandemic and 35% said that reading made them feel happy.

Panellist Dawn also referred to The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education report on Reading for Pleasure in 2020, which found that 82% of teachers had found ways of reading aloud to their classes during the pandemic, 58% of them daily, because it provided an emotional support as well as helping to develop literacy skills.

But as Christine pointed out, not all children were able to take books home during the pandemic, and many of these children were vulnerable in other ways, having limited access to digital resources and devices. The pandemic may have widened the gap between those children who have support and resources available at home and those who don’t.

Librarians and schools really stepped up

All the panellists were impressed by how schools and librarians rose to the challenges presented by the pandemic. This included distributing physical books in safe and innovative ways (such as hanging books in plastic bags on school fences and disinfecting books between loans), creating engaging digital content, helping teachers and students with information about how to access books online and helping to distribute digital devices.

Adam and some of the others also noticed a pattern of improvement over the three lockdowns as librarians learned what was possible. The final lockdown saw more formalised remote learning put in place, with more focus on upskilling teachers. As Christine pointed out: “We all got better at it. The tentative work in the first lockdown, crystalised into resources that are going to last.”

Dawn pointed out that before the pandemic some school libraries were underused. However, librarians now play a central role in the move to online learning, pointing to online and home learning resources for parents as well. Schools are using library management systems more and many have set up new eBook platforms for their students.

Back to school and taking stock

Now that most librarians and students are back at school, there has been a phase of readjustment and assessment is being planned. “This first week back for students has been about making it ok for them, being aware of mental health issues that might have come up in lockdown and suggesting books that might support and help the kids,” Adam said. “Yes, it will be good to have an assessment to understand where they are, but we don’t want to bombard them when they first get back with assessment and allow for things to get back to normal.”

Adam felt that once the students had settled, using a tool such as Literacy 360 would enable schools to build up a complete understanding of each child’s current reading behaviours and their attitude to reading. “We can target those students that we really need to, and we have the evidence of where they are struggling and suggestions to help them,” Adam said.

Online learning: benefits beyond the pandemic

As Tricia pointed out, reading at home has always been an important supplement to the reading at school so online content delivery can play an important part in increasing how much reading happens at home, and ultimately boost reading overall. Some children don’t have physical books at home, so formats like podcasts and audio books can fill this gap, and they can also be a nice change from reading physical books all the time.

As librarians ran into logistical issues when helping children to read at home during the pandemic, technology often provided the solution they needed. And many of these short-term solutions have become long-term to improve reading and promote reading for pleasure, such as Padlets (for discussing books and recommending resources) and YouTube (for reviews, recommendations and reading out loud).

Finally, the panel were enthusiastic about the evolution of libraries as learning spaces and the changing role of librarians. Adam pointed out that the pandemic had raised awareness of the value of libraries and librarians at schools. “We need to keep going, keep making our value known, keep creating resources,” he said. As Dawn added, this means that librarians need to upskill themselves on an ongoing basis by taking short courses online and then applying that knowledge.

All the panellists agreed that the pandemic had helped parents to understand the fundamental importance of literacy. And although librarians and teachers are exhausted after a gruelling marathon of online teaching and trying to make schools safe, they have much to be proud of in how they helped children to keep reading for pleasure in such difficult and challenging times.