Reading Aloud, School Libraries, and the Power of Storytime
Being read aloud to is one of life’s simple pleasures. Who doesn’t have a favourite storybook from childhood, whether it is Goodnight, Moon, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, Winnie-the-Pooh or one of countless other timeless literary treasures that was read to them by a parent or caretaker?
While Storytime is often considered to be a cherished family activity and an absolute staple for toddler bedtimes, recent research shows that reading aloud to young people in the classroom is a surprisingly effective component of early childhood education. Not only does regular Storytime encourage reading for pleasure as a lifelong habit but being read to on a daily basis is linked with improved educational outcomes in all subjects and is associated with better overall well-being. Although there is an ongoing push to improve literacy rates in the UK, the curriculum is focused on building early reading skills such as phonics and text decoding and leaves precious little time for teachers to incorporate reading aloud to their students into their already-overburdened lesson plans. School libraries and public libraries can be powerful allies in this regard, helping foster a love for reading by making sure there is a place for Storytime in every child’s day.
In a study commissioned by Egmont Publishing UK, young people aged 7 to 11 years (Key Stage 2) old at St Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Stoke-on-Trent were read to by their teachers daily, with no formal teaching agenda. Reading aloud to children in Key Stage 2 is an uncommon educational activity, with only 21 per cent of 6-7 year olds, 22 per cent of 8-9 years olds, and only 14 per cent of 10-11 year olds experiencing daily Storytime in the classroom. The community of Stoke-on-Trent is an area of deprivation and a National Literacy Trust Hub, with higher than the national average of children from disadvantaged backgrounds (including 8 per cent ethnic minority and 13 per cent Traveller families). In this community many parents could not read at all and had no or few books in the home; in addition, some parents reported learning to read in school as having been a stressful and traumatic activity for them.
For the study teachers committed to a daily Storytime activity of 20 minutes over a four-month period from September to December 2018. Although teachers at first resisted the idea of finding twenty minutes in their day to set aside for Storytime and students were initially lukewarm towards the prospect of being read aloud to— in fact, some of the students surveyed at the outset of the study thought the idea of Storytime was too “childish” for their age— by the end of the Fall term children’s reading levels improved by an average of 10.3 months as a result of the project, or more than twice the normal expected improvement for that time period. During the study period teachers reported experiencing closer relationships with their students, children reported an improved sense of wellbeing, and families reported more positive attitudes towards school overall in the home.
Even though the benefits of Storytime and reading aloud to children on a regular basis are clear, these findings come at a challenging time for the UK educational system, where the National Education Union has recently warned that teachers are overburdened with excessive workload, funding cuts, and increased accountability measures which allow for little or no flexibility in the curriculum to incorporate even admittedly-salutary features such as daily Storytime into their lesson plans (in fact, there is currently an online petition at Change.org to make Storytime compulsory for all primary school children in the UK).
At the same time school libraries are also under pressure, with the Great School Libraries Report, a joint study published by CILIP, SLG, and the School Library Association, finding that one in eight schools in the UK is currently without a library, and fewer than 38 per cent of all primary schools have a designated library staff member. School libraries also not only compete for staffing and funds but for dedicated space as well, with primary schools sharing their school library space as classrooms and meeting rooms. Even as school libraries struggle to maintain a presence in the UK, evidence continues to mount that school libraries help foster literacy and a love for reading as well as enhance educational outcomes across the board. A properly-funded and adequately-staffed school library has a collection of books, magazines, and other media which reaches beyond merely the required texts for the curriculum, with professionally-trained librarians selecting new materials that will expose young readers to a diversity of experience and viewpoints. By encouraging children to read what is appealing to them instead of proscribing their reading, school librarians help them associate reading with a pleasurable activity and not merely the means to achieving high marks.
This isn’t to say that school libraries do not help students with overall academic achievement. In fact, a 2017 survey by the National Literacy Trust reported that school libraries are associated with higher test or exam scores, improved information literacy, and more positive attitudes towards learning!
Young people who do not have the demonstrated benefits of daily Storytime in the classroom or a school library are not without hope, however. Public libraries have always brought a wealth of assets and expertise to meeting the educational needs of their community, including providing vital exposure to pre-reading skills which are essential to early literacy through activities such as library Storytime (which not surprisingly is often one of the most popular events at any public library!). Increasingly public libraries have helped to supplement local school library resources, especially in the case of underfunded, understaffed, or non-existent school libraries. According to a leadership brief by the Urban Libraries Council, in addition to nurturing a love of reading public libraries support improved reading proficiency by bringing books and learning resources to children, families, and schools, supporting family learning, and provide personalized learning options year-round. Working together school libraries and public libraries deliver a powerful one-two punch, delivering not only the joys and advantages of being read aloud to, but a host of additional positive outcomes as well.