The Reading Environment

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By Jo Gray
on 08 August, 2017

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How to create the perfect reading environment in school

I don’t remember learning to read, but I do remember where I read: curled up on the top of the bunk bed that I shared with my little sister; wedged between the large dining room table and the radiator; lying on my front on the lounge floor with the fire blazing; sitting on the tired (but extremely comfortable) beanbag in the local library.

I read in school too but, unsurprisingly, reading whilst sitting on a hard, brown chair at a solid, wooden desk has not registered as a memory of one of my favourite places to read. I was fortunate enough to have parents that, whilst they were not readers themselves, knew the importance of reading. They filled my early years with stories, books, and the opportunity to read in an environment where I felt relaxed and content. It wasn’t a concern for me that I fell in love with reading at home, rather than at school. Not all children are privileged enough to have an environment at home which helps them find a life-long love of books; so the classroom has to become this place.

Reading for pleasure

Oasis Academy ParkwoodThe priority of reading for pleasure is something that, as educators, we are all aware of. The National Curriculum states that “Through reading in particular, pupils have a chance to develop culturally, emotionally, intellectually, socially and spiritually.” The ability to read is a necessity in our society today and, in order to ensure that children can thrive socially, there needs to be a huge emphasis not only on learning how to decode and understand but, also on reading for pleasure. The National Literacy Trust (NLT), in their latest research document ‘Celebrating Reading for Enjoymentexplains that “research has shown how important reading for enjoyment is, not only for reading outcomes but for wider learning.” As educators, we need to encourage a love of reading whenever we can; children need time daily to read books, and read books that they want to read. Spending time developing the reading environment - book areas, displays, libraries and outdoor reading areas - can play a significant part in encouraging children to read if it is done well.

A book area isn’t something that should just be part of EYFS continuous provision, there should be at least one in every primary classroom, plus additional spaces around the school. Some schools invest heavily in book areas and they are created with big budgets and brand new resources, others are set up with creativity, backing paper and what the school already has to hand. There is no set way to develop a book area; the only criteria is that it is inviting, attractive, filled with up to date books and, most importantly, it is used. Putting in time and effort to set up a book area is important but it should be set up so that it is used as a central part of daily practice – the books are there to be read. 

Is the book area accessible?

Book organisation posterThe first thing to consider when setting up a book area is accessibility. Can the children make independent choices and access the books that they want easily? Having books at the correct height level with their front covers facing outwards can help children to make an informed choice in terms of what book they may like to read. If there is not enough space to have books facing outwards then having themed baskets labelled with images, such as ‘teddies’, ‘animals’, and ‘transport’, is an easy way for young children to use a library system from an early age. Having older children to help younger children to look after the space will encourage understanding of the importance of the reading environment.

For older children, having a library system where books are organised by codes and/or colours will also help the library to stay structured and, in turn, continue to be used. Taking the time to set it up at the beginning of the school year; showing the children how it is used; valuing the space; and encouraging the children to look after it themselves, will all prevent the area from ending up looking as if the books are unloved - making it seem uninviting and difficult for children to make their own choices.

Is there a choice of texts?

The Right of the Reader - Daniel PennacThe most important part of any reading environment are the texts - having a range of texts to choose from is central to helping promote a love of reading. The National Curriculum explains the need for books that “feed pupils’ imagination and open up a treasure house of wonder and joy for curious young minds.” Promoting choice within a familiar and comfortable environment, such as a classroom or school library, allows children to explore different types of literature and find literature that they enjoy reading for themselves. It is important, therefore, that teachers stay up to date with literature in order to help children to find the right text type. It is also crucial that stock is renewed with books, magazines, comics and newspapers that interest children, if the book area is to stay current.

If there are concerns about having too many books in the book area then these can be rotated throughout the year, there is no requirement to have all of the books out on display all of the time – in fact it is more accessible for children if they are not overwhelmed by too much choice. When the school does receive a new book order, allowing children to be involved with the unpacking can provide children with great excitement and anticipation about what might happen in the new books. This is also an opportunity to enhance the books in the outdoor reading area too. Children can help to decide which ‘well-loved’ books could be used in the outdoor reading space giving them ownership. Another idea is to be charitable with the books by donating them to a good cause, or simply by giving them to children within the class. One school we have been working with allowed all the children to choose a book to take home from the ‘well-loved’ pile after they had updated their class book stock. One little boy received a very much loved copy of The Gruffalo and he couldn’t contain his excitement, his eyes lit up and his face beamed – his teacher explained he had read the book most days after hearing it in the classroom. This was the first book that he owned; there wasn’t another single book in his household.

Daniel Pennac, in The Rights of the Reader, suggests that children should have “The right to read anything.” However, to do this effectively children need guidance on how to choose books that will suit them. Teachers need to take the time to show children how to choose books that interest them as this will impact on their overall enjoyment of reading. The NLT states, “…data also indicate that children who enjoy reading are more likely to do better at reading than their peers who don’t enjoy reading." Following on from this, teachers can ensure that there are texts for all children to enjoy if they ask for children’s opinions when purchasing new books for the classroom. For this to work well, time should be taken to understand children’s reading preferences. Dr. Teresa Cremin and the Teachers as Readers research group from the Open University, discuss their findings from their research project, which revealed:

“…when teachers knew more about children’s reading practices and experiences beyond school they were more effective in nurturing RfP and building communities of readers. They understood more about each individual child’s interests and preferences. Thus they came to question what counts as reading in their classes, began to include more than just books and worked in collaboration with children to widen the variety of texts which were recognised for reading.”

Higher Openshaw Community PrimaryWorking with children to understand what they are interested in reading is key to developing a love of reading; but having an up to date knowledge of children’s literature, pedagogy and practice is also crucial. This is explored at length on the Research Rich Pedagogies website. Being involved in the Teachers’ Reading Groups, in association with Open University and UKLA, is one way of ensuring that teachers stay up to date and are able to help nurture a love of reading, and make recommendations to help with expanding the literature which children are exposed to.

Having a whole school book recommendation system securely embedded within the school can often help children to make informed decisions about what to read. One of our Reading Award schools, Higher Openshaw Community Primary School, encourages children to suggest books that the school should purchase next, simply by having a small wall space where children add post-it notes with book titles on. They also excite children when a new book arrives – allowing the child who asked for the book to read it first, followed by having a waiting list where children can write down their name and be in line for reading the new book.

Obviously, funds will play a part in the ability to be able to renew books and there may be times where new books are not budgeted for within schools. However, it is something that should be prioritised. Often the PTA will be willing to help with book purchases; schools may sometimes run book collections and, there are also grants available for books and school libraries from many different places which allows you to purchase books without it impacting on the schools budget e.g. The Foyle Foundation. There are also companies, such as Peters, who can help schools to get the best books for their money and will advise schools regardless of budgets and topics. For some examples of book lists from Peters, please have a look here.

Where do the children sit?

It is difficult in a classroom full of tables and chairs to provide a space where reading can take place away from a desk, but, it is important to do so wherever it is physically possible. Not all children will want to sit in the same position at a table on a plastic chair, just like they won’t all want to read the same book. Oasis Academy ParkwoodOne of Daniel Pennac’s ‘Rights’ is “The right to read anywhere”, and we need to offer at least some flexibility when children are reading for enjoyment within the classroom. Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, explained her thoughts on creating a reading environment within her classroom, “I once mentioned to Ron, my principal, that I wanted to pull out all the desks and drag in couches and coffee tables…He laughed and shook his head. He thought I was joking…” Whilst Donalyn Miller’s idea is extreme and, whilst a reading area is definitely not as important as the books themselves, there are some children that may prefer to read lying on the floor and may even want to take their shoes off. It might not be appropriate during a teaching session and it might not be seen as normal classroom practice, but if it gets a child to actually read a book during independent reading (rather than asking to go to the toilet or just looking out of the window) then why not?

Is the book area used?

Setting up a book area is only part of the process, ensuring it is integrated into everyday practice within the classroom is essential for seeing a difference to the enjoyment gained from independent reading. Modelling how this is done and having high expectations for how the book area is used from the onset will help with the integration of a daily routine. Many schools ensure that reading for pleasure is part of their daily practice: timetabled sessions for independent reading; whole-class story time; book clubs; reading for pleasure as part of guided reading (see here for resources). Allowing children to use the organisational system that has been set up within the book area, to choose books (or other text types) that they want to read (or have been recommended), whilst sitting (or lying) in a place that they have also chosen, will all help to add value to the reading for pleasure opportunities. In turn, this will help to foster a culture of reading within the classroom, and across the school.

Are the displays useful?

The displays that surround the book area are often what attract children towards the book area in the first place. The options for the displays, and the reasons for choosing them are endless. Several suggestions are outlined below:

  • Higher Openshaw Community SchoolAge-appropriate theme (superheroes, caves, under-the-sea, space, jungle, beach etc.) can draw children in and engage them with specific books, though it may need revamping throughout the year
  • Photographs of the children and their favourite books (with the option to add QR codes linking to recordings of their book reviews) gives children ownership over the environment and helps them to link the book area to reading for pleasure if associated with their favourite book. This is also a useful way of providing book reviews for the children to access
  • A cosy ‘living-room’ (with a pretend fire and a comfy seat) helps children to link reading to a home environment and provides a comfortable space for reading in school
  • Neutral displays rather than having a bright, colourful and engaging display is preferred by some schools to provide a calm atmosphere and keep the attention on the books rather than the space
  • Age-appropriate questions – schools often use the displays in the reading area to pose questions to encourage children to think whilst reading. If this approach is taken, it is important that the text or images are accessible to the age range in question
  • Reading walls allow the class to add book recommendations, display the current class novel, add questions, magpie vocabulary and track the class reading journey. Displays like this are my favourite because, when they are used well, they are most relevant to the children.

This list is not exhaustive, though you must ensure that the display is purposeful and relevant to the children. A display that does not encourage reading in one way or another is not beneficial, and a display that is tatty, ripped and not well thought through will not demonstrate the value given to reading, nor will it help foster a love of reading within the school.

Where else can we promote reading for enjoyment within the school environment?

Oasis Academy ParkwoodIn order to promote reading for pleasure, it isn’t just the book area in the classroom or the school library that needs to be considered. When you enter your school, what signs are there to visitors that show reading is central to your whole school ethos? How would a stranger know that there is a high value given to reading? There are so many ideas for promoting reading for pleasure in the whole-school environment, below are just a few:

  • Little libraries – having little libraries for parents, staff, and other stakeholders where they can switch books is a beneficial way of promoting reading for pleasure with adults, as well as being a good role model for children
  • Books – selections of books in the waiting area, in the office, in the corridor and linked to as many displays throughout the school helps children (and visitors to the school) to understand just how much value is given to reading throughout the school, not just in the classroom. (These books need to be accessible to children and not just part of a display that can't be touched!)
  • I am reading - give every child and every adult within the school an ‘I am reading…’ sign. Staff can display these in their classrooms and children can either have them as a sign on their desk, as a bookmark or even as a badge. ‘Ask me what I’m reading…’ badges also encourage children to talk and share knowledge about books
  • Door jackets – challenge each class to turn their classroom door into a jacket for their favourite or current read
  • Outdoors – playtimes are the perfect time for children to be able to read independently and lose themselves in a good book. The District CofEBy creating an engaging reading area outdoors in the playground, the children understand that reading doesn’t just have to be at the tables in their classroom. The outdoor area, just like the indoor area, can be done with a huge budget or on a shoestring. Some schools have used a basket, others have built a whole school library in their school’s outdoor grounds, and one school even transformed an old train into an outdoor reading area.
  • Opportunities to promote reading for pleasure – take a look at our A-Z of Reading for Pleasure Ideas here

Is there anything I can get involved in?

As we have already mentioned, teachers’ knowledge is key in helping children to becoming life-long readers. Our teachers’ reading groups are a useful place to network and develop pedagogy and practice around reading for pleasure.

One Education’s Reading Award is an accreditation that schools and academies can get involved with. By achieving the Reading Award, schools can show parents, governors, and other stakeholders the priority that they give to reading. The award also gives schools access to many different resources that can help with developing a reading culture in school. Examples of these resources can be found here.

Staying up to date with research and with classroom practice is an important part of education, our #Litconf17 has a huge focus on reading this year. The conference takes place in the centre of Manchester on 12 October, where our three fantastic keynote speakers will all be focusing on developing a love of reading, and there is the option to continue with reading CPD when choosing from the 15 workshops available. The Literacy Conference was a huge success last year and we are sure it will be informative, useful and great fun again this year. To find out more or to book a place, please see our Literacy Conference event page.

Our Literacy team can help support you and your school with all aspects of reading, for more information please contact us online, or call on 0844 967 1111.

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