Building a reading culture from scratch

Pupils organising books at Bertha Park School

In August 2019, Bertha Park High School in Perth opened its doors to staff and pupils for the first time – a brand new school, it was the first non-replacement secondary in Scotland for over two decades. This was an incredibly exciting time for us all – but we knew that there were challenges. One challenge that became clear early on was how to build a whole-school reading culture from scratch; with no library or librarian and only a small number of staff.

Creating a mini library

Although building a reading culture was a challenge, we were surprised and encouraged by how keen our pupils were to read and get involved. They had come from primary schools that already had amazing reading cultures and they were determined to continue this in their new secondary school. With this in mind, opening a mini library with the help of the pupils became a priority. We were able to purchase enough books for every pupil in the school to be able to take out at least two books at a time, and multiple copies of some firm favourites.

The pupils were amazing and took real ownership of the mini library. We had S2 classes helping to un-box and stamp the books, whilst first years set up appealing displays. We even had some pupils giving up lunchtimes to come and tidy the books each week. The pupils started to recommend books they had borrowed to one another, creating their own ethos of reading for pleasure.

Motivating our readers

We wanted to find the best ways to motivate all of our learners to read for pleasure. We created a personal reading scheme with different levels. This was inspired by the example of a previous school, but we added a digital focus. All pupils aimed to read three books by February, before creating a visual display and either a video or written response. Pupils were encouraged to download the Bookzilla app to help with book selection. They liked the element of personalisation and challenge in this approach - one parent told me that the scheme had got her son back into reading, which, as you can imagine, just blew me away.

We then turned our attention to supporting our reluctant readers, or those with reading difficulties. The Learning Support and English departments worked together, alongside an amazing volunteer, to create a small book group for a group of girls who wanted to read a book together, as well as offering one-to-one reading support for pupils who either had a reading age of below 9, or who just weren’t very confident in their reading. Pupils reported back that they enjoyed attending these sessions each week.

Involving the whole school

We were inspired by the First Minister's Reading Challenge to add to our whole school reading culture, so we implemented a weekly Drop Everything And Read on a Friday morning. All staff took part, and each week a different department sent photos to show how their classes were getting on – we loved sharing these on Twitter. The Social Subjects department also created ‘I am currently reading’ posters, which included the picture of the book, alongside a QR code to take the pupils to the book’s blurb. Again, all staff took part, putting these on their doors to raise the profile of reading as much as possible.

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic we didn’t manage to finish the personal reading scheme last year. This year, the English department plans to build on the successes we did have with the scheme and create a better version – using tools such as Flip Grid as an alternative to written notes. We did, however, continue with staff DEAR and each Friday sent out pictures on social media showing our amazing staff continuing to read for pleasure at home.

We have had an amazing year at our school, but the question still remains: can you build a reading culture without a library, librarian or library assistant? The answer is complex – yes you can build one, but we are still missing a vital ingredient. We have done our absolute best as a team and we’ve had some amazing successes, but I cannot write this blog without acknowledging the amazing job that librarians do for our young people, and I am very much looking forward to opening up the full, staffed, open-plan Bertha Park High School library as soon as possible – imagine what we could achieve then?

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