School libraries first step towards better reading comprehension

Photo: Jonas Hallqvist

Swedish Reading ambassador Johanna Lindbäck. Photo: Jonas Hallqvist

The interest for reading promotion questions is huge in Sweden right now. International studies indicate that reading comprehension falls among young Swedes, which have led to new assignments for agencies and organisations. In this post Swedish reading ambassador Johanna Lindbäck blogs about possible solutions to the problem:

There’s been a lot of discussion about reading skills here in Sweden after the latest results in the Pisa-tests were presented in Dec 2012. The reading comprehensive part was really poor, and it has been for quite some time. But the news that 23% of the 15 year olds couldn’t read and understand ”a simple text” came as a shock to us. We’re used to being excellent readers, that’s part of our identity, and now… It was clear to everybody that something needed to be done, like yesterday!, to stop this terrible development.

School libraries are often said to be one solution. Studies show that kids perform better overall as they are better readers when there is a library. So, let’s just open a bunch of them and the problem is solved?
This idea worries me quite a lot. I love libraries and I really do want them to be everywhere, especially in schools. The problem is that the praising of them often has the has the same ring as the desperate Swedish teachers I often meet when I visit schools. They ask me what they can do to make their student read better, and how can they get the boys especially to like reading?
They know as well as I do what the answer is. Read a lot in class, year after year, never give up. As a teacher you need to read a lot yourself to find the right books for your class.
But this is an answer that requires a lot of time and effort, and they want me to say something easier and faster. A quick fix they can do for a month or two with great results. If only there was such a thing… School libraries aren’t one either, that’s for sure.

Lots of Swedish schools already have them, staffed with educated librarians, and the students at those schools still fail their reading comprehension tests. How come? Because the library isn’t used properly. The frustrated staff always say the same thing: everybody at the school (the principal and teachers) say how great it is that the library’s there, but no one is really using it. Some kids like to come during recess, but that’s it basically.
Coincidentally, you can often find the frustrated librarian at the same school as the teachers asking how to make their students read more. This is exactly what worries me whenever I hear the chant that libraries are the end of all our troubles.

If it’s going to be successful and the big asset to students and teachers that it could be, a school library should be seen as a great start. Considered the first step. The second step is when the principal develop a plan with the teachers and the librarian(s). This plan should involve all teachers, not just the language teachers. The key factor to better reading comprehension is that it’s everybody’s responsibility. That’s step three. Developing a well-functioning library that’s actually going to improve results takes a lot of hard work, and it can’t be done by one person only (the librarian). Nor can it be done by languge teachers solely. You read and write in all subjects, so all teachers need to be part of this work.

If we think of libraries as a start I won’t worry anymore. Not a bit. But if we think of it as the goal and end of all efforts, we won’t achieve a thing. Sorry.

Johanna Lindbäck
Swedish Reading Ambassador for Young People

More about Johanna Lindbäck here

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One Response to “School libraries first step towards better reading comprehension”

  1. Carole Bloch Says:

    I agree completely! Don’t wait until 23% of your children can read with comprehension – in countries like mine, this kind of situation is endemic. It’s true that having well stocked libraries and librarians is a key – but also to make sure that there are books in languages that children feel comfortable to read in…Steven Krashen’s book The Power of Reading cites a lot of research that suggests all of this strongly…and this includes the adult reading role models who who excite children about stories and inspire them to want to read. So it’s up to us to become those people!

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