Improving student learning by developing a passion for reading

2 Marlborough Girls' College students with their school librarian

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This capability building project resulted in a small group of secondary students, who were non-readers, showing a measurable improvement in reading comprehension. They also showed improved student learning, becoming more engaged and motivated in class.

The problem

The school librarian at Marlborough Girls’ College, Colleen Shipley, noticed that for some students, choosing books to read was problematic. They often selected a book that was too difficult and then didn’t actually read it. These non-readers were also struggling to access the curriculum at their year level. This, in turn, was creating problems for teachers trying to engage these students in meaningful work in the classroom.

Collaborating to address a need

In 2016, Services to Schools worked with selected schools from throughout New Zealand as part of a targeted capability-building project.

At Marlborough Girls' College, Colleen Shipley saw a need to strengthen the reading engagement of a group of underachievers. Capability facilitator Jan Boustead worked with Colleen to design a project aimed at addressing this need.

The project using the spiral of inquiry approach

The aim of the Marlborough Girls' College project was:

To work with a group of underachieving year 9 and year 10 students to encourage reading engagement, thereby increasing their academic performance and engagement in all subjects, but particularly English.

The design of the project was based on the spiral of inquiry, a framework for innovation in education that builds on the 'teaching as inquiry' model. The spiral guided Jan and Colleen's work through a 6-step process of evaluating what was happening for students, identifying what they could do, and taking actions that led to improvements.

Planning successful user-centred change has more information on the spiral of inquiry.

The Marlborough Girls' College's spiral of inquiry (png, 424KB)


Colleen Shipley observed over time that a small group of students weren't very focused in their choice of books. Instead, they tended to choose titles that met a wide reading requirement. She also noticed these students were selecting books that their peers were choosing, but were more likely to return their books unread. After discussing with the Deputy Head of English, it became clear that this group of students were having difficulty in accessing the curriculum at the level of their peer group.

Focusing — identifying the students

Colleen collaborated with the Deputy Head of English during term 1 and used data available within the school to create a provisional list of potential year 9 and 10 students for the project. They used:

  • e-asTTle results for reading and reading attitude
  • academic results
  • library borrowing statistics
  • English teachers’ observations of students’ work habits in the classroom.

They used this data to select 10 students for the 6-month project.

Developing a hunch

Following the spiral of inquiry template Colleen established a hunch:

If we enable these identified students to feel comfortable in the library setting and in choosing their own books and resources, their reading engagement levels will improve. This will have an impact on academic performance.

Professional learning

Jan and Colleen together identified relevant research and professional development that would support and extend their understanding of reading engagement. They then discussed the ideas Colleen had for motivating the identified students to engage in reading for pleasure.

Taking action

This part of the project ran over terms 2 and 3 of the school year. Colleen developed a questionnaire that she used to gather information about each student to discover more about their:

  • reading preferences
  • attitudes to reading
  • reading history.

At the initial session with each student, she shared different types of books (for example graphic novels, talking books) and gave advice on choosing books.

Follow-up sessions

The aim of these sessions was to develop a relationship with students by talking about their reading background and interests and then helping them select books of interest at an appropriate level.

Colleen worked with small groups. During her 10 to 20 minute sessions, she:

  • pre-selected books to share and read aloud to students
  • shared strategies for selecting appropriate books — e.g. choosing larger font, dyslexia-friendly books, shorter stories so the whole story can be remembered to the end (students were generally very slow to read a book)
  • determined from the questionnaire what interests students had and what they might like to read, and discussed these findings with them
  • went to the shelves with students to look at books to select
  • was not judgmental about students reading choices
  • helped students to interpret expectations and requirements of the 'wide reading' assignment (i.e. how to make a response and support students in completing their reading log requirements).

Most importantly, Colleen took an interest in the students and encouraged them to keep trying. She checked in with students from time to time to hear how their book was going:

  • Was it the sort they liked?
  • What might they read next time?

Checking in

During term 4, Colleen established how successful the intervention had been. She:

  • checked in with teachers to see if reading logs had been completed
  • interviewed students individually to see how the process has gone
  • viewed assessment data from e-asTTle completed towards the end of term 4
  • received verbal feedback from teachers about their observations of student engagement in class.

Making a difference

E-asTTle reading comprehension scores from the beginning of the year were compared to end of the year results. Many students jumped 2 curriculum levels, which was an excellent result.

Most of the students were reported as being more engaged and motivated in class. They were more likely to select their own reading material, using the strategies Colleen had shared with them when visiting the library. Most continue to read for pleasure.

As a result of the success with this group of underachievers, Colleen presented a report of the project to the Board of Trustees. They were impressed with what had been achieved by the library in collaboration with classroom teachers. In recognition of her work, Colleen received an increase in the number of hours she is employed and was allowed to continue the project in 2017.

Colleen's reflections on outcomes and learnings

  • Building a relationship with each student was the key to success.
  • It was a good idea to meet with students individually so they choose books that matched their interests and reading level.
  • All but one student listed books about animals as their preference, suggesting an interest level that matched their reading ages.
  • Many of the students in the project had not been read to as children or visited the town library with parents.
  • Many of the students had learning disabilities or home-life issues that affected their reading habits
  • Teacher understanding and buy-in for the project was important.
  • The spiral of inquiry worked well as a planning and reflection tool.

Find out more

Developing a passion for reading in our under-achievers (pdf, 666KB) — Colleen Shipley's presentation to 2017 SLANZA (School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa) conference

Capability building projects to improve student learning

Reading for pleasure - a door to success

Strategies to engage students as readers

Lending service

Evidence-based school library practice