We interviewed school librarians around the country about student reading habits, or lack thereof, and how teachers can turn it around.
What emerged first was a clear student preference for more visual reading experiences, but librarians also expressed concern over the meagre working relationship between teachers and librarians.
Literacy rates among New Zealanders are sliding and educators feel pressured to turn the tide amid teacher shortages and funding cuts. The reading level of Kiwi 10-year-olds plummeted in the 2017 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), with New Zealand falling 10 places from 22nd out of 41 countries in 2011 to 32nd out of 50. These children will soon transition into secondary school, with teachers running out of time to engage them in books.
School librarians see trends, offer solutions
Westlake Girls High School teacher-librarian, Megan Davidson notes “a decline in borrowing when [students] reach Years 11, 12, and 13 as NCEA kicks in”, but overall, she confirms, “teens do still read. Not every teen, but plenty of them and I only see the ones borrowing print books from the school library; there may be others using the public library or getting ebooks as well.” But as they get older, “it’s easy for students to get overwhelmed with high-stakes assessment and find less time to read.”
Marlborough Girls’ College librarian, Colleen Shipley also observes that technology has had a negative impact on student reading. “Unfortunately, students see ‘reading for pleasure’ as something to do when you have nothing else to do and it is competing with Netflix, YouTube and Instagram.”
Conversely, Colleen notes that film or TV-tie-ins will often prompt a borrowing trend. “We had a copy of the novel Twilight by Stephanie Meyer that sat, unread on the shelf, for four years until the trailer for the movie was released. We have seen vampires, dystopian novels and ‘the protagonist with a terminal illness’ [trends]. Popular at the current time are romantic comedies (To All the Boys I’ve loved Before; Kissing Booth) and murder mysteries.” The influence of pocket-accessible visual media on student reading habits is a two-way street then.
“Film tie-ins are great for drawing in reluctant readers but students can be encouraged to read any well written novel with a good plot, great characters and a fast pace. This is where the benefits of a passionate school librarian come to the fore: we read what the kids read and are able to ‘sell’ them the book that’s just right for them at the time.”
Megan agrees that “students are more willing to read a book if they’ve seen the movie”.
Graphic novels, manga and the visual reading boom
Reading novels with a film adaptation is one trend, but children are also increasingly interested in reading books with fewer words. In school library borrowing records obtained by School News, the number of non-fiction books being borrowed has decreased over the last four years, by half in the case of one Auckland high school. The number of graphic novels on-loan more than tripled during this time at the same school.
Colleen spoke positively about the proliferation of graphic novels on the syllabus. “Graphic novels are great for readers with learning difficulties such as those with dyslexia and those with English as a second language.” Mount Cook School librarian Vickie also highlighted the popularity of graphic novels and manga among students, “more so with boys”.
Megan adds: “Fantasy series are hugely popular at my school and graphic novels are definitely growing. According to my catalogue, we have 629. We have so many manga series, but I can’t afford to keep buying them when there are 20 or 30 volumes. I usually buy #1-#10 and let the kids find the rest at the public library. I suspect they read them online as well.
“There are beautiful graphic novels being published of well-known books, such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Speak, and Parvava. Besides the dedicated, obsessive fans, graphic novels are a wonderful alternative for reluctant readers and ESOL students. So we promote graphic novels and encourage teachers to become more familiar with them.”
The jury is still out on whether an increased student preference for more visual literature is a sign that reading levels are slipping, or simply the latest in a long line of trends. Are graphic novels a stepping stone into the bookverse for reluctant readers or an ‘easy option’ for lazy learners?
Curriculum questions for a new generation of readers
Debate rages over the NZ curriculum’s definition of text, whether it’s too broad or too old fashioned, and whether the analytic capability of graphic novels enable students to flex higher level comprehension skills.
Megan explains: “New Zealand’s curriculum has a few assessments in which the student writes a personal response to a self-selected book, and that allows for student choice. But then teachers worry that the book isn’t a ‘Level 1’ book (even though the mark is for the quality of the personal response, not the difficulty level of the text). As you can imagine, there are heaps of differing opinions among teachers and librarians about what constitutes a Level 1 book. As a librarian, I can tell you that the year levels who do the personal response assessments borrow a lot more library books than the other year levels.”
Colleen says that while students can be moved by topics studied in class to borrow related books for pleasure, some teachers neglect to encourage this behaviour. “I often think teachers use their school library less now that schools are moving towards more individual device use.”
However: “Sometimes the choices in the curriculum will have a flow on effect on book choice,” Colleen reveals: “Novels set during the Holocaust may have a wider draw card after a class has studied The Diary of Anne Frank.” Megan advocates: “Ideally, if the Social Studies classes are studying refugees, the English classes could simultaneously be reading a fiction book about refugees. This broadens their knowledge of the topic and creates more pathways for understanding. Not to mention more empathy for refugees.”
Book choice doesn’t have to be static
“I fear that English teachers prefer teaching class novels that they themselves have taught before because they have existing curriculum activities,” Megan tells us. “Or they choose class novels based on what they read/liked when they were in school many years ago. Or maybe they simply don’t have much knowledge of any new YA books out there. (Their librarian could help!) But the YA books that are getting published these days are great for generating discussions and tackling tough issues. And they’re well-written! Best of all, they’re more relatable to teens today.
“I’m concerned there still seems to be a feeling that students need to read The Great Gatsby or Outsiders. These are both great books that I personally love, but there are newer books full of just as much symbolism. Looking for Alibrandi is a fine book, but there have been hundreds of thousands of YA books published since 1992 that today’s students would be able to relate to even better!”
Colleen urges teachers to read with students much more, and to consider local authors. “I think it would be great if teachers read to students more […] even through to college years so that those that don’t get exposed to books at home have the variety that allows them to love reading before they are exposed to analysing works of literature.
“At the secondary level I think it would be great to have more teachers choosing New Zealand texts to study. The quality of the texts by our New Zealand writers for children and young adults is up there with the best and these writers don’t get the kudos they deserve in our awards.”
Leading by example
How often do you go to the public library? Or take your students to the school library? What are you reading at the moment? Getting students into the habit of reading and library-going may require building new teaching habits.
Colleen advises teachers to “allow your students plenty of time to choose books and use your librarian during this time to help them make choices. If they already have a book on the go let them have time to sit and read, and model this behaviour yourself. Use this time to read yourself, get recommendations for good reads from your students and talk to them about what they are reading.”
“Librarians probably know a lot more than teachers realise,” Megan shared. Such as “where to resource more books on a certain topic, or how to hunt down an old out-of-print book,” or recommend more current, more appropriate titles.
“Ideally, the librarian could alert the teacher to a new skill or a new resource, and the teacher could pass it along to their students. But […] the teacher may not have much respect for the librarian, or may not know them well enough to know what they have to offer. Furthermore, the librarian may not feel it is her place to offer any advice or suggestions to a teacher. There might not be sufficient open communication lines between support staff and teaching staff.”