School Libraries

Boosting Students’ Literacy Skills With Help From the School Librarian

Teachers in every content area can build partnerships with the school librarian to support students’ academic literacy across the curriculum.

February 3, 2023
AzmanL / iStock

Raising literacy levels has always been a priority for schools, and even more so since the pandemic. Literacy is a fundamental skill that can be applied across all academic subjects. As we know, students who are literate are more able to engage with and understand the information they are being given or find for themselves and, in turn, are able to gain a deeper understanding of each subject. It’s widely recognized that a student who is literate is more likely to become a confident, self-motivated independent learner. 

School librarians have always had a role to play in promoting literacy—especially through reading for pleasure—and because of this, it’s often linked to the English department. This is not something that should be dismissed. As we know, students who read widely do better academically, as it introduces them to lots more vocabulary and also supports and engages their imagination. 

The Librarian’s Role Can Support Policy Development

However, the conversation around literacy seems to have changed over the last few months. There’s far more talk about literacy across the curriculum and the need to create cross-school literacy policies. I feel that this is a massive opportunity for the school librarian to demonstrate their role in the wider context. 

School librarians have always been a cross-curricula resource. They provide physical and online resources to meet the needs of the teachers and students, but they are also able to teach information literacy skills (including academic reading) through inquiry across all subjects. School libraries and librarians should be included in these policies in order to help teachers understand their wealth of expertise and remind them that the school librarian is there for everyone. 

Harness Librarians’ Expertise in Academic Reading

There are three aspects to raising literacy levels: first, teaching children how to read; second, supporting those students who need extra help through interventions; and finally, helping students to read academically—the skill that school librarians have the expertise to support. 

Academic reading comprises three tiers of vocabulary: 

Tier 1: This level includes everyday words that children come across regularly through reading; conversations with their peers; listening to the world around them; watching TV, YouTube, TikTok, etc., such as happy, baby, table, and cloth

Tier 2: This level relates to academic vocabulary that appears frequently across content areas, such as analyze and evaluate

Tier 3: This is subject-specific vocabulary, such as quadratic, hemoglobin, and suburbanization

To gain access to vocabulary in Tiers 2 and 3, it’s important for students to read nonfiction from either physical books or online resources, as fiction doesn’t often include these types of words. Because Tier 3 vocabulary is subject specific, our specialist teachers will make sure that students know and understand the keywords for their subject. Tier 2 vocabulary can be found across the curriculum, so it’s often the vocabulary that everyone presumes someone else will be teaching.

Inquiry-Based Resources Support Vocabulary Through Reading

School librarians not only can provide the resources that each subject needs but also can ensure, by working alongside teachers, that the topic keywords and Tier 2 vocabulary are accessible (at the right age level or appropriate for students with special needs) within those resources. Because they have an overview of the whole school, they are likely to be aware of what is being taught in various grade levels. 

School librarians have a wealth of resources through the IFLA School Library Guidelines and FOSIL (Framework of Skills for Inquiry Learning) that allow them to support teachers across the curriculum. FOSIL is a free framework that can be used worldwide and supports students from prekindergarten to 12th grade. It uses inquiry as the building block of skills that can be taught across all subjects. 

School librarians can use inquiry skills to not only teach teachers and students how to find quality resources but also support reading with purpose and understanding and so much more. Inquiry is about helping our students become high-level critical thinkers. Through supporting reading skills, we’re helping our students go beyond the list of facts to gain understanding and meaning. 

This is best done by a strong library program linked to the whole school curriculum policy, which will help teachers understand the expertise and role of the librarian within their own subject. Alongside research skills, academic reading needs to be embedded at all levels of inquiry, which means that the resources that the school librarian provides are hugely important.

Collaboration Between Teachers and Librarians is Key

Teachers and the school librarian need to work together to ensure that the resources needed are not only available but also age appropriate. This is only possible through collaboration. It’s important that the school librarian not be an afterthought in this process. If teachers need time to plan a lesson, school librarians also need planning time, and ideally this should be done together. 

Some school libraries might stock only a small number of resources. However, if given time, it’s possible to provide online and physical resources for specific lessons. Planning together will also provide the opportunity to create lessons that include the skills and appropriate keywords to engage students in academic reading with purpose. 

If teachers are unsure how to get started, they can use an initial inquiry planning form that is available via the FOSIL website and which helps teachers understand the information that school librarians need in order to be able to help them and their students. This type of planning tool can lead to some great collaboration. 

If you want to raise literacy levels at your school, include your school library and librarian. Why struggle to do this on your own if you have an expert in your school who can help? Maybe it’s time to have a conversation with your school librarian and find out how they can support academic reading across the curriculum. Finally, check to see if your school library and librarian are mentioned in your literacy policy; if not, that is also a good place to start.

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  • School Libraries
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Literacy
  • Teacher Collaboration

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