Strong reading culture turns the page on literacy challenges

Issue: Volume 103, Number 6

Posted: 15 May 2024
Reference #: 1HAgXP

With over 1,000 school kaimahi nationwide taking part in the recent Teachers Reading Challenge, many schools are realising that inspiring students to read for fun can have an astounding impact on their success and engagement in all learning areas.

Ākonga at Mount Roskill Grammar immerse themselves in the school’s reading culture and learning spaces.

Ākonga at Mount Roskill Grammar immerse themselves in the school’s reading culture and learning spaces.

All departments at Mount Roskill Grammar School have made a significant effort to encourage students to read for fun, and integrate a reading culture throughout all subjects, according to head of English Callum Gray.

When asked what strategies help to build a healthy reading culture for students, Callum first points to the relationship between the college’s library and learning departments. 

“I think this cross-curricular collaboration is really important in promoting reading as something that happens beyond the English classroom,” says Callum. 

“The team we have had over the past two years in particular has gone above and beyond to build a strong reading culture amongst staff and students, and they’ve been aided by this in the creation of our new Learning Hub, which replaced our old library.”

Stacking the shelves with excitement

Callum notes the range and selection of books is a vital part of building a strong reading culture, and also points to the value of working with the National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa. 

“We lost a lot of books during the floods at the start of last year, creating an opportunity to refresh and reinvigorate the collection. Collaborating with the National Library in this has been instrumental.”

He says the National Library has helped build the dedicated Year 12/NCEA Level 2 reading section in the Learning Hub, designed to help students with their reading portfolios. 

“I’d encourage all schools to reach out to the National Library as they’ve been very helpful.”

Callum says they’ve also welcomed a wide range of writers to visit the school and speak to students, and students have also had the opportunity to go to the Auckland Writers Festival. 

When considering how these initiatives build excitement around reading for pleasure and impact not only literacy education but success in other subjects, Callum says there’s ample evidence that “readers succeed, particularly in an inequitable education system”. 

He points to research on this from the National Library and education experts. 

“It’s not simply the benefits of knowledge acquisition, or building a greater vocabulary,” says Callum.  

“The relationship between reading and writing is well-established, with greater skill and confidence in one leading to greater confidence and skill in the other.”

Building confidence and creativity

Callum highlights the raft of social and emotional gains with reading, citing greater empathy, mental health and wellbeing, stronger critical thinking and enhanced creativity. 

“Strong readers can navigate our curriculum with more confidence than those who find reading challenging. Low literacy locks students out of learning, and I think we’re all aware of the consequences of this in our schools and beyond.”

He raised the complexity of the literacy challenge, and says that they’re moving towards more direct, explicit instruction in the classroom to address it. 

“Discussions with our maths department suggests that our numeracy challenge might be a literacy challenge as well,” he elaborates. 

“I think reading for pleasure is definitely part of addressing the challenge, but we all need to do more in terms of our classroom teaching.”

When it comes to what staff and students are reading, Callum says they rely on recommendations from everyone. 

“Our library manager, Catherine Ross, was exemplary in this. As well as being a huge reader (and reviewer), she took recommendations from students and staff and ordered books in,” he says. 

“As a department we’ve updated our collection and kept it relevant, and I think cultural responsiveness needs to be an even stronger driver in this.”

Making reading visible

Callum recognises that many teachers have put “a lot of love and work” into promoting reading to their students. 

One such example is digital technology teacher Farrah Chavez, who has been encouraging reading in her department by having a cabinet of books in the classroom, encouraging reading during spare minutes in class and asking students what they’re interested in. 

She also keeps a poster with the words “I am currently reading …” and space for her to write the book’s title and author, which has prompted interesting conversations with students. 

“One time, I had Born a Crime by Trevor Noah on the poster, and a student started asking about the book. Trevor was one of his favourite comedians,” says Farrah. 

“At the end of the conversation, he asked for the details on how he can borrow the book from the school library.”

There is another staff initiative where teachers take pictures of the book-binds they have read and display them on the wall stacked on top of each other. The aim is to eventually create a stack matching their heights. 

“Not only is this a good resource of book recommendations for students, but as a teacher, I enjoy having conversations with my colleagues about the books they read.”

Finding that students who read during break times tended to follow instructions well, and were adept at working independently, Farah says their writing also improves. 

The Learning Hub provides a space for everything from individual study and research to presentations and performance.

The Learning Hub provides a space for everything from individual study and research to presentations and performance.

Shaping interest

For her computer sciences class, Farrah says she has shared books she personally found helpful while studying, often with themes around the digital world. 

She lists examples, including Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang for junior students, Girls Who Code by Stacia Deutsch for girls and Ghost in the Shell by Masamune Shirow for senior students. 

“Once students are hooked and eager to learn, it becomes easy to recommend more technical books,” says Farrah. 

“Books with lots of images such as the Head First book series are my go-to when students want to learn more about certain digital technologies.”

Both Callum and Farrah say that increased efforts to read and encourage student reading has brought them closer to their own children at home. 

Callum says some teachers he’s talked to have said last year’s Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Reading Challenge had a real impact on their habits. 

“Some who’d stopped reading a lot, are now reading again, deliberately carving out space in what feels like ever busier lives. I think there’s huge value in seeing reading as part of addressing our mental health.”

Farrah agrees, and says for book-loving teachers like her, having conversations with students about the books they read is a delight.

“These book discussions also give me a glimpse of what the young readers enjoy these days,” she says. 

“As a parent myself, I love having my child come home chatting about a book they learned in school. It’s a great conversation starter instead of the usual ‘How was school?’”

Reading for fun

At Selwyn College, literacy lead Caitlin Funk says along her journey in the classroom, she’s seen anecdotal evidence pointing to a raft of benefits in and outside of the English department when students read for fun. 

“The more a student reads books that engage them, the more their vocabulary improves and the quicker they get at making inferences,” says Caitlin. 

“This helps in all subjects as all of us provide reading or writing opportunities to our students where they either need to make inferences or create pieces that use precise vocabulary.”

She says finding time can be a major challenge for students, who already lead busy lives in and out of school. 

“Students are really committed at my school, so to promote reading often makes the student think that they need to pick reading over something else rather than finding ways to fit it into their already busy life.”

She says modern technology can be of use here, pointing to resources like GoodReads, The Storygraph, Instagram and TikTok (or BookTok). 

“There are loads of engaging ways to track reading.”


In her school’s house system, Caitlin says they have junior and senior reading ambassadors who drive student engagement and connection over reading for pleasure. 

“These students speak during house assemblies, host book chats once a week where students drop in to chat about books or get recommendations, and the students create Instagram posts recommending books.”

Teachers are also invited to post on Instagram what they’re reading, as well as having a place in the classroom committed to this. 

“Several teachers either have a place on their classroom board where they write what they’re reading or they have it in their email signature, reinforcing that reading is for everyone.”

Making these efforts to adopt a positive reading culture for students can have a flow-on effect to parents, too. 

Caitlin says during parent-teacher conferences she enjoys chatting with parents about their child’s reading material, and potential options. 

“It does help with parents because a major message that goes home at the start of the year from English teachers is for parents to talk with their children about what they’re reading and to discuss reading together.” 

The Learning Hub at Mount Roskill Grammar School is a space to exchange ideas.

The Learning Hub at Mount Roskill Grammar School is a space to exchange ideas.

How a school librarian approaches reading for fun

Seatoun School’s librarian, Wendy Bamber, says access to the library and an up-to-date reading collection is a priority for all teachers, who place immense value on reading for pleasure. 

“They are all huge advocates for use of this time and afford this time dedicated to booktalking, exploring the collection through activities, and browsing and enjoying the time together.”

Through talking to students and actively seeking books that are sought after, Wendy says teachers also enjoy engaging in reading goals and bonding with students.

“They see that their students are excited to continue the story and to know what happens next!” says Wendy. 

“We also promote the fact that the staff also read – our entranceway is currently displayed with images of our staff reading on holiday as we took part in the Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Summer Reading Challenge.”

Included in the spectrum of other benefits that emerge from students reading for pleasure, Wendy says there are greater opportunities for academic success and students also tend to develop higher empathy. 

“This kind of empathy enables children to understand their own perspectives and gain better knowledge of people in different situations, countries and cultures,” says Wendy. 

“Being able to read more fluently also improves stamina when it comes to reading for other subjects and promotes critical thinking for strong information literacy.”

Although 10 years ago the library’s focus was on supporting the curriculum, Wendy says it now leans more into encouraging reading for pleasure. 

“Nowadays, many of these high-quality resources are online and all schools have access to the incredible services of the National Library. 

“Through knowledge of the students at Seatoun, I select resources which I believe our students will be most interested in reading, and this means a variety of fiction, non-fiction and graphic novels at different levels of reading ability.”

She says parents are also invited into the library space, which engages them in the quest to make reading accessible and enjoyable for all. 

Literature is promoted through the New Zealand Book Awards, and Wendy says students review books and attend workshops with finalists. 

“Author visits are a great way to show students that writing is a career they can aspire to in New Zealand and authors without exception promote reading for pleasure in their presentations.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:12 pm, 15 May 2024

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