Literacy Dilemmas in Schools

This blog post has been written by one of the Information Literacy Group’s School Representatives, Sarah Pavey.

Sarah Pavey
Sarah Pavey

Secondary schools in England are naturally concerned about the levels of student literacy. One in five children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly (DfE, 2019) and we now do not know what effect the COVID pandemic has had on this figure. It is unlikely to be good news. According to the World Literacy Foundation (2019) this translates into £37 billion worth of costs annually in terms of the impact of functional illiteracy upon society. Among 79 countries taking the PISA reading test, the UK ranks 14th (Schleicher, 2019). Add into this mix the statutory mention of reading in the National Curriculum and inspection aspirations from Ofsted and we can understand why there is such emphasis within a school’s wider aims and desired learning outcomes.

But what impact does this drive for literacy have on the school library? Most schools (acting on guidance from the National Curriculum) address their literacy issues by creating opportunities for reading but only in relation to fiction books and very much directed (within secondary schools) to students in Key Stage 3 (11-13 year olds). The argument is that students need to be able to read to access the curriculum and pass their GCSE and A Level exams which is indeed true; but does forcing students to read the latest version of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, or whatever the latest teen novel fad is, really support this? Does the rash of celebrity novels with very limited and “student cool” vocabulary help them to pass GCSE physics? The fact that the UK level in the PISA reading test has not changed significantly over a number of years suggests maybe not. Yet since the new curriculum in 2014 schools have moved their libraries away from being a cross curricular resource to become adjuncts of the English department and have employed curators of reading schemes in preference to qualified librarians driving down salaries and expectations and de-professionalising the role. The rise in popularity of points-based reading schemes which are comprised 99% of lower-level fiction titles contributes further to this decline.

Don’t get me wrong – fiction absolutely has its place and should be promoted by all school librarians. But recently I heard of a school with a sixth form that was proposing to become a “reading school”. The library was only to stock fiction books supporting the reading scheme they were investing in. This school is by no means unique. Since when did “reading” and “literacy” become synonymous with “fiction” excluding non-fiction texts, websites and other multimedia resources which might well help with access to exam syllabuses and the National Curriculum? If this is the perspective of a library gained by a sixth former how will they interpret library services offered in higher education, the workplace and in everyday life? We need to ensure there is a balance so that all students can practice skills in critical literacy, problem solving and creativity all of which are embraced by the school library supporting information literacy competencies too.

While some students struggling with a chaotic home life might relish the space for escapism offered by a silent “reading lesson” this can have the opposite effect on others. Similarly, some students will be motivated by the promise of a reward in gaining points from a reading scheme but others will find this patronising and opt out. The student who enjoys discovering words and ideas in a dictionary or encyclopaedia will find it hard to comprehend why this is deemed inferior to reading the latest celebrity pot boiler. Effectively this student is banned from their interpretation of “reading for pleasure” in class and forced to read books they have less interest in. We do not need to be a rocket scientist to understand the effect this might have on their life- long love of reading. Schemes such as becoming a “word millionaire” also limit this achievement to fiction books on a prescribed list. Cerasoli, Nicklin and Ford (2014) point out that:

  • Incentives enhance a performance
  • Intrinsic motivation boosts attainment
  • Incentives reduce intrinsic motivation

There is a dichotomy here that schools need to be wary of when devising or investing in schemes to boost literacy. Ryan and Deci (2000) noted that a learner who enjoys reading as a leisure activity will feel under the control of the reward giver and although they may comply with the rules of the scheme, it will be to the detriment of their free reading activities.

In conclusion, I wholeheartedly embrace the drive to raise literacy standards for reading and writing and I think school libraries have a vital role in supporting this goal. My argument is that it should reach beyond fantasy and include reading and writing with a critical eye and promote information literacy competencies too. Then we will have students in secondary school preparing and practising literacy skills for higher education and the workplace. Maybe by widening the scope of “literacy” we would increase students’ situational motivation to read and they would see purpose in the task leading to more engagement. Such a change might also redress the worsening imbalance in school library services and encourage senior leaders to appoint and use qualified library staff more effectively.


Cerasoli, C. P., Nicklin, J. M., and Ford, M. T. (2014) Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Incentives Jointly Predict Performance: A 40-year meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140 (4), 980–1008.

DfE (2019) National curriculum assessments at key stage 2 in England, 2019 (provisional) Available at:

Ryan, R. M., and Deci, E. L. (2000) Self-determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68–78.

Schleicher, A. (2019) PISA 2018: Insights and interpretations. Available at:

World Literacy Foundation (2019) The economic & social cost of illiteracy. Available at:

7 thoughts on “Literacy Dilemmas in Schools”

  1. Marion Prickett

    So many things to agree with – very interesting. Especially incorporating the school library into the English dept, a terrible trend, as would incorporating it into IT, Sciences or Sport. It should be a dept in its own right, serving the whole school; run by a qualified, experienced librarian where a single member of staff should not be considered normal but an adequate number of staff to provide all the services the school librarian is able to do with opening hours able to cover the whole time the school is open..

  2. Christopher Pipe

    Spot on, as always, Sarah!

    How does the reading of fiction (even, God help us, fiction identified by some corporate scheme as “suitable”) help youngsters
    (a) find for themselves the reading-matter that matches their interests and will motivate them, and
    (b) find, assess and cite authoritative sources when they’re required to write an academic essay or paper?
    And who will help them achieve either of those if it’s not an experienced librarian?

  3. Elizabeth Bentley

    I have become increasingly worried by librarians talking of getting rid of their information books. While like you I greatly value fiction, I also believe that reading for information is equally important, and reading an information book (even the rather pre-digested ones we have had for the last 20-30 years), is a different kind of experience that supports the curriculum at least as well. And there is of course a fair amount of evidence now that reading hard copy is a different and often more beneficial learning experience than reading on screen.
    Elizabeth Bentley

  4. Nice one Sarah! Reading for Learning certainly has its place within the school library context and professional librarians are in a wonderful place to use their information expertise to support this. They just need to believe that their role is more than Reading for Pleasure.

  5. Prity Shah

    Excellent article. I grew up on a stock of Readers Digest in our home and I always put the information articles in that as what fuelled my love for reading. Schools abroad often have more stocks of non fiction as compared to the latest fiction. When it comes to silent reading time in library lessons I allow the students to read non fiction even if it is Guinness World Records/large information books, or football biographies or whatever interests them. Reading widely is the main takeaway.

  6. I think part of the problem is that reading and raising literacy levels is assumed to be the remit of the English department when it should be a whole school policy. Many departmental teachers don’t see the teaching of “English” as their job and yet being a good reader in English – being able to infer, understand themes, character development, etc. – does not necessarily mean a student will be a good reader in other subjects because each subject requires a different range of reading skills. And these aren’t really specifically taught within a lot of schools.

  7. Excellent article Sarah. Not recognizing student reading beyond fiction books is demotivating for them. And a lot of students, like adults, are more interested in reading information books and articles.

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