Last week I attended a Literacy Summit at the Mid-South Book Festival in Memphis, Tennessee. I was inspired by speakers like Jeff Edmondson of Strive Together and David C. Banks, the founding principal of the Eagle Academy. I learned that 73% of students in local Shelby County Schools were reading below grade level. That statistic might be specific to my area, but similar numbers can be found elsewhere. (The KIDS COUNT Data Book has extensive information broken down by state.)
I learned that there are ways we can change this unfortunate trend. I sat in an auditorium surrounded by teachers and tutors who were specifically told “You can do THIS.” And I looked around, wondering where the other librarians were.
Librarians might not have as much, nor as consistent, access to students as teachers do. Librarians certainly don’t have the one-on-one access that tutors do. But librarians can help improve reading levels in their own ways.
- Find out about students’ and patrons’ interests and grade level. Find books appropriate for that grade level—and below.
- Encourage patrons to pick books that they can handle, regardless if the book is below their grade level. To enjoy reading, youth need to be able to do it independently. Picking books they can read on their own will improve their reading skills so they can select more advanced books as they are ready. Reassure them that there is no judgement about what they check out from the library. Show teens how to use the free YALSA Teen Book Finder app so they can find materials they like.
- Make web resources readily available. Children and teens naturally gravitate towards technology, and we can use this to our advantage. Just because they’re online doesn’t mean they are wasting time. Bookmark literacy sites and games on the library computers and walk patrons through them as an introduction. Encourage them to use these resources each visit, before they move on to other computer work.
- Makerspaces are incredibly popular and appealing, but also offer a variety of reading-based programs. Learn more about makerspaces on YALSA’s wiki.
- Book clubs and book discussions are great for a variety of ages, and even storytime programs can be adapted for teens. Spice up the programming so it doesn’t feel like another English class—let them pick books that are popular with their peers and allow them to lead the discussions, while you sit back and step in only when they get off topic. Don’t be afraid to encourage attendance by offering food or prizes!
- Partner with the school system. Libraries and schools can make a huge difference for area youth if they work together. Get a list of each grade’s required reading and use those as book club selections. Sponsor after-school study groups for certain grade levels or classes so students can work together to achieve more, as well as use library staff and resources for help.
- Encourage different methods of reading. Audiobooks are easier for some youth because they can listen more often than they can sit and pick up a book. Hearing words aloud also helps with vocabulary development and pronunciation skills. Graphic novels get children and teens turning pages to find out what happens next, and empowers reluctant readers by showing them there’s something for everyone. Both of these methods of reading help improve reading comprehension, which will help in other school subjects.
- Ask students and patrons what they need. Reading for tests is different than reading for pleasure—do you need to hold ACT/SAT prep classes on Saturdays? Older teens might need help with certain literacies that will help them find employment.
- Use YALSA’s Professional Tools to help you brainstorm. There are links to grants that might help you get needed resources for your library. You can find out the demographic background of the youth in your county so you can assess your library’s collection and make sure you’re offering the resources you need in the languages you need. There are links for helping English Language Learners and Struggling Readers, who are often overlooked when it comes to standardized test scores bringing down the overall average.
- Read through Section IV of the Futures Report: “How Will We Get There? What Do Libraries Need to Do?” This section has information about being a facilitator rather than an expert, and how to reach beyond the library’s walls and the traditional role of librarians to serve teens.
- Find and share resources on the Adolescent Literacies page on YALSA’s wiki.
- Reports from NAEP show that as a group Hispanic and African American youth score lower on standardized reading tests than their Asian and Caucasian peers. Make sure you have the cultural competence skills to serve these teens, and use the resources on YALSA’s wiki to help you better serve teens from diverse backgrounds.
Libraries not being represented in the Literacy Summit might have been an oversight by the city government, which oversees the libraries in Memphis. Or it might have been an oversight by the nonprofit that held the summit, or by the speakers who failed to mention what librarians can do. But if there’s one thing I took away from that day, it’s that we can’t sit around with this reality and expect someone else to change it—we have to take matters into our own hands.