School libraries and teacher-librarians: evidence of their contribution to student literacy and learning
International research provides compelling evidence that school libraries and teacher-librarians make a significant contribution to student literacy and learning outcomes. After summarising previous research, this article presents recent research focused on Gold Coast schools. These new Australian findings present an evidenced based snapshot of school libraries and teacher-librarians, from the principals’ perspective. They indicate that school NAPLAN scores for reading and writing were generally higher when student-to-library staff ratios were lower (i.e. better) and when the school employed a teacher-librarian. In light of the National Plan for School Improvement, the findings are of potential interest to education authorities, policy makers, school leadership teams, teacher-librarians, teachers, parents and researchers. They offer evidence to inform policy development and strategic planning for school libraries and professional staffing.
School libraries have the potential to be a vibrant hub for learning, information, reading promotion, creativity, student leadership and social interaction within their school community. From an equity perspective, the school library is one of few places in a school open to all students, teachers and parents. In addition to providing a congenial learning environment and ‘safe haven’, the school library often offers a venue for extra-curricular activities, as well as school community events and meetings.
Teacher-librarians enable students and teachers to use the library’s resources and spaces to their fullest potential. As specialist teachers, they draw upon dual qualifications in education and information science that enable them to respond to diverse learner needs and the affordances of evolving technologies. With a ‘bird’s-eye view’ across year levels and subjects (Lupton 2012), effective teacher-librarians support collaborative curriculum development and teaching.
The recent parliamentary Inquiry into School Libraries and Teacher Librarians in Australian Schools (House of Representatives 2011) recognised the significance of both school libraries and teacher-librarians in light of national initiatives such as Building the Education Revolution (BER), Digital Education Revolution (DER) and the Australian Curriculum. Therefore it is of great concern that the Inquiry found that around Australia, many school libraries are currently under-funded and specialist teacher-librarian positions are declining. This trend might be associated with current budgetary constraints and competing needs in schools, as well as limited awareness of the educational value of libraries and teacher-librarians. The National Plan for School Improvement (Australian Government 2013) offers schools an opportunity to strengthen library provision and staffing. The findings presented in this article indicate the value, even necessity, of doing so.
Over 30 studies conducted in the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia have provided evidence that school libraries have positive impacts on student literacy, reading and learning outcomes (summarised in Hughes, 2013). For example, a set of four studies conducted in Colorado (Lance, Welborn & Hamilton-Pennell1993; Lance, Rodney & Hamilton-Pennell 2000; Francis, Lance & Lietzau 2010; Lance & Hofschire 2012) indicate that student achievement is improved by:
Reading expert Stephen Krashen (2004) has argued that access to reading materials through libraries and wide reading are critical for literacy development, especially among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
School principals also contribute to a school library’s impact on student achievement. For example, Todd, Gordon and Lu (2011) highlight the benefit of principals who nurture a school culture that supports the most effective operation of the school library and enables trust and collaboration between teachers and teacher-librarians.
Student Learning through Australian School Libraries (Hay 2005, 2006) indicated that the school library and teacher-librarian help students learn by providing access to a range of current resources and technology and by developing information literacy. The School Libraries Futures Project (Hay & Todd 2010) provided extensive examples of teacher-librarian activities that support information literacy and learning in New South Wales government schools. An Australia-wide school literacy survey (Management Committee for the National School English Literacy Survey 1997) also showed strong relationships between reading attainment and school library use.
Australian School Library Surveys conducted annually since 2010 by the Softlink company (2012) show links between school library funding and reading scores. In addition, they find a significant positive correlation between the number of school librarians employed and the NAPLAN Reading Literacy results for the school. In these respects, the Softlink findings are similar to findings of many North American impact studies.
Nevertheless, Australian research about the impacts of school libraries and teacher-librarians is quite limited. The parliamentary Inquiry into School Libraries and Teacher-Librarians drew attention to this lack of Australian research, noting a ‘fundamental need’ to ascertain numbers of teacher-librarians in schools and identify gaps in provision. It also emphasised the need to ‘extrapolate the links between library programs, literacy (especially digital literacy, which is as important as regular literacy and numeracy skills), and student achievement’ (House of Representatives 2011, p. 118).
The recently completed study School Libraries, Teacher-Librarians and their Contribution to Student Literacy in Gold Coast Schools responded to the call for research in this area. The study investigated the current nature of school library provision and staffing in Gold Coast schools, and the contribution of school libraries and teacher-librarians to school students’ literacy development in Gold Coast schools. The study arose from a research partnership between the School Library Association of Queensland (SLAQ) and the Children and Youth Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
The Gold Coast constitutes a relatively small, well defined area with a representative range of schools of varying types and sizes. A total of 27 principals responded to the invitation to participate (28% of principals contacted). They represented a range of school types: 13 primary, five secondary, seven P-12, one special school P-12 and one senior secondary college. Government schools made up 59 per cent of the participating schools.
Data was collected via anonymous surveys and telephone interviews undertaken in 2012. Principals’ responses were treated confidentially and the individual schools were not identified. (See the study for further discussion of its methodology and limitations).
Nature, size and staffing
The schools’ libraries varied in nature and size. Levels of library staffing differed markedly in terms of equivalent full-time (EFT) staff and qualifications. The government schools tended to have fewer, and less well qualified, library staff than non-government schools. Non-government schools tended to have larger EFT library staffs that included a paraprofessional library technician or administrative assistant, as well as a teacher-librarian. All non-government schools had at least one part-time teacher-librarian. By contrast, six government schools had no teacher-librarian. Two of these schools were run by library aides with no professional qualifications in teaching or librarianship, three were run by a teacher (without librarianship qualification), and one was run by a library technician (with Certificate IV but without professional library or teaching qualification).
The government schools had higher ratios of students to EFT library staff (i.e. fewer staff per enrolled students). The number of library staff at non-government schools tended to rise in line with student enrolment; in contrast, there were rarely more than two EFT library staff at the government schools irrespective of student enrolment.
Literacy and reading activities
The libraries provided a varied and often extensive range of activities related to literacy development and reading promotion. There was a strong association between higher EFT teacher-librarian and higher number of activities provided. In contrast, there was no apparent association between total EFT library staff and the number of literacy development activities offered by the library. Seemingly, a critical mass of at least one EFT teacher-librarian and support staff was required if the library was to provide a varied program of activities. The association between higher EFT teacher-librarian and higher number of activities was particularly evident for government schools: the six government schools with no teacher-librarian provided few or no literacy development activities.
The study compared the schools’ school library and teacher-librarian resources against their 2011 NAPLAN scores, that is, the average of the NAPLAN scores achieved by the year group of individual students enrolled at the school. NAPLAN scores for reading and writing were generally higher when student to library staff ratios were lower (i.e. better) and the school had a teacher-librarian. These findings are consistent with US studies that have centred on standardised testing (summarised in Hughes, 2013). The data suggests that schools with fewer students per EFT library staff tended to have higher NAPLAN scores.
Schools with the highest NAPLAN scores for the year 3, year 5, and year 7 year groups were non-government schools. These schools also tended to have lower students to EFT library staff ratios. (A similar comparison was not possible for the year 9 year groups as the government school data was too limited.)
The principals’ views
Just over two thirds of the school principals considered that their school library had a great/very great influence on students’ literacy development; 26 per cent considered that the school library had a little influence on literacy development, while one principal considered the library had no influence.
Primary and P-12 school principals from non-government schools were more likely than other respondents to give a high rating to the influence of the school library. On the other hand two principals, both in government schools, considered the library to be unnecessary. One principal, at a non-government primary school, considered that libraries ‘have limited use past class 5’.
The principals were generally well-informed about the varied and changing nature of the teacher-librarian’s role, with an increasing focus on managing learning and literacy. Several principals recognised that for teacher-librarians, literacy now encompasses the use and promotion of digital information.
Several commented that teacher-librarians play an important role in their school, especially with regard to student literacy. One noted a decline in growth of the school’s NAPLAN reading scores after the teacher-librarian’s position was discontinued.
The study of Gold Coast schools reported in this article found that schools providing solid funding support for school libraries and teacher librarians also tended to have higher NAPLAN reading scores than other schools in the study. The findings show a correlation rather than direct causation, and they must be treated with caution due to the small scale of this pilot study. It is notable, however, that the results are consistent with findings of earlier studies.
The findings therefore suggest the significant advantage that a well resourced school library run by a professionally qualified teacher-librarian can bring to a school, in terms of student literacy and learning outcomes. The findings are particularly relevant in light of the National Plan for School Improvement. This strongly suggests that school libraries can play a major part in achieving ‘ambitious national targets for a high quality and high equity schooling system’ to place Australia in the top five countries internationally in reading, mathematics and science by 2025.
However, the findings also indicate that adequate and consistent resourcing is needed to ensure that school libraries and teacher-librarians can assist students to achieve their full potential. In addition to increased funding, there is an evident need for more extensive Australian research about school libraries and teacher-librarians. This would support policy making and implementation of a high quality and high equity schooling system as envisaged by the Australian Government.
Australian Government 2013, National Plan for School Improvement, http://deewr.gov.au/national-plan-school-improvement
Francis, BH, Lance, KC & Lietzau, Z 2010, School Librarians Continue to Help Students Achieve Standards: The Third Colorado Study (2010). Closer Look Report, Colorado State Library, Library Research Service, Denver, http://www.lrs.org/documents/closer_look/CO3_2010_Closer_Look_Report.pdf
Hay, L 2005, ‘Student learning through Australian school libraries. Part 1: A statistical analysis of student perceptions’, Synergy, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 17-30.
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Hay, L & Todd, RJ 2010, School libraries 21C. A School Libraries Futures Project, NSW Department of Education and Training, http://www.curriculumsupport.education.nsw.gov.au/schoollibraries/assets/pdf/21c_report.pdf
House of Representatives. Standing Committee on Education and Employment 2011, School libraries and teacher librarians in 21st century Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=ee/schoollibraries/report.htm
Hughes, H 2013, School libraries, teacher-librarians and their contribution to student literacy in Gold Coast schools. School Library Association of Queensland – QUT, http://www.slaq.org.au/research
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Lance, KC, Rodney, MJ & Hamilton-Pennell, C 2000, How School Librarians Help Kids Achieve Standards: The Second Colorado Study, Colorado Department of Education, http://www.lrs.org/documents/lmcstudies/CO/execsumm.pdf
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Management committee for the national school English literacy survey 1997. Mapping literacy achievement: Results of the 1996 National School English Literacy Survey, ACER
Softlink 2012. Australian school library survey 2012, http://www2.softlinkint.com/assets/pdf/survey/2012%20Softlink%20school%20library%20survey%20report.pdf
Todd, R, Gordon, CA & Lu, Y-L 2011, One Common Goal: Student learning. Report of Findings and Fecommendations of the New Jersey School Library Survey Phase 2, Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries, http://www.njasl.info/wp-content/NJ_study/2011_Phase2Report.pdf
Todd, RJ & Kuhlthau, CC 2005, ‘Student learning through Ohio school libraries, Part 1: How effective school libraries help students’, School libraries Worldwide, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 63-88.