How Sompting Abbotts is growing a generation of bookworms

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It’s Wednesday morning break time and there’s a crowd of children in the school library. Some are browsing; others are queuing at the desk to return books and take new ones out.

  “This book’s brilliant – and funny too!”

“This book’s brilliant – and funny too!”

Rosalind (12) is clasping Roald Dahl’s Matilda. (An appropriate choice – Matilda must be one of the most famous bookworms in children’s literature!). “It’s one of my favourites. I’ve read it several times,” she says.

Aummie (7) is tucked into an armchair, immersed in The 26-Storey Tree House by Andy Griffiths. “It’s brilliant – and it’s so funny too,” he says.

But there’s something different about this school library.

It’s the children who are running it.

A rota of six Year 8 librarians now oversees the library, taking turns each morning and afternoon break to man the desk. “We’ve introduced a new lending system,” says Year 3 Teacher Mrs Kelly. “We've gone 'old school' and have library tickets and date stampers. It’s been a lovely trip down memory lane!”

The librarians are responsible for issuing books, restocking and keeping the shelves well ordered, issuing returns notices and making reservations for popular titles.

  Break-time library duties underway

Break-time library duties underway

There’s plenty of choice. The library houses some 5,000 books – everything from the classics to popular contemporary titles and non-fiction.

Some people might think that libraries are antiquated. They carry something called ‘books’ that people can borrow! Thanks to Mrs Kelly, the school library is rediscovering its ‘specialness’ and its revamp certainly seems to have sparked more eagerness for reading among the Main School children.

“It is wonderful what she is doing. She really has put in countless hours and inspired the children with her enthusiasm,” says Principal Mrs Sinclair.

Maths teacher Angela Farley adds: "Having the children play such a role in the running of the library is good on so many levels. It's giving the children responsibility and the fact the library really does need to be organised very systematically means it's great for their maths too. They have to work out two weeks ahead for the book stamp date, for example!"

Access to books is critical for brain development and academic success – doubly so in the digital age. Even more importantly, books expose children to the world beyond their immediate surroundings and to possibilities.

The Internet doesn’t have the monopoly on knowledge

The increased use of digital devices was another reason for the ‘old school’ library approach. A recent report by the social sciences journal Inquiries concluded: “Overexposure to technology can adversely effect reading habits, and negatively impact development and personal interactions during a child’s formative years”.

  “Roald Dahl’s Matilda is one of my favourite books.”

“Roald Dahl’s Matilda is one of my favourite books.”

That said, there’s no denying that tech is going to be an essential part of our children’s working lives ahead. But there’s nothing quite like the feel and smell of ink and paper.

E-readers have their place but paper makes reading physically pleasurable. ‘Real’ books are also notably absent of screen fatigue.

Interestingly, E-book sales, after the initial enthusiasm for the trend, plunged 17% in 2017 due to ‘screen fatigue’, while sales of paper books in the UK are growing – and this shift is being driven by younger generations.

"I have yet to meet a child that engages with a Kindle in the same way that they love a good book,” says Mrs Kelly. “I don't think anything can replace the experience of turning an actual page.”

“Children's attention spans are dwindling with the access to online information that is at their fingertips. It’s more important than ever that we remind children of the pleasures a good book can bring."

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She added: "Most adults have books they look back on from their childhood with fondness and nostalgia. We need to make sure future generations have the opportunity to do that."

In the same vein, an article in The Guardian published in October 2018 reports that growing up surrounded by books is a major boost to literacy and numeracy and overall academic attainment. “Early exposure to books … matters because books are an integral part of routines and practices that enhance lifelong cognitive competencies,” it states.

Neuroscience has also shown that reading on screen uses a different part of our brain, shifting our brains toward ‘non-linear reading’, which can affect deep reading skills.

Encouraging a life-long love of reading

  Mrs Kelly with her team of Year 8 librarians

Mrs Kelly with her team of Year 8 librarians

The young librarians are now introducing a library ‘loyalty scheme’ for frequent borrowers. “They’re also writing book reviews to help guide the other children to their perfect choice, rather like in Waterstones,” says Mrs Kelly.

  One of the brilliant cake entries in the Library Bake-Off

One of the brilliant cake entries in the Library Bake-Off

“They will be making a themed selection of books each week to show off the books we have. Some children get overwhelmed by choice and suffer from a kind of 'book blindness' that makes it hard for them to decide what they want.”

During National Library Week in October, the school organised a packed week of book-themed fundraising activities.

This included a visit from Jonathan Bailey, Head of Publishing at GMC Publishing in Lewes. He explained the process of turning an idea into a book and the length of time it took to take a book to print. "The children were full of questions about the books he had published. It looks like we may have budding authors in the making," says Mrs Kelly.

There was also a book quiz, book-based treasure hunt, origami craft-making re-using old book pages, and a Library Bake-Off, with cake designs themed to children’s favourite books. A highlight was the school sponsored read. The class that had the highest pages reading average won a prize. Altogether, over £650 was raised from the activities.

The power and relevance of the school library

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School libraries can – and should – be the hub of learning and the favourite spot for many pupils. Access to books is critical for brain development and academic success – doubly so in the digital age.

Even more importantly, books expose children to the world beyond their immediate surroundings and to possibilities. Books feed the imagination and change lives.

It seems all the more important that school libraries should be well used given the funding constraints on local authorities that have seen library budgets slashed and library closures across Sussex.

If ever there was an example of how important a library can be, it might be former Sompting Abbotts pupil and award-winning author Dr Alex Preston. (You can read all about Alex here. He’s now a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Kent University).

This is what he said: “What Sompting Abbotts did was to nourish a deep love of learning, particularly of English literature. I loved the library and it’s still the image that comes to my mind when I hear the word. I remember reading so much there that has stayed with me ever since.”

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Mrs Kelly is now planning to go with some of the school’s most avid readers to Steyning Bookshop and World of Books in Goring help her choose books from newly-published authors to add to the library.

Children are also allocated DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time in their weekly Form Tutor session. In this, the Year 8s listen to the Year 3s read. "Doing this gives the younger pupils the chance to bond with the older ones while they practise their reading skills too," says Headmaster Stuart Douch.

“This is just the start of my Library Adoption,” says Mrs Kelly. “I want the Library to become the heart of Sompting Abbotts. What a gift that will be to give to our children.”

Here’s to lots of library book borrowing and getting lost in a good book!

I loved the library at Sompting Abbotts and it’s still the image that comes to my mind when I hear the word. I remember reading so much there that has stayed with me ever since.
— Alex Preston, Author and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing
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What are the faves in Sompting Abbotts’ library right now according to the school librarians?

● Girls: The Dork Diaries series by Rachel Renee Russell, anything by Jacqueline Wilson, the Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren, Ruby Redfort stories by Lauren Child, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and a Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket.

● Boys: Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon, Tom Gates series by Liz Pichon, Beast Quest series by Adam Blake, the Treehouse Series by Andy Griffiths, the Alex Rider Series by Anthony Horowitz, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Harry Potter series by JK Rowling and the Horrible Histories series.

We stress this is all a bit of a generalisation! Lots of boys and girls like books on both lists and everyone seems to love anything by Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and David Walliams.

Says Mrs Kelly: "Author Jeff Kinney who wrote Diary of Wimpy Kid recently made the news saying that you should never tell a child what they shouldn't read. It doesn't matter if they're reading books that we as adults wouldn't choose.

“There will come a time when the Rainbow Fairies and potty humour of Captain Underpants will wain, but this is their choice and if we want them to enjoy their reading then we have to let them choose!"