Creating a Reading Culture

Cambridge Regional College

The concern that we wanted to address in our project was the lack of reading in our learners’ lives, whether at home or at college. Cambridge professor Diane Reay comments

“Research suggests it is the wealth and inclination of parents, rather than the ability and efforts of the child, that have the most bearing on a child’s educational success today. If you’re a working-class child, you’re starting the race halfway round the track behind the middle-class child. Middle class parents do a lot via extra resources and activities.”

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


We are a large FE College in Cambridge with a majority cohort of 16-19 year old learners on Study Programmes. We also have a growing number of courses for adults, 14-16 year olds in alternative provision and apprentices.

Within the demographic area there are two well-known and respected academic Sixth Form Colleges and one other Further Education College which is predominately focused on land based Vocational delivery.


Our project was initially designed to improve the reading abilities of learners in our 14-16 Alternative Provision. However, soon after the project began there were a variety of challenges which prompted us to widen its scope. We decided instead to explore how a reading culture could be created and promoted more widely and explicitly at the college and so reduce the impact of the social and educational disadvantage that is part of so many of our learners’ lives.

We were concerned that our learners identified reading as an activity that they undertook only in an English lesson. We wanted to broaden their perspective on the importance of reading in their lives and the enjoyment it might offer them.

The majority of our learners are enrolled on the GCSE qualifications for English and maths as a mandatory resit programme, having failed often in the past to gain a Grade 4. If they continue to struggle to access the reading material required on these courses, how would they ever progress or achieve? Their experience at college would then just be another failure for them in a list of already failed attempts at school, which would have an overall negative effect on their well-being, self-esteem and motivation.

Being a good reader is a crucial part of attainment in GCSE English and in vocational subjects. We hoped that by creating a reading culture at the college we would encourage increased awareness of the importance of reading in all curriculum areas, at work and in everyday life generally.


At the start of this project we created a small Professional Learning Community (PLC) called ‘Creating A Reading Culture’. The College held a PLC event on a Staff Development Day which gave me an opportunity to design and distribute a simple questionnaire for staff, to help us gain a snapshot of the reading activities that they undertake themselves and the extent to which they promote reading in their teaching.

We split the project into the three different strands:

1. Cambridge campus – exploring ways in which we could promote reading generally across the college;
2. Huntingdon campus – focusing on one small group and dedicating a part of their weekly lesson to reading;
3. Cambridge campus – support for a small cohort of Alternative Provision learners, again allocating time for reading and creating a Reading Room.

Finally, we decided that it was important for us to have some training on various phonic strategies to improve reading so I invited Tricia Millar from ‘That Reading Thing’ to deliver this training in September.

This was attended by some members of my English teaching team, the tutors from the Alternative Provision team, an English Tutor in our SEND Dept and Dom Thompson from Havant and South Downs College who was working on the same OTLA theme.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Strand 1 Creating a reading culture across the campus

In this strand of the project we explored different ways in which we could promote reading across the college. Some of the activities we undertook included:

• using marker pens to decorate the walls of a glass bridge (a key walkway in the college), using images and quiz questions based on the driving test
• asking lecturers to complete and put up around the college colourful, eye catching posters with the title of a book they were currently reading e.g. ‘Cass Webb is currently reading…’
• buying in a variety of books and magazines to stock a shelf in the student lounge
• holding a Christmas writing competition on the topic of climate change
• lobbying for a popular area of the college called the WigWam area to be decorated with inspirational quotes. We also encouraged the science department to put articles of topical interest on a new noticeboard
• creating ‘plant sticks’ in a garden area allocated to Alternative Provision students that contain quotes and song lyrics to reflect seasonal celebrations; in the training restaurant at Christmas we involved learners in displaying song lyrics and topical texts on the table number holders.

Strand 2 Dedicated reading in Functional English lessons

Weekly designated reading sessions were introduced into Functional English lessons for a group of Entry Level 3 and Level 1 students on the Huntingdon campus. Over the year they were asked to read a novel, ‘One of Us is Lying’ by Karen M. McManus. These reading project ‘windows’ lasted for approximately 15 minutes at the start of a session and included group reviews.

Strand 3 Alternative provision

We initially assessed our Alternative Provision 14-16 learners using the New Salford Sentence Reading Test which was developed for Hodder Education; this would help us to monitor their progress. We also had informal discussions about their particular struggles with reading. Some of these learners had been home schooled and were not used to college life so they were all dealing with multiple changes in their lives. As a result, we decided to approach them in a different manner which has resulted in more a positive outcome. We worked with them to create their own Reading Room and encouraged them to invest time in decorating it themselves so they felt they have some ownership in it. Learners have used it to read books, magazines, text books or listen to audio books. We have also provided and actively encouraged the use of ‘reading pens’ through EHCP funding.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

There is now much greater collaboration between the English and the vocational teams. A wide range of vocational areas have embraced this project and are promoting it in a variety of ways. Strategies to improve reading are brought up in Heads of Department meetings and course reviews, and vocational lecturers regularly talk with me about the different ways in which they feel they are able to contribute to the project. Staff are now much more aware of the levels of reading abilities of their learners in their lessons, particularly if they are on a Level 3 course but the learner is working at a lower level for reading.

The introduction of dedicated reading time in Functional English lessons at Huntingdon was successful and will be scheduled into those lessons again next year. Enrichment English sessions are now taking place between 3-4 pm which provide opportunities for learners to drop in and work on their reading skills.

Stronger links have been made with our International/ESOL team in order to share resources to support our learners where English is a second language so that they can improve their reading and vocabulary.

We have successfully recruited our own English Higher-Level Teaching Assistant who will work with specific learners in order to help them improve their reading skills.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Case Study 1 – this learner has demonstrated improved behaviour, attendance, motivation and progress in learning, both in her English lessons and also across her whole timetable.

Case Study 2 – tutor observation/Q & A and feedback reviews involving individual and groups of learners confirm that there have been small but important incremental changes in learner attitudes towards the activity of reading in the dedicated reading session. One tutor commented,

‘The initial impact of the reading project has been overwhelmingly positive.’

Case Study 3 – encouraging learners to set up and take ownership of a Reading Room, change its décor and not enforcing them to utilise it has meant that they now freely use the room to access a variety of reading material

Learning from this project

This project has been a real eye opener for us as an English team. However, I feel we have only just started to create a reading culture at the college and much more remains to be done.

It has also confirmed our expectation that a whole college approach is important to achieve a significant increase in changes in learner attitudes towards reading. Nevertheless, it has also shown us how supportive different college teams can be, from the Senior Management Team through to the Facilities Department. I have met some incredible and interesting people and I am in no doubt that I will continue to keep in touch with them. They have kept me motivated and inspired throughout.

The guidance and collaborative workshops provided by the ETF have been invaluable along with my extremely supportive and knowledgeable Strand Lead and Mentor who have provided us with continued support and encouragement at all times.