ACER eNews

Impact of school libraries on student achievement

The library is an important, but sometimes overlooked, part of a school.

Research shows that school libraries can have a positive impact on a range of learning areas, including reading scores, literacy, and broader learning.

ACER Research Fellow Dr Michele Lonsdale recently conducted a review, Impact of School Libraries on Student Achievement: A Review of the Research, for the Australian School Library Association.

The roles of school libraries and teacher librarians in Australia have changed significantly in recent years. There has been a decline in the number of qualified teacher librarians employed in school libraries, an explosion in information production and the development of increasingly sophisticated information and communication technologies. There have also been changes in educational philosophy and practice, including a greater focus on learning outcomes, inquiry-based learning, evidence-based practice and school accountability.

Dr Lonsdale said, "It is important that these changes to library practice are monitored. Research has shown that school libraries do have an impact on achievement, so changes to library practice could therefore be expected to affect achievement."

Much of the research relating to school libraries and achievement has been conducted overseas. From this there is evidence to show that, among other things, a strong library program can lead to higher student achievement regardless of the socio-economic or educational levels of the adults in the community.

"The research has also shown that collaborative relationships between classroom teachers and teacher librarians have a significant impact on learning, particularly in relation to the planning of instructional units, resource collection development, and the provision of professional development for teachers," Dr Lonsdale said.

In addition, there is evidence to show that:

  • a strong computer network connecting the school library's resources to the classroom and laboratories has an impact on student achievement;

  • a print-rich environment leads to more reading and free voluntary reading is the best predictor of comprehension, vocabulary growth, spelling and grammatical ability and writing style;

  • the extent to which books are borrowed from school libraries shows a strong relationship with reading achievement while borrowing from classroom libraries does not;

  • integrating information literacy into the curriculum can improve students' mastery of both content and information seeking skills;

  • a positive difference can be made to student achievement when school libraries co-operate with public libraries; and

  • school libraries can make a positive difference to students' self-esteem, confidence, independence and sense of responsibility in regards to their own learning.

However, despite the accumulated evidence, and despite the common sense assumption that school libraries could be expected to have a positive impact on student learning, the contribution of school librarians to student achievement is still not widely recognised, according to Dr Lonsdale. "It is interesting that after five or six decades where research has consistently shown a positive relationship between student achievement and school libraries, that the 'case' for teacher librarians still needs to be made. Why are practitioners still needing to convince decision makers and administrators of the positive correlation between school library services and student achievement?"

Given the lack of national data about the current state of school librarianship, particularly in relation to teacher librarians and how they are being used in schools, it may be useful to obtain a snapshot of what is currently happening around Australia in relation to school library staffing.

Anecdotal evidence, and information from some state surveys indicates there is a shortage of teacher librarians; schools sometimes use librarians rather than teacher librarians, or staff with no teaching or library qualifications at all; it is an ageing profession, with insufficient graduates to replace retirees; and teacher librarians often have added responsibilities in terms of technology maintenance and student use of technology.

One survey of Victorian primary schools revealed that some individuals who called themselves librarians did not always have any library qualifications and some who called themselves teacher librarians did not always have a teaching qualification.

There is still a need for further research. Dr Lonsdale said, "Much of the research so far focuses on primary rather than secondary students, but the impact of school libraries appears strongest at primary and junior high school and weakest at the upper levels of secondary school.

"It would also be useful to know why students come to the library, and to determine the relative roles of teachers and teacher librarians and their effectiveness in providing information literacy."

Impact of School Libraries on Student Achievement: A Review of the Research is available from the Australian School Library Association website.

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