Setting up a secondary school reading buddy scheme

A reading buddy scheme can save money - and have a positive impact for mentors and mentees.

Reading support in secondary schools – why aren't schools doing more? 

In most cases in English secondary schools, class-wide one-to-one reading support all but ceases to exist when a child reaches eleven years old. This is despite many pupils still not having achieved a fluent reading level. Most people will agree that reading is core to learning, and that students who do not possess a high level of reading by the time they start their GCSEs have a marked disadvantage when it comes to further academic study. 

In most cases the problem is likely to be either money or time. English teachers and library staff are already stretched and schools do not have the money to pay for external staff to assist. 

Setting up a Reading Buddy Scheme

A Reading Buddy System seemed the perfect solution for our small secondary school.  This method preserves staff time and the school’s money, as well as providing opportunities for students to develop important key life skills such as organisation, responsibility and leadership. We decided to trial a scheme.

Prior to the system being set up, research was carried out on the LIS-LINK network for information professionals. It was important to learn the most effective way to proceed, such as how to set it up, what has tried and failed/ succeeded, and potential complications.

Responses were gathered from a range of secondary school librarians across the country who have tried and tested a reading mentor programme in their school (or previous school). 

Key findings 

  • Respondents reported it could be difficult to find mentees. Simply advertising for mentees did not work.  A good fix for this is for English teachers or the SEN coordinator to identify students they feel would benefit most from the scheme and for this to be sold to the parents. Finding volunteer mentors was less of a problem, although more girls volunteered.  It is important to try to get boys involved too, especially in terms of providing reading role models for younger pupils.
  • There should be at least a four-year age difference between mentors and mentees. If the age gap is any narrower mentees may have difficulty taking advice from students they see more as their peers.
  • Reading mentors should not be responsible for choosing reading material. They often choose something wildly inappropriate, too easy or difficult. Mentees should be responsible for coming ready equipped with books chosen by their English teacher or recommended by a librarian.
  • A recurrent problem is that both mentors and mentees can be unreliable. Good ways to motivate mentors include benefit for UCAS, book tokens, or DofE badges. It also helps to keep reading buddies together for a number of weeks; this motivates mentors to turn up as they know exactly which first former they will be letting down. Keeping the same buddy also helps to develop relationships over the weeks.
  • Sixth formers will get busy at exam time. Respondents recommended placing the scheme on hold during examination periods.
  • Other problems with running the scheme include teaching discretion to mentors. Issues with literacy carry stigma so mentors must be lectured on the importance of not discussing their reading buddies outside of session time. 
  • Staff supervision is necessary and should be active in the room where the mentoring is taking place. It is important to make sure the student interaction is appropriate and staying on-track. Student and mentor must remain inside the room and under supervision at all times.
  • There are external trainers who can set up the scheme for you, and will explain the best ways to go about it, and speak to your pupils. One librarian reported that this gave the scheme more gravitas.  (There is a cost involved with this.)

What we did

A pilot Reading Buddy Scheme has now been successfully running for over a month in our school, and has seen next to no hitches. It is clear that a meaningful bond is starting to develop between many of the pupils involved, and a mutually beneficial relationship is emerging. We are now in the process of expanding the scheme. 

We found the buddy scheme was easy to set up, not costly or time consuming, and develops useful life skills in both the mentor and mentee.  These qualities would make it ideal to set up in secondary schools and public libraries across the country. It is even possible that universities could make use of this system (if they don’t already) for foreign language students. Implementing this scheme on a broad scale could help raise the examination grades of our lower ability students and awareness of the need for later reading support.

Chi Tovey began her work in education eight years ago teaching English at an independent boarding school. After five years she moved into the successful school library, which she helped establish from its opening. Chi has also written and directed two highly commended plays, and spends far too much time travelling the globe or reading.