How does a librarian cultivate a culture of reading? For this Educator Spotlight, we spoke with Dr. Christopher Harris. Dr. Harris is a self-professed gamer in addition to being the director of the school library system for the Genesee Valley BOCES, an educational services agency supporting the libraries of 22 small, rural districts in Western NY.

In 2022, Dr. Harris was named a Senior Fellow for the American Library Association for school libraries and youth policy issues. Nearly a decade prior, Dr. Harris launched Play Play Learn, a site that provides educational resources and consulting services to connect games and learning in libraries, schools, and homes for students of all ages.

Read on to discover Dr. Harris’s perspective on how digital online learning platforms such as LevelUp Reader help school librarians engender in their students a love of reading through gameplay and personalized collections of “just right books” generated by automatic progress monitoring.

Q: What is achieved when students have easy access to a large collection of books at a click?

I’ve always been a big champion of digital content and e-books, just because amassing a similar size collection in print takes not only money but space. Anytime that you’re constrained by space in school buildings is very expensive. Once the building is built, if your population continues to grow, there’s an ever-increasing search for open space. Large print collections are difficult to maintain and challenge. And so especially in smaller schools, maybe students haven’t had that full access to a whole range of materials. To have an enormous collection means everybody’s going to find something, they’re going to find something that’s of interest to them, they’re going to find something that they really want to read. And once we get them hooked, that’s what libraries are all about. You get them hooked on reading, and they’re in, they see the joy of it, and they keep going.

Establishing that culture of reading, it’s one of the biggest drives that the libraries are constantly working toward – how do we build that whole school culture where everyone sees themselves as a reader? Because that leads to a lot of other success factors. There’s a high correlation between reading success and other academic success. Building that culture is huge and having those books around is so important for students to see that these books are valued, that they’re featured, that [it’s] desirable to engage with these books. And it can really help build that. It’s especially true in situations where students don’t have books on the shelf at home. If they don’t have that culture at home, if they don’t have the expectation of books, and the reality of just books overwhelming them at home, then being able to access them digitally is definitely the next best thing.

Q: How important is it for kids to read books about topics that might be beyond their reading level but that are also available as a “read-alongs?”

In my early graduate work, I went to UNC Chapel Hill. And one of the reading professors there, her favorite statement was “Lots of easy reading.” And that’s what gets kids’ reading better – lots of easy reading. So yes, having those books where it’s on target level, or above in that zone of proximal development, is important. But it’s not cheating for students to access a book that’s easy for them, it’s only doing good for them. It’s only improving their confidence as a reader – their fluency – to be able to hear the voice actor read a book.

Hearing that voice actor or feeling like they can match the voice actor in a book, that’s easy for them. Lots of easy reading helps. It builds that muscle of reading and builds that expectation and that habit of reading. It’s so important to have access to all of the books.

Sometimes for instructional purposes, we want to be able to target students for a specific skill or specific reading challenge to really help push them forward. But for them to read for enjoyment, they need to be able to read what they’re interested in, they need to be able to explore the entire collection to find something that they want to read so that we can build that love of reading as well.

Q: What do you think drives the engagement factor when students are exposed to authentic literature?

Interest in and motivation in reading has a large effect on a student’s ability to be successful at reading and reading comprehension.

There was a great study, a meta-analysis done earlier this year looking at lots of different studies about reading comprehension, and it caught my eye because it talked about mind wandering. [The study] looked at all of these different studies to try and figure out what’s happening when students are reading and they meander in a different direction.

What this meta-analysis of all of these different studies found was that mind wandering is more likely to happen when the text is not of interest. When the text is not authentic, when it doesn’t feel like it’s something that kid wants to read. If it’s not an authentic text that’s engaging to read, they’re going to get off task and when they get off task, reading comprehension goes out. The answer then seems to be having texts that are of high interest. Because they’re real literature. They’re not just constructed sentences that had certain vocabulary words or word sounds. When we want students to really engage with reading, we have to give them real books.

Q: Does parent engagement affect online learning, and if so, why?

There was a great book out a number of years ago called Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. I mean, I just love that sentiment, but basically, the research behind it was if you do all that drill-and-kill learning with very young children before they enter school, they may be a little advanced for their peers in kindergarten. Because yeah, maybe they have these sight words that they’ve memorized. But by second or third grade, there is no differentiation. And in fact, the students that had a more play-based enjoyment in early childhood, they’re the ones that ended up succeeding. One of the biggest indicators is time spent reading. Reading with parents is huge. It’s one of those things in education that absolutely everything pretty much in education comes back to parents’ socioeconomic status. If the parent is a reader, the kid is going to do better. Because of that co-reading time. Parents need to be engaged in something like this. If they’re even just reading with the child, the child sees that they value reading. It’s such an important factor for building up that habit, that love of reading.

Q: What is the role of the school librarian with respect to reading platforms?

I think it’s important in cases where we are talking, as with something like LevelUp Reader, about authentic books. These are books that the librarian may have already selected [for] their library collection because they’re wonderful non-fiction or fiction titles that students would want to read anyway.

In cases like that, it can be an important extension to the library. One of the benefits of a reading platform, a digital reading platform, is the books can be simultaneously accessed. That means you get to holiday time and the librarian only has one or two copies of a book for that holiday, but now there’s an online source that has multiple copies, unlimited, simultaneous access for students. You can do things like whole class reads or [provide] more access to students to read more books.

I think when librarians start to see the reading platforms as a potential extension of their collection, there can be real benefits. But the reading platform … has to be an authentic extension of a library collection with real books that would otherwise be selected for the library.

Having a librarian who is a partner that’s focusing on the love of reading – not just the sort of the science of reading or the technical aspects of helping students learn to read – we know from the research that most students learn to read. They just do. The librarian can work in partnership with the teacher on the vast majority of students that have successfully learned to read and are now entering into that practice of becoming a reader.

The librarian also brings that sophistication about the curation process to put together a shelf that would reflect the students’ specific interests. And that is what librarians have been doing since time immemorial.

So it’s very appropriate in a digital context to continue this. I do love the ability to turn off the tests in some situations. In some situations, they are entirely appropriate, and in other situations, just to be able to focus on reading for the sheer pleasure of reading is a wonderful thing.

Q: What is the single most important aspect of gamification within an educational e-learning platform?

Play is a way to learn, but it’s also a way to refresh ourselves. To have a brief interlude of play is to get the mind ready to engage in work again. That can be an important part of it, but it’s also important to have sort of that fuller engagement of gamification as a purposeful element.

If students have a chance to engage with reading different books, for example, and have a result from that in a gamification way, I think that can help build motivation. Gamification, it’s one of those difficult topics. It has to be done with a lot of subtlety, but when employed correctly, can be incredibly powerful as a motivating factor. Our students are all gamers.

To see reading and gaming combined is really gaming can give a little bit of that coolness factor over to reading as well. And just a way to bring them together is important.

That’s the sign of authentic play. … If decisions can be made, that means there’s real agency in the play, and that’s absolutely critical. The ability to build, to create, to leave their mark, but also to make choices. This is how I want it to go. This is where I want to let my imagination be seen. It’s very important. … We know it’s motivating, but to see that motivating factor being used for the power of good is certainly heartening.

Q: Can you prognosticate a little bit about what you see as the future for online platforms, online learning within the context of where we’ve been, where we are, and what do you see happening in the future?

Gameplay has to be real. It has to be fun. Textbooks have to be enjoyable. They have to be good books. That’s what drives reading. [In] the future, I hope we’re going to see more of that open access and the ability to collaborate with the library, to extend the librarian as a full partner in that sort of larger reading approach in a school – that the librarian is seen as bringing real value to the table in terms of continuing the love of reading and the engagement of reading after instruction.

The concept of [the] book is, I think, incredibly valuable. And when the book is extended just a little bit to include the voice actor read-aloud, to include some universal design supports like font or colors or dictionaries – it makes the book just a little bit better in the digital sense without changing the concept of the book.

Engaging students can be difficult, especially when it comes to remote learning, but with tools like LevelUp Reader, librarians and teachers can provide an adaptive and enjoyable online learning experience. If you would like to experience LevelUp Reader for yourself, register now for your FREE 30-day trial.