Classroom libraries: All your questions answered (Part 1)

All about classroom libraries

It’s early days in the school year and you want to make sure you are setting your students up for absolute success in all things literacy this year. You’ve got some anchor charts up and you’ve set up a warm and supportive culture in your classroom. Now it’s time to turn your attention to another critical aspect of the classroom environment: your classroom library.

Here are answers to 5 of the most frequently asked questions I receive about classroom libraries (I will answer another 5 next week).

Why are classroom libraries important? What does the research say?

Here is what research has to say about classroom libraries:

  • Equitable access to books promotes reading achievement and motivation (National Council of Teachers of English Executive Committee, 2017).
  •  “Providing access to high-quality, diverse books and content” was recently listed as one of the top five most critical topics for improving literacy outcomes in the next decade, as revealed in the International Literacy Association’s 2020 What’s Hot in Literacy Report.
  • The quality and range of books to which students are exposed (e.g., electronic texts, leveled books, student/teacher published work) has a strong relationship with students’ reading comprehension (e.g., Hoffman, Sailors, Duffy, & Beretvas, 2004).
  • Students in higher-achieving schools had more books in classroom library collections than students in lowering achieving schools (Allington, 2012; Duke, 2000).
  • Classroom libraries significantly improve student motivation and engagement towards reading as well as student reading habits. (Yi et al., 2018).
  • Students in classes with classroom libraries borrow more and read more. (Yi et al., 2018; Allington, 2012).
  • Students who read widely and frequently are higher achievers than students who read rarely and narrowly (Guthrie, 2004; Atwell, 2007). (In fact, Guthrie found that the ‘engaged readers’ in his study actually spent 500% more time reading than the ‘disengaged readers’.)

How many books should be in a classroom library?

Classroom Library

There are different perspectives on the golden number of books for classroom libraries:

  • The International Reading Association (2000) (now known as the International Literacy Association) recommends a minimum of 7 books per student.
  • Fountas and Pinnell’s (1996) research recommends between 300-600 books.
  • Richard Allington (2012), author of What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, recommends at least 500 different books.

Wow! Even if we take the lowest numbers, we are essentially looking at a minimum of 200-300 books for every class library. In a class of 25 students, that is 8-12 books per student. (When I first came across this research as a teacher, I was stunned to think I’d been high fiving myself for having almost 80 books in my class library!)

CAUTION: Before you go into a complete panic and spend your entire next pay cheque on pumping up your class library, please take note of the next two points:

  1. Kelly Gallagher (2009) advises that “building a classroom library is a career long pursuit.” That means you don’t need 1000 books in your library by the end of the week but, considering the research above on the importance of access to texts for all students, I would suggest attempting to scrape your way to the minimum pretty quickly.
  2. You are much better off having 100 (or 80😊) high quality, enticing, well looked after books than 400 outdated, unloved hand-me-downs. Nothing says ‘we don’t value books or reading’ more than an unloved, uncared-for motley accumulation of old texts stuffed away in a dark corner.

What type of books should be available in classroom libraries?

Firstly, Richard Allington (2012) states that there should be an even split between fiction and non-fiction texts in every classroom library. YEP! For too long in our classrooms we have undervalued non-fiction reading. Some students are led to believe this is not ‘real’ reading or is only relevant/allowed for projects and free time reading. I have surveyed hundreds of students in primary schools across Victoria and one of the consistent responses from all schools (metro/regional, big school/ small school, low SES/high SES alike) is that boys, in particular, LOVE non-fiction reading. This is even more true for students on the Autism spectrum. On my reading surveys, boys consistently list non-fiction texts as their favourites and report that these are the texts they choose to read outside of school. Consider this in line with the fact that most of the reading we do as working adults is actually nonfiction, shouldn’t we be increasing the value of this type of reading in schools?

Here is a list of some of the types of text students should have access to in their classroom libraries:

Junior primary Middle Primary-Upper Primary Secondary
Songbooks
Nursery rhyme books
Fairytales
Class/student made texts
Guided reading texts
Phonemic awareness rhymes and chants
High frequency words / alphabet cards
Picture story books
Simple chapter books
Non-fiction texts
Series books
School newsletter
Mentor texts
Joke books
Guided reading texts
Simple Chapter books
Novels
Picture story books
Magazines
Literature Circle texts
Newspapers
School newsletter
Non-fiction texts
Collections of short stories
Comics and graphic novels
Series books
Cookbooks
Mentor texts
Joke books
Novels
Picture story books
Magazines
Literature Circle texts
Newspapers
Non-fiction texts
Collections of short stories
Comics and graphic novels
Cookbooks
Mentor texts
Joke books

Are there any other considerations for selecting books for the classroom library?

Students need access to a diverse range of texts (diverse in terms of difficulty, topic, length, format, genre etc) and they need to see diversity represented in those texts. Dr Rudine Sims Bishop first introduced the concept of books being either ‘windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors’ back in 1990 (O’Donnell, 2019). Dr Bishop believed that books could be windows that helped the reader see into someone else’s life, mirrors that reflected the reader’s own life or sliding glass doors that helped the reader step into other worlds. This concept is perhaps even more relevant and required in today’s classrooms.

Mirrors: How many of your students can see or read about themselves in the texts in your classroom library? (This question is particularly relevant in classrooms with high populations of English Language Learners).

Windows: How many of the fiction and non-fiction books on your shelves help students to learn about all the forms of diversity in our society?

Ok, that is a lot of books and a lot of diversity. Where can I get all these books?

There are several ways teachers can find books to stock their libraries. Here are 3 ideas and I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below (or over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group).

School library

The school library should be the main source for all classroom libraries. I strongly recommend taking your students to the library at least once a month and asking them to select 5-7 books each to be borrowed out on the class account to be accessed in the class library. This works best when parameters are set (eg. 2 novels, 2 non- fiction, 2 picture story books + 1 own choice) and students are explicitly taught how to select appropriate texts.

Leadership implication: The school needs to budget for continuous book buying to ensure the school library is stocked with a diverse range of appropriate books for all classes. Also, the school library needs to be weeded of old, damaged or irrelevant texts on a regular basis.

SOME of my latest Op Shop haul

Op Shops

Is there a greater thrill in life than finding a bunch of amazing texts in top condition for a bargain price? I don’t think so! I recently poked my head into a couple of my local op shops and came out with an incredible haul of classroom library suitable texts for a dirt-cheap price. (Fortunately for me, one of the op shops was having a “10 books for $10” promotion on that weekend). Most of the books I bought looked like they had never even been opened.

Check out the video of my latest op shop haul->

The local supermarket

Classroom library texts

I was recently visiting a year 3 classroom and I noticed the large collection of Coles and Woolworths magazines in the classroom library. The teacher, Leah, told me she collects 4-5 copies each time she shops and then brings them to school and does a quick book sell (like a promo ad) on them the next day. I noticed the magazines were incredibly popular with her students and most had at least one of them in their bookbox. What a great idea! In fact, research on this topic suggests that “placing cookbooks in the classroom library widens the range of informational texts available to students…stocking a classroom library with cookbooks as procedural texts helps students connect literacy in the home, community and school.” (Walker and Walker, 2018). This research suggest cookbooks should be included because they are interesting, contain short pieces of text, as well as repetitive, technical vocabulary and phrases and lots of supporting visuals. They also promote inclusion in the classroom when different foods are featured. And of course, who could forget one very enticing factor- they are free and readily available, with shiny updated editions being published regularly.

So there you have it, five of the most frequently asked questions about classroom libraries. Next week I will answer another 5 questions, including ‘what else do teachers need to consider when setting up their class library?” and “what does this mean for secondary teachers?”

What resonated for you? What other questions do you have? How do you use your classroom library?

I always love to hear your stories from the field and strongly believe that we all get better as a result of this sharing. Please leave your thoughts/ideas in the comments section below or join in the conversation over on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.


References

  • Allington, R. (2012). What really matters for struggling readers. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson.
  • Atwell, N. (2007). The Reading Zone. How to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers. New York, NY: Scholastic.
  • Duke, N. K. (2000). For the Rich It’s Richer: Print Experiences and Environments Offered to Children in Very Low- and Very High-Socioeconomic Status First Grade Classrooms. American Educational Research Journal37(2), 441–478.
  • Fountas, I. and Pinnell, G. (1996). Guided Reading: Good first teaching for all children. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Gallagher, K. (2009). Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.
  • Guthrie, J. (2004). Teaching for Literacy Engagement. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(1), 1–28.
  • Hoffman, J.V., Sailors, M., Duffy, G.R., & Beretvas, S.N. (2004). The Effective Elementary Classroom Literacy Environment: Examining the validity of the TEX-IN3 observation system. Journal of Literacy Research, 36(3), 303–334.
  • International Reading Association. (2000). Excellent Reading Teachers: A position statement of the International Reading Association.  Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy44(2), 193.
  • National Council of Teachers of English Executive Committee. (2017). Statement on Classroom Libraries. Retrieved from https://ncte.org/statement/classroom-libraries/.
  • O’Donnell, A. (2019). Windows, Mirrors, And Sliding Glass Doors. Literacy Today, 36(6), 16-19.
  • Walker, S. and Walker, N. (2018). “My Family Makes This!”: Including Cookbooks in the Classroom Library. The Reading Teacher, 71(6), pp.749-752.
  • Yi, H., Mo, D., Wang, H., Gao, Q., Shi, Y., Wu, P., Abbey, C. and Rozelle, S. (2018). Do Resources Matter? Effects of an In‐Class Library Project on Student Independent Reading Habits in Primary Schools in Rural China. Reading Research Quarterly, 54(3), pp.383-411.
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3 thoughts on “Classroom libraries: All your questions answered (Part 1)”

  1. Love the info. Perfect for our curriculum day when we will be focussing on the workshop model and using classroom libraries.
    My question for you Riz is classroom libraries in Grade 1 & Foundation. There are students who are still reading at low levels. How can I provide a quality range of books that kids can actually read independently?

    Reply

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