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The Reading Coach

Building a Better
Classroom Library

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"The policy of having large classroom libraries was found to be 'one of the most important differential policies between high-scoring and low-scoring countries' . . . a powerful indicator for both nine-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds." So says an international study by the Australian School Library Association (Report on the Impact of School Libraries on Student Achievement).

Classroom libraries provide books to those who have none. They extend and reinforce curriculum, foster independent discussions, encourage exploration into unknown genres and areas of high interest. They include not just print volumes, but also computers and audio books. And they certainly are not limited to elementary school classrooms. I recently visited Dr. Reba Wadsworth, a Decatur, Alabama, principal, and went away inspired. Her library overwhelmed her desk, her bookcases, and her windows. With volume and variety, she proclaimed: "Reading is important and informative, fascinating and fun." What does your library say to its visitors?

An effective library collection contains more than "should" reads. It also holds the most intriguing, intoxicating, invigorating fact and fiction, rotated and revitalized regularly.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR LIBRARY?

Reading Interest Inventory

Getting students to use a classroom library is critical to its success. Several times a year, place a box of index cards (Try Oxford Extreme Color Index Cards in lavender, orange, and chartreuse!) on a nearby shelf. When students use a resource, ask them to give it the one-two-three:
1. Write down the title and author.
2. Score the resource on a scale of 1-5; with five being the highest.
3. Compose a one to two sentence review. (How helpful was it? What was the best/worst part?)

The comments will help you cull out the duds and confirm the keepers. Set up a simple reward system to make the review process fun, and to encourage everyone to participate.

The questions below will help you evaluate the contents of your classroom library:

  • Do you have a library?
    Elementary, middle-, and high-school classrooms all benefit from a library. Do you have a recommended reading list? Include titles from that list as well as complementary titles. Are certain areas of your curriculum sparse? Fill in gaps in the curriculum with books in your library. Students aren't engaged? Find titles to aid understanding (fiction on the Civil Rights movement or artists of the Renaissance, or the Guinness Book of World Records). Include high-interest or fun materials (like magazines or e-books).
  • What materials are in it?
    Many young people have a limited view of reading that's reinforced when all they have to read are books. Include such magazines as National Geographic or Sports Illustrated, how-to handbooks (on PowerPoint, word processing, and so on), and comic books. No money? Solicit small donations from local businesses or parents. Write a mini-grant. Start an inter-classroom cooperative, rotating materials to keep each library fresh. Collect menus from the newest pizza shop in town, and user manuals for basic software programs. Don't simply duplicate what your media center already has. Ask your media specialist for additional suggestions.
  • Do the materials match your students' independent reading levels?
    Evaluate in the fall and reevaluate periodically as students progress. Do your students need predictable text? Books with sight words or decodable text? Challenging text, with such supports as graphs, pictures or sidebars? More engaging, complex reading? Match the range of readers in your classroom. Always include picture books (some are appropriate for middle and high school). Investigate such genres as multi-cultural (Beautiful Warrior: The Legend of the Nun's Kung Fu, by Emily Arnold McCully, Levine Books, 1998); historical fiction (When Jessie Came Across the Sea, by Amy Hest, Candlewick Press, 1997); or biography (Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein, by Don Brown, Houghlin-Mifflin, 2004).
  • Does your library contain high interest materials for both boys and girls?
    Include books written by women and men. For 9th and 10th graders, add your state's driver's license study manual. Find fiction that displays believable characters facing real issues (both within and outside your students' experience).
  • Do you have supplemental materials to reinforce four major curriculum themes you teach each year? Does your library offer opportunities to explore further into areas of greater interest?
    Connecting your library to major classroom goals promotes clear expectations. Some students need to hear information more than once, or in different formats, for it to "click."
  • Is the space inviting?
    Ask a teacher or student from another class for an opinion: Can students reach the books easily? Are there enough materials with enough variety? Ask yourself and your students "How can I make our library more appealing?"
  • Have you set expectations and opportunities for students to use your classroom library?
    Take 5-10 minutes daily or weekly to promote the collection and student selection. Use the library yourself (for research, read alouds, and book talks) so students see its value. Even the best classroom library is worthless if it just gathers dust.

With the above guidelines, you can create a classroom library students will turn to for information, research, pleasure, and comfort. Let the ideas expand your collection or create a new resource for your students. Most importantly, use your library to increase opportunities for student learning and engagement, and to turn them on to the power of reading.

MORE RESOURCES

See the following for more help choosing appropriate text for your classroom library:

For a more unique, appealing collection, also try books from small regional publishers, such as Peachtree of Atlanta, Georgia, Sleeping Bear Press of Chelsea, Michigan, and Rising Moon, of Flagstaff, Arizona.

About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller has a library science degree from Florida State University. Her writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,Parenthood.com,Education World,Family Network, and BabyZone. Be sure to visit Cathy's Web site at www.readingisforeveryone.org. Click to read a complete bio.

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