Build it, and they will READ! New language arts teachers at my school have asked me if they really need to spend money on classroom books. I get it. Books are expensive, and new teachers are already opening up their own wallets for furnishings and other class necessities. Further, many may reason that the school library is already providing students with easy access to books. But if you truly want to encourage independent reading (and you should, but that’s another post), you absolutely must have a selection of engaging, quality books on hand in your classroom. You don’t have to break the bank to do it either. Here are my tips for curating a classroom library that will entice even the most reluctant readers to dive into a good book.
Tip #1: Making Books Accessible
There are two reasons why having books in your classroom makes reading more accessible. First, students come in contact with your class books every single time they enter your room. They don’t have to make a special trip to the library or wait until the whole class visits. Second, books from the classroom library are often available when school library books are not. For example, my reluctant readers often forgot to return school library books they’d checked out, making them ineligible for new check-outs. Also, popular titles are often on waiting lists, so having them on hand in your classroom gives your students an alternative way to enjoy them.
Maximize this accessibility by showcasing your books. Organize books using student-friendly categories like Adventure, Biographies, Science Fiction, Graphic Novels, Books Girls Like, and Books Boys Like. Then, group them in labeled baskets, with the covers facing out. Publishers put a lot of effort into enticing readers to pick up a particular title—catchy titles and appealing cover art. Take advantage of their marketing to sell your students on reading.
Struggling readers often need different books than those typically carried in a school library. Who knows your student’s interests and reading ability better than you? My library offers many Hi-Lo titles with teen themes written in language accessible to struggling readers. In addition, I stock several popular novels translated into Spanish to encourage my English-language learners to dive into books they can later discuss with their English-speaking peers. If you’re lucky enough to have a responsive media center specialist at your school, they may be able to order these types of books as well. Frankly, I just found it infinitely faster (Amazon Prime 2-Day Shipping) and easier (no paperwork) to purchase some myself.
It won’t matter how many books you make available in your class library—if students don’t find them interesting, they’ll gather more dust than readers. I’ve put together a list of books that have been wildly popular among my middle grade students [here]. It took nearly ten years to assemble them all, and I rotate new titles in throughout the year (and remove those that are no longer in demand). A great resource for identifying promising new titles are state reading lists that employ volunteer librarian-readers to peruse several hundred relatively new titles every year before making their recommendations on the very best of them. These lists are generally crafted to reflect a wide range of reading levels and student interests. Two of the most well-regarded MS book lists are issued by Florida’s Sunshine State Young Readers and Texas’s Lone Star Reading List. If you want a turnkey solution, Scholastic has grade level collections recommended by reading expert Laura Robb. These collections include two copies each of 50 different books at reading and interest levels appropriate for that grade. Truthfully, I have a few sets of duplicate books for use with reading circles, but I prefer to devote my limited budget and shelf space to as many different titles as possible.
Like all teachers I am, by necessity, frugal. The only time I pay full price for a book is when I’m purchasing it at a book fair that supports my school. Most of my books come from eBay auctions or other used booksellers like Thriftbooks or Better World Books (which supports libraries and literacy campaigns). Where possible, buy hard cover books (they hold up ten times longer with my tough-on-books middle schoolers) rated Very Good, Like New, or New. I also solicit donations from parents of any age-appropriate books their children have already read by including a slide in my “Open House” presentation and a mention on my class webpage. Also, find out when your local library is having a sale by checking the Book Sale Finder website. This is a great place to stock up on quality hardbound books.
Tip #3: Managing Your Collection
When your goal is to put books into the hands of your students, you need to establish an easy system for check-in/check-out and follow-up for missing titles. If you use a smart phone or iPad in the classroom, there are many free or inexpensive apps that simplify this process such as Bookcrawler, Level It Books, and Book Buddy Pro. I personally liked Book Buddy. But for many years, I went Old School, pasting book pockets and inserting library cards inside the cover of each book. When students checked out a book, I’d file the library card with their name and date (students were trained to do this on Week One) in a small plastic card file. I organized cards by student last names (to identify students who already had a book out), but you can also organize them by date (to track when books are due) or by title (simplifies reshelving returned books).
One thing I highly recommend is that teachers write their last name on the pinched pages of the top and bottom of each book. Bookplates with your name on it are nice, but it’s too easy to overlook a lost book left on a bus seat, kitchen counter, or lost-and-found bin if it isn’t prominently advertised as being borrowed. Before I did this, I’d say I lost several dozen books each year. Once I added my name in bold black letters, my returns spiked—and I only had to replace six or seven books at year’s end.
This brings up a good point. Expect to lose a few books each year. Consider it a fixed cost–like the hundreds of “loaned” pencils we will never see again. If the book was a popular classic, I replace it. But if it was an aging fad fiction title (think: Twilight, Maze Runner, Divergent, or any book that has since been made into a tween movie) I use the loss as an opportunity to update my collection.
You probably already have several books lying around that you’ve read either in consideration for a novel study or just to converse with your students about them. If so, your library is already under construction. Once you’ve accumulated at least one book for each student you teach, you’ll have enough to start lending them out (not every student will borrow your books). Until then, just making them available for students to read in class will go a long way toward establishing a culture of loving literature.