thoughts on classroom libraries. or: the case for an un-leveled library.

one of the most challenging parts of teaching reading workshop is keeping a pulse on what kids are reading, and if they’re in books that are just right. in our classroom, we use the term “just right” to mean books they can read with at least 97% accuracy and comprehend. we use fountas and pinnell’s guided reading levels to level books and determine our students’ just right (i.e. independent) reading levels.

we know it would be easier for us to know that our kids are in just right books if we had a leveled library, and they were only picking from their just right bin, which is labeled with their just right level. our experience, though, is that that practice doesn’t build confident students who know themselves as readers. and so, you won’t find leveled bins in our classroom library.

now, before we go forward, there are times of the year, like partnership or book club units, that we give students a choice of books to read from a pre-selected group of books that are based on their reading levels. (for primary grades, we could imagine giving some choice to kids from books we’ve pre-selected that we know are their independent level for part of what’s in their book baggies.) and there are some students who definitely need frequent conferences because they’re not in a just right book and need guidance toward books that are just right. our experience, though, is that the majority of students can handle the responsibility of choosing just right books for themselves the majority of the time.

so, what groundwork do we lay at the beginning of the year?

our students come to us having had colored dots on their books and bins, each color corresponding to a different guided reading level. so, while they don’t know their reading level per se, they do know which dot they are. this creates readers who say things like, “i’m a hot pink reader,” readers who have an awareness of how their dot compares to the dots of their peers. when these readers go to the public library or to the book store or look at a book on amazon, they have little awareness of what makes a book feel just right to them; we’re actually not sure how they’d know at all, except for recognizing an author or a series, since books in the real world don’t have dots. (or letters labeling their level.)

it’s a big deal when we tell our students on the first or second day of school – whenever our first reading mini-lesson is – that there are no dots on our books, that the job of choosing just right books is theirs, that we’re here to help them, but that it’s their responsibility to make sure that they’re in a book that feels just right to them, which is the book that will grow them to be a stronger reader.

once we’ve said that, we teach a series of mini-lessons focused on choosing just right books, during which we focus on:

  • we teach kids what we’ve learned from reading researchers, which is that the way readers make big growth as readers – the way that they, too, will grow to be stronger readers – is to spend lots of time reading. but not reading books that are hard or easy, but books that are just right. one way they can be sure the book is just right is by flipping to any page and doing the three finger check (this helps to approximate if the book is going to be read with 97% accuracy). if there are more than three words on a page that the reader doesn’t know – and we emphasize that these could be words that they don’t know how to read as well as words they can read but do not know the meaning of – then the book is likely not just right.
  • reading the words isn’t all that makes a reader, though. if we can read the words with accuracy, next we need to be sure we’re understanding what we’re reading. to check our comprehension we can notice: do we have a 3D movie with surround sound playing in our head as we read; can we retell what we’ve read; do we find parts funny or sad; are we having ideas about the characters as we’re reading? these are broken across several days worth of mini-lessons, and revisited often.
  • we play up getting through books quickly. not quickly as in we’re speed reading and not really understanding or thinking about what we’re reading, but we’re moving through the books at about a page per minute (maybe a little more or a little less).
  • when we’re in a just right book, it feels good.
  • for the first few weeks of school, we often have students check-in and reflect with one another in the morning about their reading the night before – does the book you’re reading still feel just right? if so, how do you know? if it doesn’t, how did you figure that out?
  • we celebrate when kids abandon books, saying things like, “you must feel so proud of yourself that you’re taking your reading so seriously that you’re making sure you’re in a just right book.” and, “it takes bravery to be honest about your reading. that must feel so good to you. you’re working hard to grow to be a stronger reader.” in this way, we’re working to build a culture in our classroom that celebrates the differences among us and being honest about where we are right now (because we’re constantly growing, so it’s no big deal we’re not where we want to be yet).

after the first few weeks of school, most of our kids are in just right books and can articulate how they know it’s a just right book. our kids’ reading identities are beginning to develop around the types of readers they are – readers who love a particular series or author or genre – rather than the level that they read. in fact, there’s very little talk around the difficulty of books, and instead the focus is on the fact that we’re all different and so it makes sense that we’d be in different books.

then, once the groundwork has been laid, what work do we do to get our library organized?

we’ve had years that we started the year with the library already organized, but most recently we’ve started the year with an unorganized library. we think that having the kids help organize the library gives them ownership over it and also helps them get to know the books in our library better.

a week or so into school, most of our kids will have finished at least one book, and are ready to begin thinking about a bin that that book could fit into. we give a few examples of possible bins for books we’ve read as a class, emphasizing that we’re using longer phrases that really describe the books inside rather than single words like, “mysteries.” once we have a few bin examples, we ask if anyone’s read a book that would fit in that bin, and, if so, we make a stack of books together. going forward, as students finish a book, their job is to decide if it fits in a bin we’ve already labeled, and then add it to that bin, or to start a new bin for their book.

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piles of books that were organized by students during a few minutes of their independent reading time. they labeled the stack with a post-it with the proposed bin label written on it, and we made larger, easy to read labels after school.

it’s a slower process, for sure, but one that gives opportunities for lots of talk around books and chances to see and get to know the books in our library well. after a month or so, a good chunk of our library is organized, and since students are more familiar with classifying books, we’ll pass out a stack to each table and ask them to categorize those books for us, either adding them to bins we already have or creating new bins.

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bins in our classroom library labeled with the student-authored book bin labels.

in these ways, we shift the focus away from the levels of the books and onto the books and readers themselves. and, while we of course still have knowledge of the levels of books our kids are reading, we find that the feeling around reading in our room is much more positive when levels are removed from what the kids are focusing on.

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3 thoughts on “thoughts on classroom libraries. or: the case for an un-leveled library.

  1. ReadWriteThruLife says:

    Perfect timing for this topic Tara and Kate. I have empty shelves in my classroom with bins and piles of books on the floor. I was planning to label them by genre, author, subject rather than reading level. Now I am encouraged to just put them into the bins, pop the bins on the shelves and let the kids decide the bin labels. By the way, this is my new first grade classroom and on the one hand I am so excited about it and on the other I am very aware that getting young readers off to a good start is oh so critical.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. elle1955 says:

    You make your case!!! Anyone reading this can see that it is not just as simple as un-leveling the library, but that it is all of the teaching to help kids understand and reflect upon themselves as readers that makes it possible. I love that you include the exact language that you use with kids because this is crucial and, I know, intentional.

    Liked by 1 person

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