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Teaching Tips

Building & Sustaining Classroom Libraries

October 11, 2023

by: Laura Robb

6 mins


A classroom library is “the little engine that could” of robust, differentiated literacy instruction. When well-stocked, dynamic, and talked-up by teachers, these culturally relevant collections provide all children with access to titles that may be “the” book that switches on fluent reading. In this blog, I share tips for building and sustaining libraries that align with SOR and responsive learning approaches to literacy.

1. Do a fall refresher: Several weeks into the school year, and once you know your students, do an autumn audit. Does the collection reflect their cultures, families, favorite authors, genres, and interests? It's a great time to find and slide in several new books that will amaze them because they are such mirrors of their lives. Each classroom library should have a minimum of 600 unleveled books and a goal to increase the collection to 1,000–1,500 over a couple of years. 

2. Use books as boons to background knowledge: Every educator is running in circles trying to improve early literacy skills, to the point that they can’t see the forest for their trees. Children can’t progress to understanding more complex texts if they lack vocabulary and grade-level content knowledge. So, as you augment your classroom collections, look at your social studies and science topics and themes along with your ELA and CCSS standards. Yes, we want poems, mysteries, nonfiction, humor books, and celebrity bios in the mix, but stock up with instructionally aligned titles, too—in a range of reading levels. You want lots and lots of books on grade level, but plenty above and below grade level expectations. 

3. Combat our screen-scrolling culture: Children—and adults—are not reading books for pleasure the way they did in previous generations, and the likely culprit is the smartphone. Get kids invested in the classroom library by inviting them to help you organize it. Model how to use it and set expectations for checking out and returning books. Students need lots of time to practice reading connected texts independently, and lots of teacher cheerleading and classroom time and routines built in to ensure that happens.

4. Aim for a range of text complexity: In Kindergarten, first, and second grade, teachers feel especially responsible for brokering a fruitful student-to-book match. Children who check out books they can’t decode at all can feel defeated and lose confidence as readers. In Kindergarten and Grade 1, classrooms will have a higher degree of decodable texts, but this is where the science and art of reading come into play: children need access to multiple kinds of texts for independent reading. Wordless picture books, decodables, predictable books, patterned books, and children’s literature (trade books) all have their place and purpose in K–3. Taken together, these books develop knowledge of high-frequency words, vocabulary, and content knowledge. With you there monitoring book selection, children will find great matches with texts that are accessible enough for them. It’s the accessibility of a text that stokes automaticity and that, in turn, powers students’ desire to read independently. 

5. Use read-alouds to entice library-going: Daily read-alouds may be the most powerful thing we teachers can do to build community, vocabulary, knowledge, and positive experiences with books. You can read aloud a book to create a buzz about it, and you can look to your classroom library as a source of dynamically connecting instructional and independent reading in students’ minds. In other words, students shouldn’t see the instructional texts as boring, tough experiences and library books as the “fun” ones. Books should always be fun! Look to the children’s literature experts to find great read-aloud and conversation ideas fast. A few of my favorites are The Ramped Up Read-Aloud by Maria Walther, Read-Alouds with Heart by Dana Clark, Keisha Smith-Carrington, and Jigisha Vyas, Critical Comprehension by Katie Kelly, Lester Laminack, and Vivian Vasquez, and Schools Full of Readers by me and Principal Evan Robb. 

6. Family-friendly library routines: Use the joyful, low-pressure, brief nature of a send-home picture book as a powerful way to encourage parent participation. Develop easy routines and at-home activities that even the most time-crunched family can do. Switch up ideas throughout the year and look for creative ways to tie kid-favorite/class-favorite titles to family outreach nights/bigger school goals, seasonal themes, and cultural and ethnic celebrations. 

Classroom libraries can be conduits for positive change, providing all children access to texts that affirm who they are and open possibilities for what they can become. In our quest to improve literacy rates here and around the globe, our best tool is an old-fashioned book. It provides comfort and joy and the chance for conversation and connection in school and at home. 

Learning Without Tears, best-known and beloved for their Handwriting Without Tears® curriculum, now offers a collection of Decodable Phonics Books that carefully attend to important social studies and culturally diverse representation. 

About the Author

Laura Robb is an author, teacher, coach, and revered speaker on literacy. She is the recipient of the National Council of Teachers of English Richard W. Halle Award for outstanding middle-level educator. Her most recent book is Promote Reading Gains with Differentiated Instruction by Laura Robb, David L. Harrison, & Timothy Rasinski.