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Classroom Libraries--The Focal Point of a Literacy Classroom

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

Classroom libraries are the focal point of the literacy classroom. Students need to be given choice, options and time. @KyleneBeers tweets often about the importance of reading. One tweet in particular is my favorite (okay…one of my many favorites).

She stated that struggling readers need 3 things:

  • books to read

  • time to read

  • more books to read

In the past twenty years of my career, I’ve met many elementary teachers and some middle school literacy teachers across the South from New Mexico to Texas to Georgia to South Carolina that wanted to build their classroom libraries to look like mine and my coworkers’ when I showed them pictures or they visited our classrooms. My classroom library had volume! There were choices for readers of varying levels. It took a while to build that library but it was definitely worth it!

Now, I saw those same teachers building their classroom libraries—some with their own money, some with district supplied classroom libraries—but, they were building volume in their classroom libraries. However, they had a large quantity of books but did not want to put it all out. They wanted to filter what students would read and when students would get a new selection of books, and then take the old selection away. I walked into classrooms where they had a classroom library—labeled, leveled and attractive! BUT…high above on the very top shelf out of student reach were more baskets of books just taunting the students or baskets of books behind cleverly designed curtains that students were not to go behind.

If we want students to develop and foster a love of reading,

we have to give them choices—all at the same time!

One teacher even frowned at me when I delivered her brand new, district purchased classroom library of 300 new titles because she said she didn’t have room to put that many books and asked “Should I only put half of it out?” I smiled and politely said, “I’m sure you will find plenty of room so that your children will have a variety of choices to choose from for reading.” Guess what? She did it!

Common questions teachers have about classroom libraries are:

How will I monitor all those books?

How will students “check out” books?

How will I manage the classroom library?


Before the start of the year, I would organize my library into content topics, similar themes, authors, series, etc. I would label the baskets and have it looking nice and attractive for the first day of school along with some empty baskets left unlabeled. I would also have baskets of random books that were just labeled with very general titles such as, Picture Books, Nonfiction books, Poetry books.

On the first day of school, I would introduce the classroom library and give a short tour. Then, during that first week of school, I would encourage students to shop through the baskets and browse the books. I encouraged them to look for sets of books that would make sense in a basket with a label. When students found a set and shared it with the class, I would make a big deal about reorganizing the library to make it easier to find what we need. Students were then wanting to find all kinds of different smaller baskets. This was GREAT! Students now had ownership over the organizing of the library and were more likely to manage those baskets according to the labels.

Then, during those first 10-15 days of Launching Readers’ Workshop, students would be taught how to choose books and how to return them when they were done. Encourage students to reorganize books that were misplaced in the wrong basket. During the first couple of weeks, take a few books and ask students which basket they should be placed in. This will provide practice and keep students thinking about caring for and managing the organized classroom library.

Now, about checking out books, my students just selected a couple of books for their book basket and returned a book when they finished it. It was the honor system! The guideline was that they should have no more than 3 books in their book basket—at least one fiction and one nonfiction! We were definitely not a perfect classroom. Many times in the beginning of the year, I had to reteach the guideline and have a “book basket clean out”! However, as the year progressed, the students got the idea and we didn’t have to do that very often. Then, it became just an individual conference issue with a couple of students.

Managing and keeping up with all those books was a different matter. My classroom library had been purchased with my own money because my school district at the time was not supplying classroom libraries. So, I tried to keep an eye on all those books, but if one or two walked away, I couldn’t get upset about it. I would just tell myself that at least they have a book in their house now! I know when the school district purchases the class library, it’s an entirely different matter. So, you have to develop some system of keeping up with the books, but don’t let the system cause discouragement in student book choice.

When designing and organizing your classroom library, think about the most cozy library or bookstore you've visited and work around that idea. The library can be so inviting and bring warmth and inspiration to your classroom.

Until next time...

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