The research is clear: Children become motivated capable readers when they are surrounded by wonderful books and are given time each day to read independently. Students in classrooms with libraries read 50–60% more than students who do not have the same access to books. (Catapano, 2009; Morrow, 2003; Kim, 2003; Neuman, 1999). Furthermore, additional time spent reading each day is linked to higher achievement scores. Effective classroom libraries are key foundations for building classroom communities steeped in literacy, and they foster independent reading. This culture of literacy includes:
The Power of Agency
Have you ever witnessed the pure and absolute joy that children have when they experience a book club or fair? Why does such joy come from those specific moments as opposed to other time spent with books? One answer—agency. When students are provided opportunities to make decisions based on their own interests, they shift the ownership of their literacy from their teachers and parents to themselves. That pride and confidence creates more engaged and dedicated readers.
Within a rich classroom library, children find books that vary in tone, level of complexity, format, and style. Children can read the classics as well as many new and popular books on subjects that they want to explore. They find books that allow them to stretch their perceptions of themselves as readers by experiencing a variety of fiction and informational texts. Becoming familiar with a wide array of texts prepares them for the array of texts they will encounter in school, on devices, and out in the world.
Ideally, every classroom would contain a robust classroom library that’s filled with hundreds of books that reflect the mosaic of our society. Yet excellent texts with accurate, dignified, and appealing portrayals of all genders, cultures, orientations, and neurodiversities are still largely lacking from most classroom and school libraries. And this lack of diversity takes a toll. Messages are embedded in textual mirrors and windows. When children do not see themselves in books—or worse, see only distorted or stereotypical reflections—they can internalize negative cultural views and feel that school is not a place where they matter. Positive textual images can change that, resulting in students who demonstrate higher self-esteem, better social-emotional functioning, and increased classroom engagement (Schwartz 2019.)
Students of all ages enjoy and benefit from interactive read-alouds. Using collections with whole-class read-aloud materials can introduce a unit of study or otherwise support lesson plans in and out of the ELA block. Listening to read-alouds allows all students to react and comment on a text, regardless of level or reading ability.
Social-Emotional Connections to Deepen Comprehension
In order to get students thinking—and talking—about books, teachers should ask them to focus on the characters and why they do the things they do. Researchers have explicitly tied reading literary fiction to social and emotional growth, especially empathy. “‘What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others’, explains researcher David Comer-Kidd … Transferring the experience of reading fiction into real-world situations is a natural leap, Kidd argues, because “the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of social experience, it is a social experience’” (The Guardian 2013).
Linking Reading and Writing
As students come to see themselves as writers, they will be interested in models they can use to make their own words sing. Students think more critically and creatively about new books when they explore them together, and “writing in response to text has been shown to have a positive effect on reading comprehension” (Graham and Hebert 2011).
Making Independent Reading Nonnegotiable
Daily independent reading is one of strongest predictors of academic success for students, so guide your students to choose books that fit their interests. Provide them with conferences that allow them to think critically about what they read. Read a book of your own along with them, and model reading as a lifelong pleasure.
Classroom libraries and supportive conversations about texts are a critical part of school success. Children need access to books and time to read them. As Donalyn Miller, author of the best-seller The Book Whisperer, explains, “We teachers have enough anecdotal evidence to know that students who read the most are the best spellers and thinkers.”