Strides in Reading: Classroom Libraries for Every Reader

Type: Article
Topics: Curriculum & Assessment, School Administrator Magazine

November 01, 2019

In one New Jersey district, students learn how to choose books at their independent and instructional reading levels.
Nancy Lubarsky reads to two students and wears a cow finger puppet
Nancy Lubarsky uses finger puppets while reading poetry during her tenure as superintendent in Mountainside, N.J.

If you walk down a hallway at just about any time at either of the two schools in Mountainside, N.J., you probably will observe students thumbing through stacks of books on shelves or in bins, selecting ones that interest them.

Years ago, this type of reading behavior was noticeable only in the local town library. It was the only opportunity children had to select books the way adults do: by looking at the cover, reading the blurbs and comparing it to other books and authors they’ve read.

But thanks to Lucy Calkins and the readers workshop approach to reading that she developed at Columbia University’s Teachers College, the teachers in New Jersey’s Mountainside School District provide students with these critical “adult” skills. Students learn how proficient readers access books and about the many choices and purposes available to guide their book selections.

Choosing Titles

In the readers workshop framework, students learn how to choose books at their independent and instructional reading levels. Kindergarten teacher Stephanie Ianniello put it this way: “In our class, the children ‘book shop’ once a week for new books.”

She asks her young students to select a shared reading book or poem (typically something they’ve read multiple times) and one book from the classroom library not on their level (something too easy or a challenge).

If they are reading in a specific genre, then they shop only in that genre. If they are learning about story elements (character, dialogue, etc.), they focus on fiction in their selections. They look at the cover and specific patterns they have been taught to see if the book meets the criteria and their interest.

Fifth-grade teacher Lori Topel arms students with tools to become autonomous in book selection, which they do once a week in class. She uses assessments, such as readers workshop’s running records, to match students with the right reading levels. If students get stuck in their book shopping, they flip through a book buzz binder, another workshop tool, to see what other students have said about a potential book choice.

Topel shares a story about a disengaged student who had shown little interest in fantasy books. But one particular text really piqued his interest. When reading time ended, she had to almost pry the book out of the student’s hands to transition to the next subject. When she assured him he could bring the book home to finish that night, he complied. The next day, he reported the book was his new favorite and that his mother had ordered the entire series for him to read over the summer.

Without granting him the freedom to choose, Topel believes her student might never have developed a genuine love of reading that she said “appears to be growing before my eyes.”

a paper reads Emmas shopping list
Posters in a kindergarten class in Mountainside promote students’ book selections.

Students feel they are authentic readers in the real world, just like adults, rather than viewing reading as something that happens only in language arts class. As a result, students genuinely love reading and talking about books. They recommend books to their friends, participate in classroom book clubs and check out books to take home. They are truly a community of readers.

Library Support

These classroom book libraries didn’t happen overnight in Mountainside (where I served as superintendent for eight years), a small, suburban K-8 district located 40 minutes outside New York City. With our limited operating budget, it took several years to create well-stocked libraries in each classroom.

One key strategy was our use of a crowdsourcing organization, Donor’s Choose. Teachers wrote mini-grant proposals for a variety of thematic/genre book collections. Then parents, friends, family members and (if a teacher was lucky) others from across the country funded their projects. A side benefit was generating buy-in to the new reading program among teachers and the community.

Mountainside teachers continue to apply for these grants when they need to update their collections or introduce new themes. Readers workshop has transformed the way our students think about reading. themes. Readers workshop has transformed the way our students think about reading.


Nancy Lubarsky

Poet and Retired Superintendent