How NOT to Organize Your Classroom Library

Text-dependent Instruction

In one of my first roles as a reading specialist in New York City, I was asked to level each classroom’s library. The school I was working in was entrenched in balanced literacy and they wanted to be able to match students with books based on the A–Z results of our benchmark assessment.

And so, for five months, my “PD periods” which were supposed to be time for me to meet with classroom teachers to discuss student progress, were taken over with hours of sorting through books, looking up their A–Z levels, and organizing book bins.

I did this for 10 classrooms, grades K–4. When I got to the two 5th grade rooms, in month five of this long project, I decided to try something different. Instead of leveling the books as I had with the other rooms, I scheduled time to push into each room and have the students organize their library. I laid out the books on the rug and for 45 minutes, students walked around creating categories and making piles of books. By the end of the period, instead of piles of books for each reading level, we had piles that made more sense — Greek mythology, Junie B. Jones, Weather, Animal Characters, Drama, etc. In going through every book in their library, the students discovered old and new favorites, with nearly everyone walking away with a few books to check out that week. 

Looking back on this project, it’s obvious that the 5th-grade way resulted in a sense of investment and ownership for students. When it was time to “shop” for books during the week, they could look for books that were interesting to them, without being restricted to certain bins based on their prior performance. And because students had created the categories themselves, they were also more keen on keeping things organized over time. 

Contrast this with grades K–4, which now had bins that were labeled by letter level. During independent reading time, students would only look through a few bins — those that corresponded to their reading level — and didn’t get to explore the other great literature in their library.

There are many ways to organize a classroom library to support learning. Organizing books by reading levels is not one of them. If your school or classroom has a classroom library that is currently organized by reading levels and you’re looking to make a change that is aligned with the science of reading, check this blog post for more ideas on how to make the switch.