Making Friends with Books

The first few weeks of school are busy with building routines and community.  But just as important – building relationships with books is critical in setting the tone of a classroom full of readers. Here are some practical ways I accomplished both – building friends with books and with each other.

Choose the “just right” read alouds everyday. Children find comfort and purpose in the texts we read. From the shy student who thought it was hilarious I didn’t have a purple tounge like Mrs. Watson to the class conflict we resolved from sharing our scales like the rainbow fish, books build threads that tie a classroom community together. Picking books that represent your goals, classroom community and big ideas remains pertinent to this selection.  The second week into school I started my first chapter book read aloud to lay the foundation for important comprehension strategies and effectively refocus students when their stamina and attention lags. Below are some of my favorites and a unique list from Nerdy Book Club to explore.


Bring books home the first day and every day.  I took a risk here and opened my classroom library before establishing clear boundaries and expectations.  My purpose was twofold. The classroom library is not mine, it is the readers. Having access to books builds interests, investment and connections to home. It has given me plenty of teachable moments and potential ideas for lessons to come. Yes, students are picking books way above their independent levels, but they are reading, talking about books and developing an important habit of taking books wherever they go.

Watch and talk with kids. In a recent blog post Jennifer Serravallo shared ways to get to know your readers.  She recommended kid watching while documenting observations on a class checklist.  After two weeks of this I know which kids think every book is too easy and which ones worry about picking one that is too hard.  I know their interests, their engagement  and possible reading goals.  I also know who is able to sustain working for more than 10 minutes and who will need scaffolding.  I will get to the more formal assessments of reading skills, but strategic kidwatching has given me information about my students as readers that no diagnostic could.  Here is a blank checklist for observations or an Excel editable option to use.

Partner kids based on interests, not reading levels.  This idea came about through kid watching. When building a community of readers, children need opportunities to talk about books with others.  As the year goes on they will be strategically paired with readers who have similar needs.  But right now, as we all become friends, reading next to someone who has the same interests, regardless of their reading level is a powerful human connection.

Above all, focus on building a community of readers and writers, not a community of rules and procedures. Students thrive in a space where learning is not governed by rules  and compliance but the universal need to communicate. A love of literacy conveys the need for routines and expectations within a classroom community.

Good Bye Leveled Library

Every conference began this way.  “What are you working on today as a reader?” Response:  “I want to read yellow (aka above-grade level) books.”  Despite my varied best attempts to instill in this reader the purpose for reading at his independent level and my knowledge that he may never read “yellow” books that year, his reading goal remained the same.  This was a direct failure on my part and I was far too frequently hearing students want to advance to the next level – not wanting to find the next great book to read.

This problem nagged at me all school year, until I attended the NCRA conference and heard Donalyn Miller as the keynote speaker.  She spoke directly to me – and my aspiring “yellow” readers.  In reference to a short blog post by Irene Fountas my discomfort was remedy. Leveled texts are a tool for teachers to plan for instruction and monitor progress – NOT a label for students and parents.  I had permission to rip the red, green, blue and yellow stickers off the books in my classroom library – and I did.  Well, I first wrote the DRA level in teeny tiny numbers on the back of each book for my reference.

While liberating at first, I’ve returned to my classroom library, trying to figure out how to arrange the unleveled books while scaffolding readers to select books they can read.

Most books are organized by a category.  Kids need opportunities to select books they have background knowledge about and motivation to read.  Sorting through leveled books to find one that fits these two criteria takes kids mental energy away from picking a readable book.  By setting up the library where kids can easily locate books they already know about and are interested in reading, they have more capacity to look through that limited selection and find a book they can actually read.

Sometimes Teacher’s Pay Teacher’s is worthwhile, where I opted for $5 book bin labels instead of creating my own. 

Some books are organized by reading skills.  After sorting by topic I still had lots of books that were initially labeled “beginning readers.”  I wanted to avoid ALL labeling of this sort, so decided to group them by reading goals.  Typically beginning readers are working on decoding and fluency.  I have bins that match those levels so kids can also shop according to their reading goals. Additionally, more advanced books have new vocabulary and multi-syllabic words with corresponding labels.

Easier books in each bin have a “smiley face” tag.  The purpose is two-fold.  Beginning readers typically have a more challenging time sorting through books to find one that fits. The smiley face is a simple cue to direct them toward books with less complexity.  Additionally, more advanced readers might check these books out when trying a new topic where they have limited background knowledge.

Now I’m eagerly awaiting for my readers to arrive and get the right books into the right hands at the right time.

Update: check out Good Bye Level Library Part #2 for five lessons to support readers selecting their own books