Upgrading Your Classroom Library: Building Reading Comprehension

By Justin Lim on October 12, 2009

I knew Jesse's story before we had even met. He had been kicked out of numerous schools and had a history of failing. His probation officer required him to check in regularly. I have to confess, I thought that I was going to be lucky just to get consistent work out of this obviously troubled 9th grader. However, after reading his first writing assignment, I was humbled and reminded again of why we should hold all of our students to the highest of expectations. His writing was outstanding.

After testing his reading comprehension, I soon discovered that he was reading at the 11th grade level. I knew about his past grades and itinerant school history, so one day during lunch, I praised his work and asked him how he learned to read so well. He gave a simple answer, "My sister makes me read books every night."

We all know that the better our students read, the better they perform in all areas of academics. As a result, a number of schools have even blocked out short daily periods for sustained silent reading. While this is great for getting students to read, we have to remember that the key is getting students to read well.

Here are some tips on how to build or upgrade a class library to maximize reading comprehension growth.

1. Level your books - So many teachers are so focused on getting their students to read that they assign texts that are either far too easy or difficult. Research shows that reading comprehension growth is maximized when students read texts that are challenging, but not so much that they are incomprehensible. I generally try to have my students read texts that are just slightly below their lexile score (A lexile is a measurement of reading comprehension. More info here: SRI Target Success). This will keep students from getting demotivated if a text is too difficult or bored if it's too easy.

I level my books by looking them up in Scholastic's Teacher Book Wizard. This site provides a quick way to determine a book's lexile framework and general info. I then divide the books into four levels and separate them accordingly. I tape simple colored round labels on the spines and assign each book a number. This is the setup that I use:

  • Level 1 books - Below 400 lexile, orange labels
  • Level 2 books - 400 - 600 lexile, red labels
  • Level 3 books - 600 - 800 lexile, green labels
  • Level 4 books - 800 and up, blue labels

I then assign a particular level to each student according to ability. Students can only choose books from their level, unless I personally give them permission to read something else.

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2. Building your library - If you are building a new library or trying to add books, I would first suggest looking through your school's book depository. Last year I added over two hundred great books that were sitting around in storage. This year, I also decided to offer my students extra credit for donating books (I have to approve them). In the past two weeks I've added ten.

3. Accountability - Use a regular reading log so that students can record what they've read. Here is a copy of the reading log that I use. Also, when students complete a book they should have a task, such as completing a reader's response or writing a book review.

4. Incentives - I use incentive charts to track how much each student has read. I award points (represented with stamps) according to the length and difficulty of the completed text. I suggest offering no less than three points for short books and no more than twenty for very long books. I then factor these points into my students' grades.

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5. Procedure - Create a system where you can easily track books. I use clipboards with check-out lists and write down who has which book. I only allow students to check out books during silent reading time or during a break. Currently, I've trained all of my student TAs to take charge of checking books in and out.

In my opinion, the best part of having a classroom library is being able to share in the pride that students have at the end of the year. I would say that by May, most of my students will have read more books in my class than ever before. It takes time and effort to build, but once you have a strong library system going, it really pays off. The only problem is that might get kids wanting to talk to you about Gerald from Forged by Fire or trying to show you gross pictures from Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Warm Regards,

Justin Lim

Rosemead High School

El Monte Union High School District

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