The importance of a classroom library

Kelly Gallagher is one of my teaching heroes. Gallagher teaches high school English and works with teachers across North America to help them help their students improve reading and writing skills. I’m a big fan of his.

In his book Reading Reasons Gallagher says:

Far and away the most important factor [to students reading more] was the establishment of a classroom library. I brought interesting books to my students. I surrounded them with a variety  of high-interest reading materials. I now have 2,500 books in my classroom, and I am convinced that developing this “book flood”…is the single most important thing I have done in my teaching career.

I started building my classroom library last year and in August I took advantage of’s amazing YA sale and my 20 or so books grew to this:

I buy books from Scholastic, second-hand shops, yard sales and take donations from whomever has books to give away. (A student I don’t teach but who hangs out in my classroom sometimes, offered me a whole raft of Goosebumps books, which I gladly took and which were practically brand new!)

I believe that the most important job I have as an English teacher is to create a culture where talking about books is commonplace. I don’t think my job is to tell students what books mean – like they’re baby birds with their mouths open and I am the mama bird who drops the worm of knowledge into their waiting beaks. I do think I have to give my students the vocabulary necessary to articulate their feelings and I do think I have to give them the opportunity to read widely from texts that are entertaining and challenging in equal measure.

 I think high school kills a love of reading for many students. Let’s face it, a non-reader isn’t going to make it past the first 50 pages of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I love Lee’s book, but even I have difficulty slogging through them. Mr. Gallagher suggests that “all students like to read, they just don’t know it yet.” I think most students did like to read, then we get them and we start acting like there is one right answer to be coaxed from a text, and we start testing them all the time about the one or two texts we do cover. (And it would be naive to think that students are reading those texts – the same ones I actually did read 30-odd years ago.)

Building life-long readers is the most important thing I can do in the classroom and one way to start is by putting books into the hands of students. Mr. Gallagher believes we can build readers, too. He suggests the following building blocks:

1. Access to high – interest reading material.

2. Time and a place to read

3.  Teachers model reading

4. Teachers stop grading everything.

5. Teachers provide a structure to their reading program

and finally

6. Students must want to read – they must see what is in it for them.

I think Mr. Gallagher is on the right track or, at least, he’s preaching to the converted. My upper level students read for 30 minutes twice a week.  I read when they do – no hardship for me. I wish they could read more, but lessons are only an hour long. My Writing students are required to log their reading and should be aiming for 100 pages a week. I want them to read a lot because I believe the cornerstone of improving their writing is to read, read, read. The only ‘assignment’ they have to do based on that reading is a book review – not report, review. Otherwise, we spend a few minutes each week talking about the books we’re reading, sharing excellent writing and one day we even did Book Speed Dating – which was a lot of fun.

I love my small, but mighty – and certainly growing – classroom library because it’s, well, in my classroom. There’s never an excuse for a kid to not have a book (or graphic novel, or newspaper or magazine or comic book…) Better still, when I see them deliberating I can actually help them select  something to read and if I do a good job, one book will almost always lead to another.

In a perfect world, all students will have been exposed to books from a very early age. I was. My kids were. But I have students who haven’t grown up in a house where people read, where there haven’t even been any books to read. These are the students who must be taught how to hold a book so the brand new spine isn’t broken, the cover torn, the pages folded. These are also the students who, with luck, will discover the delights hidden between the covers.

According to Scholastic, survey results indicate that classroom libraries increase reading by 60%. The paper goes on to say that “teachers can promote better reading performance by reading to children daily and by having them interact with booksthrough the extensive use of classroom libraries.”

We can’t just tell them reading is important. We can’t just talk the talk, we have to walk the walk.

One book at a time. One kid at a time.

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