Classroom Libraries in the Digital Age

by Tom Nieman

classroom library

Classroom library | image courtesy Lizmarie_AK via Flickr (CC BY)

Last year, in an effort as a consultant to help a school with huge reading deficits among its students, I suggested that they look closely at Dick Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, which recommends that students spend 300 minutes a week just reading. Like so much other advice in this world, it was ignored.

After all, to reach that amount of reading would require a huge effort and redirection of what schools normally do. They had other plans already slotted in place. Besides, to reach 300 minutes each week, here was the kind of commitment that was needed:

  • 30 minutes each day of “sustained silent reading” (SSR) in reading/ELA (for a total of 150 minutes a week)
  • one day each week reading trade books in either social studies or science to complement the core instruction (for a total of 50 minutes)
  • 20 minutes each day after school as homework or as an after-school program (for a total of another 100 minutes)

To many educators, this quantity of reading seems unachievable. It is also out of sync with today’s digital classroom, where students are spending time making movies, mastering Google Docs or Edmodo, or playing “educational” apps on their tablets. (And, no, I don’t think reading on websites and apps is the same as reading Charlotte’s Web or Old Yeller.)

Why Is a Classroom Library Needed?

Years ago, schools worked to build classroom libraries sufficient to instill a love of reading in their students. In “The Importance of the Classroom Library,” Susan Neuman cites the research that supports the building of classroom libraries—namely, the time spent reading increased 60 percent and the number of literacy-related activities doubled. According to different authorities, the recommended size of classroom libraries was around 300 different titles in each classroom, or about 10 titles per student. The wide selection and high literary value of these titles were important to their effectiveness. Students like to choose what they read, and they like to read good stuff (at least by their standards).

Yet the classroom library in today’s tablet-laden schools is still largely paper. Digital classroom libraries have proven hard—read “extremely difficult and expensive”—to come by. Why? Because creative works such as children’s books are controlled by authors who hold the copyright, and acquiring the rights to large libraries of titles has become very difficult. Digital ebooks cost anywhere from $9.50 (Lois Lowry) to $12 (David Macaulay) per copy—about comparable, in other words, to what it cost to buy a paperback book.

What Are the Options for Digital Reading?

Many of the new education startups offer a digital reading experience, but few of them do so with literature. For example, Newsela and Achieve3000 license news stories and rewrite them to different readability levels. ThinkCerca offers lessons woven around provocative topics, but the reading isn’t exactly literary.

Scientific Learning Reading Assistant boasts more than 300 titles, but I do not believe any of them are what teachers would call “authentic” literature. Likewise with Learning A-Z, with more than 1,000 leveled titles, the books are of good quality but definitely not authentic trade books like the ones that constitute most classroom libraries.

The book distributors—Follett, Book Source, Perma-Bound—who once supplied many of the classroom libraries with paperbacks, have yet to provide compelling ebook solutions, and the ones they have are pricey. Much the same can be said for the traditional educational publishers, who license rights from trade books for their anthologies but do not own the titles outright.

From my perspective, one good option is MyOn, a digital program available from Capstone, that now claims more than 6,000 predominantly nonfiction titles and seems reasonably priced. Another option is OverDrive, an app that allows borrowing of digital books from the local library, just like with paper books, except popular titles Skylark and Island of the Blue Dolphins are usually checked out (by the vociferous reading types like my nephew who brings books to the college football games we “watch” together in the fall).

Other options exist but seemed to me very difficult to use—for example, Scholastic’s Storia or Subtext, where teachers need to bring their own literature. One could get worn out simply trying all of the new digital solutions out there. I tried last year at the International Reading Association conference, but found few real solutions currently exist. “Free” books—the ones in public domain—are readily available, yet these titles are appropriate mostly for older readers age 12 and up.

But Is Having Class Libraries Really that Important?

The short answer is “yes.” Students need authentic literature to read, and teachers know that. They are not giving up their multiple paper copies of Number the Stars, Holes, or Homeless Bird. Paperback libraries still exist in classrooms around the country because an adequate digital substitute has yet to appear. What is important to understand is the educational value of these libraries. The multitude of books in them generates interest in and a love of reading; they create conversations about books among students who share titles they have read; they serve the all-important function of building students’ vocabularies and reading fluency; and they extend the school day by being portable and accessible in and out of class.

With so much emphasis now on innovation, flipped and 1-to-1 classrooms, it is easy to forget that the majority of student reading occurs from paper books in classroom libraries. The 300-minutes-a-week will not come from apps or Google Docs that teachers post for their students to read. The real reading of students has, and probably still will be for a while, in the paperback libraries they sit next to every day and cart around back and forth from school in their backpacks.

Tom bioTom Nieman is president of Green Light Professional Development and Nieman Inc., a privately held company that specializes in developing curriculum materials for educational publishers.