Collection Development: Meeting the Needs of Our Emerging Readers

A few years ago, when I began my current position as a school librarian, the most regular library users in my building were our CDC-A (Comprehensive Development Classroom – Activity Based) students. These students receive special education services that are designed for learners with deficits across the curriculum that are significantly below grade level. Teachers in this class emphasize not only academic success but social skills, self-help skills, advocacy skills, and life skills. Our CDC-A students typically have severe disabilities that sometimes prohibit their communication or physical capabilities. These students aged 14-22 are still emerging readers who had great difficulty reading almost all the materials in our school library. 

Providing Materials for Independent Reading 

While the students were always excited to visit and pick out new books, I knew each time they left, they were leaving with books they would not be able to successfully read on their own. So I started doing my research. I had heard of hi-lo (high interest – low readability) books previously, but in my first year as a school librarian I did not know much about what was available. It didn’t take long to identify some resources that met our needs exactly. I quickly came across several options including Orca Book Publishers, Abdo, EPIC Press, and Saddleback Educational Publishing. I discovered some great options that were essentially like early picture books in terms of length, word count, and reading level, but packaged more like your standard young adult titles featuring teen characters and themes. I knew we had to get some of these titles for our collection. I started with a Donors Choose project that was soon fully funded by generous donors. Since that project was successful, I did it again

Now we were in business. The students were so excited to see the new books and these titles also boosted their reading confidence. 

Providing Curriculum Support 

Through conversation with the classroom teacher, I discovered that our CDC-A classroom had virtually no curriculum materials. The teachers currently had no class sets available to use for small reading groups and often used recycled worksheets from elementary school and/or created their own educational resources. We decided to prepare a grant proposal for the Dollar General Literacy Foundation’s Youth Literacy Grants program. We were selected and received $2,000 in the fall of 2018. After doing our research, we found several companies that offered curriculum resources paired with hi-lo titles including Abdo and Saddleback. Ultimately, we used the money to purchase Teen Emergent Reader Libraries and received them just in time for the spring 2019 semester. These kits included sets of multiple hi-lo titles along with a curriculum guide for teachers.

Since receiving the emergent reader libraries, the CDC-A students have been able to have small reading groups at least three times per week, and teacher prep time has been cut drastically. Teachers reported that 85% percent of students who participated in the curriculum last year increased their sight-word identification, fluency, and comprehension by at least one grade level. In addition, student engagement increased markedly. The teachers shared with me a story about a particular student who began the year at a first-grade reading level. He was very apathetic about reading and usually laid his head down and didn’t participate. Once the teachers began using the Emergent Reader libraries he became more engaged and finished the year at a third-grade reading level. 

Our collection analysis now reflects a greater variety of materials across reading levels and almost every student in our school has access to print books they can read independently. How have you addressed reading level through your collection? 

Have you been able to find appropriate materials for emerging readers in your libraries? What about the opposite? Can anyone recommend materials that are suitable for advanced readers, but do not include mature themes? 

How have you been able to partner with teachers in your building to provide access to educational materials they need?


Author: Brandi Hartsell

Brandi Hartsell is the school librarian at Halls High School in Knoxville, TN. She was awarded Teacher of the Year at HHS in 2021. Brandi was also recognized alongside colleagues as recipients of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians (TASL) Teacher Collaboration Award in 2019 and 2021. She has served (and continues to serve) in many leadership roles within TASL. Brandi has presented professional development sessions for TASL, Halls High School, and Knox County Schools. Brandi loves sharing ideas and brainstorming…also cats…and true crime. Follow her on Instagram @hhslibrarytn.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration

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3 replies

  1. This is a much missed stakeholder population when it comes to library collection development. Congrats on the grant and thank you for sharing your story!

  2. I really enjoyed this post! Thank you for shedding light on one way to serve this population of students.

  3. Thank you for this post Brandi and congratulations for securing the grant and creating your Teen Emergent Readers Libraries – I bet your students were thrilled!

    I’m a teacher librarian in training working in the library of a small inner city K-5 school (in BC, Canada) with an antiquated collection that simply doesn’t meet the needs of our students. Approximately 70% of our students are reading at well below grade level. I’m currently in the process of applying for a literacy grant with the goal of infusing our library with ‘just right books’ to promote successful independent reading – high interest, low readability. We have a few Orca publishing books already and will certainly check out the other publishers you listed, regardless of whether or not we are successful with this grant.

    While my focus has been on the elementary level books, I will share the title of one book (a graphic novel that looks like a nice thick novel) which is an absolute favourite with our intermediate students reading at K-1 level:
    Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin.

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