A big part of my job as a School Library Coordinator in New York City is to support schools in revitalizing neglected library spaces. And, more often than not, the biggest task is to update the library collection. Untouched for five, ten, and twelve years, the collections are a time capsule of what was considered ideal reading for students: subject-specific nonfiction, classics, award-winners, and biographies.
Few, if any, of those books were checked out by students.
Raising Reading Scores
Many of these schools are reopening libraries to increase student reading scores and create a culture of reading in the building. Thousands of reading programs have cycled through school districts; millions of dollars have been spent; experts consulted. And still, many of our students are not reading. They don’t like to read. They don’t know how to read. The pandemic has only worsened what was already a dire situation.
So, what’s wrong?
Good Intentions Gone Wrong
I believe it’s the disconnect between what we think students should read and what they want to read. A prime example – the Common Core Learning Standards. I think these standards were/are great in the skill area – supporting claims with evidence, drawing conclusions, yes, yes, yes! The Common Core promoted information literacy like no standards had done. But reading? That’s where they fall apart. The CCS was predicated on the idea that students needed to build up their background knowledge (and they do) because to learn something new about something, you need to know a little bit about it. You must understand organizational patterns and relationships about topics and issues – cause and effect, compare and contrast, sequence, pro/con.
Okay, great. But how do students build up that background knowledge? By having access to nonfiction books! Immediately, classrooms and libraries across the country adopted the standards’ 50/50 to 70/30 nonfiction percentiles. But the problem is that having a roomful of nonfiction books is like a roomful of books. Students don’t learn by osmosis. They have to engage with the text, not just short passages or excerpts, but ideally, an entire book. But do students like to read nonfiction? Not really. Run any circulation report from any school library, and two genres stand out as the most popular: fiction and graphic novels.
So, was any research done by the CCS experts on what students like to read? I doubt it. They went forward on the assumption of what students should read, like award-winning books and classics. Yes, some of those books are well-written and read by our students. Many are not. They haven’t aged well, or the topics are not of interest. I see the same thing happening with STEM or Diversity: educators buy books on the list, check this box, this category, but are your students reading all those books? Note which ones they are and what characteristics they have. Talk to your students. Find out what they want to read. And, yes, they want to see themselves in what they read, but they also want to read about other worlds, people, experiences, and points of view. They want to laugh. They want to be scared or horrified. They want to be disgusted and offended. They want to be amazed and astounded. They want to read what they want to read.
Library Collection for Students
So, we say we want our students to read. They will only do so if they like to read and find books they like. Simple as that. The only way to improve on something is to keep doing it again and again and again. And if their reading experiences are miserable because they can’t decode, or don’t know the words, or don’t understand what is going on, or have to stop every minute to answer a question about the text, or make an inference, or make a connection, or limited to only B or C books from a reading program, or told they can’t read that silly book or that comic book, then guess what? They won’t want to read.
So, buy exciting, engaging books students want. Ask them what they want. Seek advice from other librarians. Analyze the data from your catalog or Sora. And buy what students want and let them take out what they want. Because reading is about them, and only them, not what we think it should be.
Let’s get out of their way, and they will be all right.
Author: Leanne Ellis
I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.