Image shows three students on floor in school library reading.

Want Engaged, Independent Readers? Tip Series Part 1[Classroom Library]

For decades, we’ve known the importance of independent reading (see Johnson and Blair, 2003).  It’s the place where kids practice their growing skills as readers.  Where they have the chance to apply what we’ve been working so hard to teach them, and where background knowledge, vocabulary, and more complex sentence structures are developed. Shanahan says that “studies consistently reveal a positive relationship between the amount of independent reading and reading proficiency. Simply put, the best readers tend to read the most.”  Allington (2002) agrees, adding, “Students who become proficient read more; they are engaged in more independent reading.”  And for too many kids, the time we provide them in school for independent reading is the only opportunity they have.  But in order to really ensure your students get the most from this precious time, we need them to be engaged, independent readers.  

“No immediate benefits and few lasting by-products can come from unengaged reading. If the reader is not involved with the text-not engaged in the information or the experience-the reading is empty and unproductive.”

Darigan, Tunnel, & Jacobs, 2002

In a previous post, I discussed the debate about whether or not independent reading time is a waste of time.  There are more and more posts on social media about this, and I do agree that without very careful intentionality and your watchful eye, this time can become a waste.  In that post I share 4 big ideas to keep in mind to help ensure this doesn’t happen on your watch.

In this post, I’m digging a little deeper.  There are actually many small things we often do that become barriers which get in the way of helping our students become actively engaged, focused, independent readers.  There are so many things we often do, in fact, that this post is actually one in a four-part series. 

Where we make mistakes when it comes to encouraging engaged, independent readers

There are four main areas that the mistakes we make tend to fall into:

  • Book support
  • Classroom environment
  • Teacher presence
  • Student accountability

In this post, I’ll share more about book support, namely your classroom library.  This is key.  Students need to be able to not only understand how the library works but also know exactly how to find what interests them.  Each of these things is where issues with lack of engagement usually begin.

It’s not enough to gesture to the library and tell kids to go find books.  It’s not enough to mention it when you give your new group a tour of the room.  Nor is it enough to assign kids to a day of the week to make selections.

We must explicitly show them the different parts of the library,what kinds of books are available, and even show them some of the titles they will find.   We have to show our excitement and love for the classroom library.  Channel your inner LeVar Burton (look him up if you’re too young to immediately smile when you see that name).  It is, after all, a labor of love to stock and set up your library.

But it doesn’t stop there. When it’s time for kids to actually choose books for independent reading, they’re going to need guidance.  They need you to coach them, to ensure they’re reading the blurbs, thinking about the title, considering their own background knowledge, and truly begin to start thinking about what’s inside that book.  This is where engagement begins:  book choice.  Although this tip is especially important for younger kids, I believe ALL elementary kids could use some support here. 

The level of intention that kids put forth when choosing books is all influenced by time.  Time teachers provide.

It will require dedicated time.  If your kids are rushed, they will not be able to make thoughtful choices.  Even older students will need your watchful eye here.  This is something to give some thought to as you consider all the classroom procedures you’ll have in place this coming year.  

In all 15 years of my classroom experience, I had my students sign up for a day of the week of their choice that would be their day to make selections.  Sometimes they “renewed” what they already had, but they always at least made some fresh choices.  This worked very well for kindergarten all the way up.  Making book selections in small groups is a great way to keep the traffic in the library to a minimum as well as provide a time for you to support each student.  

Different age groups require differing levels of book choice support.

With younger kids, I was right there, helping them make choices that would interest and support them as readers.  I was also very aware of their approximate reading level, and knew if they needed more books at that same level range for a bit longer or were ready to be pushed to bring in some books at the next level band.  I was always there to help guide (and entice) them into what they needed to grow as readers.  (This is not to say I chose anything for them–I merely pointed them in the direction as needed and/or introduced them to new genres, authors, and topics).  


With older kids, I was there on a more peripheral level, so that I could show them something I thought might interest them when I thought they might benefit from expanding their horizons.  Mostly, I was there to see what they chose and to help them find more of what they were looking for, kind of like Amazon’s “if you like this, you might also like..” suggestions.  I didn’t level at all in the older grades, so I was also there to reinforce that previewing books is important.  This is really how I grew my library over time–by listening to what they wanted and making sure I added those books to our library. Keeping books fresh over the course of the year is a related, important consideration for helping kids become engaged independent readers.  

A word about the books we provide

Acting as a coach and cheerleader for our students as they choose books  is definitely key.  That’s why I started there.  But just as important is the actual book selection we provide.

I can share lots and lots of tips about this, but for brevity I’ll pick just one.  And that is: aim for a Goldilocks sweet spot when it comes to the amount of books available at once.  Allington has long said that about 700 books is the minimum for an ideal primary classroom library (What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, 2011).  That’s a lot.  It’s especially a lot when you have even more than that.

We definitely don’t want a tiny selection.  For sure it takes time to build a robust classroom library, but there are creative ways to make up for that in the meantime.  

Students will never, ever be engaged, independent readers if there’s just nothing for them to choose from.

At the same time, if you have a large amount of books, it’s not necessary to have all of your books out right away.  When a child stands in front of the entire selection of thousands of books, it can really be overwhelming.  It can lead to analysis paralysis–a very real thing.   Having a super organized system is very helpful to be sure, but a tremendous selection out on day one is not needed.  Sometimes, it actually doesn’t support your kids’ stages of reading.

Use what you know about your incoming students to tailor the selections you provide.  

You may have spoken with the previous grade’s teachers to see what sorts of books kids loved…include some of those books at the beginning of the year in your library.  

You might be lucky enough to have some information about what level range your kids are able to handle…be sure you have plenty not just at those levels, but slightly below, too, to account for summer slide.  Later, as your kids grow, your library can also evolve.  Retire what’s no longer needed, and bring out some fresh books that will support kids in their next phase of reading development.  There’s no need to include books that are meant for readers at the L/M/N stage if your incoming first graders are all in the D/E/F range, for example.  By having all the L/M/N books out when your kids are nowhere near ready for it, you’re inadvertently inviting them to choose books that are way too difficult for them.  And that will inevitably lead to…disengagement.  


Of course you’ll have some kids at or near those higher levels early on.  Talk with those students, and learn what interests them.  Bring out a nice variety of things they’ll love.  But you don’t need all of what you own to be out right away.  Over time, bring out more and more.  As your students all become better at choosing wisely–and independently–you’ll be more able to increase the quantity of books available.  

Wait, there’s more!

I have soooo much more I can share with you on this one broad topic of book support.  It’s just so important!  These tips are just the beginning.  In fact I’m diving deeper into it with more tips in my private Facebook group!  I’ll also be digging further into the other three areas that are key for ensuring engaged and independent readers:  classroom environment, teacher presence, and student accountability practices.   If you’re not a part of the group yet, join us–you’ll be able to catch the video replay!  While you’re there, check out the small group 3-part video series I created, and ask questions about whatever is on your literacy mind. 😀

And, if you could use some 1:1 support in setting your kids up for success in becoming engaged, independent readers, reach out!  We can set up a coaching call to think through it and make a plan that will set you off on the right foot this upcoming school year!

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Related Posts:  Reading Logs that Actually Work, Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later, The Secret to Setting Up Your Library for Maximum Student Impact, Comfy Spot Caveats, Tips for Engaged, Independent Readers Part 2

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