Third Grade: Classroom Library Books to Support Reading Workshop

Welcome back to my classroom library series!

In this series, I hope to provide advice for organizing beautiful, engaging classroom libraries to support reading workshop. Across this week, I will share suggestions for each grade level, based on the Units of Study for Teaching Reading (which I am honored to have been a part of creating). In previous posts I outlined suggestions for kindergarten, first grade, and second grade classroom libraries. Today I have suggestions for third grade.

I do want to say (again) that there is one thing that all of the books in the world cannot replace: You! No matter how how many books you have in your classroom library, it is your love for books, and your dedication to teaching reading that is crucial. While having an amazing classroom library is incredibly helpful, there are many ways to make the best with what you have, adapt, stretch and still have an engaging and successful reading workshop. This series will suggest some goals to aim for, and you and your colleagues can work together to figure out what makes sense for your team.

With that said, think of your third grade classroom library as a tool for making kids fall in love with reading. Picture how you will display books, recommend titles, and draw kids in. Your classroom library isn't simply a place for book storage -- it's a place to put  books on display, highlight favorites, celebrate new arrivals, and broadcast your own love of reading as well as the kids'. Think about ways to make your classroom library inviting and attractive -- a place in your classroom that kids want to be. 

Traditionally, a classroom library might be organized by baskets of leveled books. I want to encourage you to go beyond baskets marked by reading levels. Of course, you might have a few baskets marked this way for convenience, but you may want to downplay levels and instead highlight baskets filled with favorite authors, topics, themes, genres, character traits, and other, more enticing ways of encouraging kids to find a book they really want to read.

Across the year, baskets of books can rotate in and out of the library to support the work of each particular unit. This has the added benefit of keeping the library fresh and new. Throughout the year, your library will be filled with fiction or nonfiction books, and sometimes a mix to match the range of reading levels and interests of your third graders. Dividing your library into two halves - fiction and nonfiction will help you organize for upcoming units. Many teachers simply pin a curtain over the half of the library not currently being used, to manage book shopping more easily.

Unit 1: Building a Reading Life

This unit is designed to get kids hooked on books, and in the spirit of things, you'll want to search out all your best, most engaging, enticing, beautiful, funny, meaningful, and exciting books. Look ahead to your upcoming units -- you will want to save your nonfiction for Unit 2 and Unit 4, and you may want to save your best realistic fiction series books and character books for Unit 3 (though you might sneak a few of those books out if you know they'll hook a reader).

That means this is the perfect unit to arrange baskets of mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, sci-fi, graphic novels, picture books and chapter books to match the range of reading levels your third graders will need access to. Take full advantage of the chance to encourage kids to read humor and action stories. Look for high interest books that you know will get kids looking forward to reading workshop. Hook them with your best stuff!

Unit 2: Reading to Learn: Grasping Main Ideas and Text Structures

Chances are, when you were a kid, you learned to "skim and scan" nonfiction books to collect facts -- often in the name of research for an assignment or a project. This is not that kind of reading. In this unit, kids will be filling their book bins or baggies with beautiful nonfiction books and reading them, cover to cover. Traditional reference books, textbooks, encyclopedia-ish types of text and the like won't work well in this unit. 

Nonfiction books for children have come a long way in the last two decades, and it isn't difficult to find engaging, rich informational texts that kids want to read. Publishers like DK and National Geographic publish gorgeous nonfiction series books for every reading level. Aim for a wide range of topics to suit the interests of the kids you teach - everything from animals, pets, plants, and nature, to monster trucks, outer space, extreme sports, and Star Wars. In this unit, your aim will be to gather as many different individual titles as possible -- unlike other units, the emphasis here is not on reading one topic, or necessarily reading the same text as partners (that comes in Unit 4).  

Nonfiction tends to be more difficult for some readers, so you may want to especially focus on gathering easy just right books - ideally enough books for every reader to have 5-6 new books per week, depending on the length of the text. It's common for students to find just right nonfiction books that are one or even two levels "down" from their fiction just right books -- but it all depends on the topic, vocabulary, and reader interest.  

In the third bend, you'll teach kids strategies for reading narrative nonfiction. For this part of the unit, you might want to make it easy for kids to find those books in the classroom library by creating bins designated for narrative nonfiction, so that students won't have to search the entire nonfiction half of your library for narrative text structures.

If nonfiction books are in short supply, you might arrange baskets of books for groups of students to share, instead of each student having their own 5-6 books. You can also use the nonfiction you might have otherwise saved for Unit 3 to bulk up the baskets and give kids more choices. Magazines and online resources (I rather like Pebble Go) can also be used to bolster your nonfiction collection - though these do tend to be more challenging for readers. 

Unit 3: Character Studies

In this unit, you can pull the curtain down from the fiction half of the library to reveal baskets brimming with strong characters and series books. Keep in mind that often genre-fiction, like mystery and fantasy, at typical third grade reading levels (M/N-P/Q) tend not to have very well developed characters. These books work great at the start of the year for hooking readers and for plot work, but they aren't ideal for deep thinking about character development, character change, complex relationships, theme or lessons learned. Realistic fiction books and series tend to have better developed characters. You might organize books by author, series, or gather up similar types stories into bins (ex. adventure stories, school stories, characters who overcome obstacles, sports stories). You might organize some baskets by style (ex. funny, books that make you think, books in poem form, short story collections), or by character traits, even (ex. tough cookies, overcoming shyness, super smart characters, goofy). For this unit, it's ideal to have multiple copies available so that partners or groups of kids can form clubs to read and talk about the same book. However, in a pinch, the unit could also be successful with kids reading individual books and then swapping with a partner, or simply reading on their own.

Unit 4: Research Clubs: Elephants, Penguins, and Frogs, Oh My!

A main feature in this unit will be reading multiple books on one topic to build content knowledge and vocabulary, compare and contrast sources of information, and to read increasingly difficult texts. As such, you'll want your classroom library to support this work by creating sets of nonfiction books. It's highly recommended that you gather books about animals, since many of the reading skills will model using animals as an example. However, you could conceivably teach the unit using animals as your example in minilessons, with kids transferring those skills to books about any topic. Fortunately, for many of us, nonfiction animal books aren't very difficult to find!

What is a challenge, however, is gathering books that kids can read with ease, fluency, and deep comprehension. You can combine 3 levels of books in a topic basket, to stretch your resources, so long as each student is matched up with basket of books that is either just right, or easier -- never too hard.

Whether you are ordering books, or gathering books from the school or community library, select the animals that seem interesting to your students or connect with your science curriculum, then find 15-20 titles about each animal, keeping in mind you'll need multiple titles at each reading level range. 15-20 books will be enough for a group of 4 or 5 students to share for about a week. Then do that for as many animals as possible, to offer as many choices of animals as you can to each group of students. You'll need a minimum of 3 different animal baskets for each book club (one for each bend of the unit) -- but keep in mind some baskets can be swapped from one group to another.

Multiple copies of each title in the basket cold be used, but really are not necessary. Kids could read a book, put it back in the basket for another member of the club to read, and in a short time they all will have at least one book in common to talk about.

If books are in very short supply, consider making your topics broader (sea creatures instead of sharks, for example), or broadening the range of levels in each baskets (levels J-M instead of J/K), and making the clubs a little bigger (5 students instead of 3-4). If this is the case, make it a goal to build your collection over time and make use of school and community resources to provide more books on each specific topic, and better fit in difficulty levels, so that you can have fewer students in each group.