In this series, I hope to provide support with organizing beautiful, engaging classroom libraries to support units of study in teaching reading. Over the next several days, I'll lay out suggestions for each grade level. Yesterday, I began with kindergarten. Today, I'll address first grade.
A first grade classroom library should be a place that inspires kids to want to read. It should be brimming with beautiful and interesting books that kids can read all by themselves. Across the year, baskets of books might rotate in and rotate out to support the work of each particular unit, while also 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 first graders. Yes, your library will be brimming hundreds of little leveled books (even thousands if you're lucky) -- but aim for books with beautiful illustrations on high interest topics.
Dividing your library into two halves - fiction and nonfiction - will help you organize for upcoming units and manage book shopping more easily. For the nonfiction half of your library, it isn't difficult to find lots and lots of little books about animals, families, school and food. On the fiction side of your classroom library, you can find many, many about friendship, play, games, and funny little stories about characters like Mrs. Wishy Washy, Huggles, Biscuit, and Piggie and Elephant. Candlewick Press, Lee & Low Books, and Pioneer Valley are just a few publishers providing lovely, engaging little books that are just right for first graders.
Unit 1: Building Good Reading Habits
In this unit, you'll need to stock your library with a mix of fiction and nonfiction books that match the range of levels of your readers. In many first grade classrooms, this includes everything from level A to H and even sometimes levels J/K/L even at the start of the school year. It's a great idea to add just a few baskets to the classroom library each day for the first week or two of school, until all the baskets are out, inviting kids to help you label the baskets, and highlighting some of the exciting books they may want to read.
While labeling your books with a dot or a letter will help you to find books when you need them, you need not limit the library to shelves full of bins labeled "A," "B," and so on. Instead, you might take those leveled books and organize them by topics, interests, characters and authors. Inside each basket will be a mix of levels (perhaps with dots or markings on a number of them, but probably not all). This way you can teach kids to "shop" the library thinking first about what they might want to read, then second about testing out the difficulty. Remember that at this stage, the books are very short. Ideally each week students will select their own 10-12 just right books in their book bin or baggie, plus the extra books you introduce in guided reading sessions. This means, if there are five children who read the same level, you need at least 50-60 books at that level. Ideally you'd have 3-4 times that many at each level so that kids have choices about their books and so that your library isn't cleaned out every time kids shop for books. "That's a LOT of books!" you might be thinking. Yes. It is. It is a LOT of books!
In a pinch, you could combine whatever books you do have into a basket that children can share, instead of having each child shop for their own book bin or baggie for the week. This is less than ideal, but it could get you through the units until you are able to gather more books for children to read.
Unit 2: Learning About the World: Reading Nonfiction
In this unit, you'll need to rearrange your library to support the work of the unit -- which is nonfiction reading. You probably won't want kids to have to sift through the fiction, poetry, and other books to find the ones that will help them do the work you're teaching. To support kids, you can swap your library over to nonfiction only -- with perhaps a basket or two of high interest fiction to read outside of reading workshop. If your library is already divided into two halves, you can easily close the fiction side of the library by pinning a curtain over it. During school library time or choice time, of course, kids can read and browse anything they like.
To help kids explore all the books in the nonfiction library, and to breathe new interest into nonfiction books that may have been out since the start of they year, consider reorganizing the nonfiction side of the library by inviting kids to create new baskets. Place mixed baskets of nonfiction around the room and invite kids to work together to make little stacks of books they think fit together into categories. They might come up with books about vehicles in one stack, books about bears in another, and yet another about weather. Then the kids can place their stacks into baskets for the classroom library and make their own labels for the baskets.
Unit 3: Readers Have Jobs to Do: Fluency, Phonics, and Comprehension
For this unit, kids might be reading fiction or nonfiction -- they can do the work of the unit using either or both! Now is the time to reopen the fiction section! However, you might want to remove your best character books, to save them for Unit 4 (see below).
Unit 4: Meeting Characters and Learning Lessons: A Study of Story Elements
In this final unit, kids will be most successful if they are reading books with great characters, so you'll want to put a curtain over the nonfiction half of your library. Of course, when it comes to beginning reading, not all books contain well-developed characters -- it goes with the territory that sometimes the characters are very simple, even too simple for this unit. You'll want to weed out the pattern books where, yes, there are "characters" in the picture but they don't really do anything. "Red sock, green sock, blue sock, yellow sock" isn't going to give kids a lot to work with! You could put aside the books that won't make the work any easier and save them for next year's Unit 1 and Unit 3.
Candlewick Press and Pioneer Valley are two publishers where you can find lovely little leveled books that come in character series, at even the most beginning levels, perfect for doing the work of this unit.