Literacy in American Classrooms – A National Crisis
2.5 million children are enrolled in districts where there are no libraries.
Per the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), some 34 percent of students are below basic reading level in the fourth grade. If a lack of diverse and plentiful reading materials in US classrooms has a direct correlation to low literacy levels, how do educators know if their classroom libraries are robust enough to further their students’ academic success? Until now, educators have lacked a tool to guide and assess the quality of their classroom libraries. In response, First Book partnered with Susan Neuman, an early childhood literacy expert and researcher, to develop metrics to define literacy rich environments, answering the question — What does a literacy rich environment look like?
The goal of this research, including a literature review, field research, and a quantitative survey, was to field test the new tool with educators of children in low-income communities, identify ways to refine the checklist, and enable educators participating in the survey to evaluate their current classroom libraries to determine if they are literacy rich. The resulting tool, the Literacy Rich Classroom Library Checklist, is meant to guide the development and evaluation of classroom libraries, by identifying strengths and areas for improvement. This checklist helps individual educators to evaluate their own classroom libraries in terms of equity and diversity and advocate for additional resources for their students.
There is a science to creating a classroom library, a set of characteristics and design features that may strongly influence whether or not the classroom library will be used to its full potential.
This guide contains a Literacy Rich Classroom Library Checklist to help educators assess their classroom libraries and can be used as an advocacy tool to ensure they have the resources needed to provide their students with an equitable classroom environment. Created in partnership with literacy researcher Susan Neuman, this resource highlights the various elements that make up a literacy rich classroom environment. First Book Network educators were also asked to review the guide and complete a survey to weigh in on the practical limitations of implementing some of the recommended elements. Their responses included modification suggestions as well as creative tips and tricks, which were all incorporated into the guide and checklist. After reviewing the Literacy Rich Classroom Library Checklist, the majority of educators, who previously rated their classroom libraries on a five-point scale, still rated them as a 3 or 4. However, ratings of 5 went down by eight percent, ratings of 2 went up by nine percent, and ratings of 1 went up by four percent. Overall, survey respondents considered the guide to be a helpful tool that enlightened them to many ways they can improve their own classroom libraries.
Using this resource, educators will learn:
- How to use the checklist to assess the design, contents, and functionality of their classroom libraries
- About research-based best practices for building a classroom library
- How to ensure their libraries are equitable in comparison to non-Title I schools
- How to get access to tools for resources and funding to build their libraries
First Book Network Educators Answer the Call to Evaluate Literacy in Their Classrooms
Eighteen percent of educators surveyed report that their libraries do not meet the definition of a literacy rich environment yet but could, given the funding and time already available to them.
About the Survey
Studies show that children are likely to read 50 to 60 percent more in classrooms with libraries than without them (Neuman, 1999). To achieve a baseline for the current state of literacy in US classrooms, between August 19, 2021, and September 8, 2021, First Book Research & Insights surveyed registered First Book members who work in Title I or Title I eligible classrooms regarding where children at their school can access books for independent reading. More than 1,200 educators replied to initial questions and 78 percent found the questionnaire very or extremely useful in terms of helping them understand what makes a library or reading area “literacy rich.” Fifty-one percent of educators reported that their classroom library/reading area would be considered a literacy rich environment across all areas of the checklist. Yet, the survey reveals that a full 30 percent of classroom libraries fall short of meeting the literacy rich guidelines and educators currently see no way to meet them. Fifty-four percent of educators report having 10 or fewer books per child in their classroom libraries. On average, educators also estimate that less than half (40 percent) of their book selections represent diverse cultures and almost one-third of educators do not consider their book collection to have an adequate representation of diverse cultures (First Book Literacy Rich Environments Survey, 2022).
- Nearly all educators (96 percent) personally funded some or all their classroom libraries
- In a typical year, educators spend an average of $346 on books and materials for their classrooms
- Seventy-seven percent typically spend $100 – $500 of their own money to acquire books for their library collection
- Almost half of educators (47 percent) indicated that it took over 6 years to build their classroom libraries and for nearly one-third (28 percent), it took over 10 years to acquire the books for their libraries
- Fifty-one percent of educators have no rotating selection of books in their classroom libraries
The First Book educators who responded to the survey reported having 100 – 300 books in their classroom libraries, compared to 54 percent of public-school teachers who report having fewer than 150 books in their classroom libraries, and 31 percent who report having fewer than 50 books.* The higher number of books reported by educators in this survey is likely due to the progress made by First Book in providing access to affordable books and funding opportunities to its registered First Book members. In response to this timely research, First Book has committed to funding 200 classroom libraries across the country to strengthen student access to high-quality, diverse books and support educators who have gone above and beyond to establish and fund the development of literacy rich environments.
*“Teacher & Principal School Report: Focus on Literacy,” Scholastic, 2016. www.scholastic.com/teacherprincipalreport
We applaud the valiant efforts of educators who recognize it is essential to build a classroom library offering 10 - 20 books per student that reflect the diverse and unique stories of their students, and that it is central to overcoming the reading level gaps that students, particularly in low-income communities, are facing.
Kyle Zimmer, First Book President & CEO