Common Core and the Classroom Library

By Cheryl Dickemper

Collection Development Manager at Booksource

Much of my daily work as Collection Development Manager at Booksource involves thinking about classroom libraries and selecting titles to fill them. With each new book I review, I’m thinking about where I would place it in a classroom, weighing both its entertainment value for readers and its educational merit. A well-balanced classroom library includes literary and informational texts from a variety of genres to suit interests and reading levels as diverse as the students it serves. In some ways, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects do not seem to change many of the accepted ideas about classroom libraries. There is still a great deal of value placed on exposing students to a lot of high quality examples of different genres. However, the Common Core recommendations regarding text complexity and informational text call for a new approach to building classroom libraries.


The Common Core State Standards use the term "quantitative text complexity" to refer to elements of a text "such as word length or frequency, sentence length, and text cohesion" (Appendix A, p. 4). These are the elements of a text that are clearly measurable—usually by computer programs. As noted in the Common Core State Standards, the end goal of the standards is for students to reach college and career readiness by the end of high school. To align eleventh and twelfth grade reading levels with college and career expectations, Metametrics has shifted the target Lexile levels for each grade upward, beginning with second grade. In essence, this means that once students begin to read independently, the bar will be raised higher at each and every grade level until graduation. Classroom libraries that serve these students will need to have books at those higher levels of difficulty to appropriately challenge readers.


As noted in the Common Core State Standards, quantitative measures of text complexity must be balanced with other considerations, such as qualitative text measures. The standards present several factors to consider in assessing the qualitative complexity of a text including levels of meaning or purpose, structure, language conventionality and clarity, and knowledge demands a text places on the reader. The quantitative measures of many literary texts, such as poetic texts or novels written in familiar language, come in relatively low, while a qualitative analysis may reveal a higher level of complexity. In the classroom library, this means that attention to reading levels is important, but strict adherence to Lexile or other reading level ranges is not necessary. An unleveled book, or a lower level book, may be appropriate if the content and/or structure require something extra from the reader.


The standards also introduce some new ideas about informational text. When students enter college and the workforce, they will be expected to read a much higher volume of difficult informational text on a variety of subjects. To ensure students are prepared for this, the standards require a lot of informational reading beginning early in a student’s educational career. By fourth grade, 50% of student reading is supposed to be informational text, and that percentage climbs higher as students get older. While this includes all reading students will be expected to do—magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.—it does mean that the informational text portion of many classroom libraries will need some serious attention. More informational text will be needed, including expository, narrative, and creative nonfiction.


In addition to tightening up text complexity and offering more informational text, there are some areas of the standards that can only be addressed by specific kinds of texts. For example, in second grade, students are supposed to "compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures" (RL.2.2). In the upper elementary and middle school standards for literature, there is an emphasis on examining point of view, and it will be important to ensure students have access to plenty of first- and third- person narratives in their classroom libraries, and offering text with multiple first-person narrators will prove especially useful in helping them get at how point of view affects the way a story is told. And, in middle school, students are expected to begin looking at how historical fiction accounts portray and sometimes alter the historical period they cover, and how mythology and traditional literature inform our literature.


Aligning classroom libraries to the Common Core State Standards will produce some rich and powerful collections of literature for students. The emphasis on educating students in traditional literature to help them understand how it has shaped our thinking and our contemporary literature, the attention paid to raising the expectations so that students will move into college and the workforce better prepared to handle the work they will be given, and the understanding that most of what we read in our daily lives is informational literature and that students need to be prepared for that—these ideas, while certainly not new, have now been solidified for schools across the United States, and that is a positive thing as long as students aren’t shortchanged in the process. As we reshape classroom libraries to support the Common Core, it will be important to keep in mind the kind of supports that will be need for students who are not already reading within the redrawn Lexile ranges for their grade level and to provide them the books and supports they will need. And, even for the most advanced readers, we should remember to carve some time out for reading that is simply fun. Sometimes a Wimpy Kid book is just the thing.


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