The #BookGap

If you are a parent aiming to support your child’s growth in school, an educator rallying students to reach toward and beyond standards, a business owner considering a donation to your local school (and please, we need them, in truckloads). There is no more essential, life-altering, test-score-improving, learning-loving, ultimate-jump-starter, back to school item then: books. Lots of them.


Books matter. A lot.

Look at your classroom and school library, or those of your children’s school, or the ones in the school down the block, and ask yourself if there are enough books to provide enough access to the children in those walls. And if not, there is no more essential back to school supply then filling those shelves.

Consider this:

  • A child’s reading level has a direct correlation to test scores. This chart summarizes several years of data we gathered at the Reading and Writing Project, comparing tens of thousands of students reading levels across years and their 3-8 test scores. These scores prove over and over to be dramatic ceilings for students: If you read on grade level, there is an extremely high percent chance you will score on grade level. Below, good chance you will score below.
  • You get better at reading, by reading. Not listening to adults talk about it. Not thinking about. Not staring out the window. Eyes on print matters. Allignton remarks that the most effective rooms have at least a 50/50 split across the whole school day, 50% real reading and writing, aside from 50% of other “stuff” (his not-so-loving term for anything not real reading and writing). He and others find most schools have, at best, only 10-15 minutes of real reading in an entire day – a 10/90 split!
  • When students don’t read, their reading levels drop – they don’t just remain stagnant. In schools that track reading level development three times during the school year predictable drops occur in student reading levels: during the summer (summer reading loss: google it), during test prep (if students are mostly doing drills and not really reading), and during a nonfiction study (if students are mostly skimming and not really reading). Not reading doesn’t just freeze your development, instead it puts it in reverse course.

To provide this access educators, like you, often create and build classroom library and school library collections. My suggestion is that you do not assemble a library, then step back and say, “phew. done,” and check it off the list. But instead consider if your classroom or school has a book gap that needs to be filled.

And if you are lucky to have an abundant collection, as many do, I think it’s our moral imperative to make sure the school down the block and the one across town has an overflowing collection as well.

Do You Have a Book Gap?

Let’s do a little math.

Take second grade. Average words per minute reading is around 100 (could be bit more or bit less, but let’s stick with a round number). The “on grade level” second grader starts the year reading books of approximately 1000 words (from TCRWP’s research).

100 words per minute, divided by 1000 words = 10 minutes of reading.

Boom. One book. 10 minutes. Done.

The average reading time for most schools providing sustained reading is approximately 30-40 minutes. So that’s 3-4 reads. In one class sitting.

4 books per class, times 5 days in a week, (assuming same books are read home and school) = 20 reads.

Now, many second graders are encouraged to reread titles, so let’s be conservative and say they need 5-8 new books each week, rereading several of them to get up to that 20 reads count.

Multiply a very conservative 6 books, by 35 weeks of school = 210 books per child for the year.

Multiply that by each child in an average 2nd grade, say 28 kids =

5,880 books. (That says thousand). Book available per class of second graders, per year.

A fourth grade works out to between 2,000 books (about 2 books per week, 35 weeks, 35 kids) if you have a class of exactly the same level all on grade level, or more likely also around to 5,000 books considering you probably have a range of readers, range of genres.

On up the grades the numbers may shrink a tad as the size of books and length of time to finish them extends a bit (though, an average eighth grade book should be finished within the week considering the wpm and number of words). However, add in the fact that most 6-12 teachers have multiple classes to sustain and you are still back up around 5,000 books.

Now could my numbers be a bit off? Of course they could. But the point here is that to sustain tons of reading, we need to support our students in having access to tons of books. And as I teach alongside educators in classrooms around the world, it is clear to me that there is a large book gap from classroom to classroom, school library to school library, neighborhood to neighborhood and it needs to be remedied.

The good news is, we can do it:

  • Read this inspiring article (one of the most clicked SmartBrief articles in June) about a teacher taking on a “1,000 books project.”
  • Have a vision, do anything for it. Here is just one portion, of one wall, of a public middle school school classroom, which receives very little funding for books, in which this teacher and her colleagues made it their mission to fill their rooms with books (the main motivator was kids, but it became trying to outdo one another). They went to garage sales, warehouse sales, asked for donations, nearly everything just shy of stealing. In fact, the shelves in this picture are set-up for their historical fiction unit. When that’s done, these books go away and new ones take their place! A vision, with focus, can pull off anything.
  • Donate, donate, donate, donate to your local school. Books, cash, shelves, design tips, anything. If you are lucky and your school has stacks and stacks of books, then check to see that the one down the street does, too. Then the one across town. Then the one two towns over.
  • Have conversations with your (or your child’s school) about the book gap. Send them a link to this post, or perhaps to Scholastic’s classroom library “evaluator.” (Seeing as Scholastic donated a ton of books to kids in that first article in this list, I don’t feel bad about directing you to them. You don’t have to buy books from them.)
  • @thereadingzone, Sarah Mulhern Gross started the “ARC Floats On” initiative at this website. Connecting teachers who need books with reviewers and bloggers looking to clean their shelves of ARCs (advance review copies). Sign-up your classroom there. Amazing work!
  • If you are an educator, I cannot say enough good things about: Join it, ask for books.
  • If you are not an educator, go to and give towards book wishlists.
  • @principaldunlop, Sue Dunlop, principal of a JK-8 school in Ontario, suggests administrators save at least 10% of their budget for books–every year.

Any problem takes two things: recognizing there is a problem and then finding creative solutions to it. I would love to hear your reflections, solutions, and commitments in the comments section — but more importantly, continue this discussion with others in social media and in person.

Turn the conversation into action. Empty wall space into shelves and shelves of books. The #bookgap can be filled.

9 thoughts on “The #BookGap

  1. I was talking about this very topic at Open House and I had several parents offer to bring in books as donations because they liked the idea of seeing so many books available to students. I made having a classroom library a priority a few years ago and have been lucky enough to fill it with “overflow” from home, books purchased from library book sales, points from book clubs, and ARCs. Over the years students have added books to the collection as well. I didn’t have to say much about how those books and the time/space to read works to get students reading – I had more than one parent there telling the others that they had seen it change the reading habits of their students who had me before.

  2. Chris, you continue to energize me. After the TCRWP workshop in August, I immediately went back to my classroom and rearranged my library and I’m so excited for kids to start perusing the shelves. I’ve paid thousands of dollars over my ten teaching years to stock my library, and nothing excites me more than kids coming back, and back again, for more books to read. Thanks for inspiring me over and over. Love the new blog!

  3. I LOVE to buy books (and eventually read them)!! But my husband doesn’t love that I continue to fill shelves and rooms in our house with books. So I found the perfect solution!! I buy books and take them to local school classrooms. Well of course you can’t just drop them and run. I really must hang out a bit and talk to kids about books. I have retired from 30 years as a nurse and now spend as many days as I can in classrooms helping 4th and 5th graders find the perfect book. Every student I meet in any setting I ask “What are you reading?”

    • How awesome and moving! I’m thinking about how to inspire others to do the same… More classrooms need this type of incredible donating and outreach. Thank you so very much for posting. Wow wow wow.

  4. This post is so timely. This week I had an opportunity to visit a number of elementary schools. I had never really taken a look at classroom libraries during walk throughs. What surprised (shocked me) was the number of classrooms that had little to no books in schools where the student population would have little access to books at home. Additionally, the schools didn’t have school libraries due to budget cuts. I am working on my own post about how I have decided to take on the challenge of the #bookgap and make a difference. Thanks for putting a spotlight on it as well.


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