Activity: Helping Students Find New Books

One of the saddest things about being a language arts teacher is watching struggling readers during media checkout time. 

Strange, isn’t it? 

You’d think that media checkout time—one of the few times that students have the complete freedom to choose titles of deep personal interest instead of being force-fed content on required reading lists—would be a GREAT time for struggling readers.

But it’s not. 

Instead, they end up completely overwhelmed by rows and rows of shelves filled with books and magazines on every topic under the sun. 

Paralysis sets in.  “Where should I start?!” they wonder as they wander.  Covers and titles become the primary selection strategy, leading to poor choices made in a hurry.

What lessons do struggling readers learn from this weekly ritual?

  1. The library is full of books that I don’t like.
  2. I never find good books.
  3. Trips to the library make me feel like a failure.

Compare that kind of browsing behavior with the way that you find new titles when surrounded by thousands of choices. 

Chances are good that you have a strong sense for the kinds of books that you like the best—and the least.  You probably also have a strong sense for the topics that motivate you—or that you’ve been reading a ton about lately.  You may even have a handful of favorite authors that you like to follow.

All of that information helps you to sort before even stepping into the library.  You’re not poking through every title.  In fact, there are probably entire sections of the library that you wouldn’t even consider spending any time in. 

Huge collections become manageable because you have a strategy for lumping and splitting books into categories that might be of interest to you—a strategy that David Weinberger outlines in detail in his book, Everything is Miscellaneous

What’s interesting is that lumping and splitting, as Weinberger shows, is becoming a shared task in today’s digital age. Have you ever poked through the lists of books being created and maintained by other Amazon users or the playlists being shared by other iTunes users to find new content to explore?

Then you’re collectively lumping! 

(I won’t tell anyone.)

What’s the lesson to be learned here?  Our job as teachers should be to help students—especially struggling readers—to perfect their lumping and splitting skills before ever walking into the library!

Perhaps more importantly, our job as teachers is to help our students recognize that relying on the suggestions of their peers may just expose them to new content that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered—and might keep them away from the kinds of rushed choices that are destroying their love of reading.

So one of my goals for this year is to give my students systematic opportunities to generate and publish lists of good reads for other students to explore. 

Here’s the handout that I’ll use to introduce this project:

Download Activity_Listmania

Chances are that we’ll start simply by keeping notebook in class for kids to explore when they’re looking for a new title.  We’ll probably sort the notebook by category—survival lists, fantasy lists, nonfiction lists.  Students are likely to begin by exploring the lists of their friends, but I hope that over time they’ll start to explore lists by theme. 

Knowing me, we’ll also end up publishing our lists on a classroom blog.  Outside of generating an audience, posting online carries one huge advantage:  Our lists can be sorted—lumped and split—into multiple categories using shared tags.

So if a list has a set of books on survival, it might appear with other lists that include books on the outdoors, lists that include adventure stories, and lists with books on facing challenges. 

(Pretty handy, huh?  Have you ever been in three places at once?!) 

I'm sure that SOMEONE is already doing this work.  There's probably collections of lists being developed and maintained by library associations somewhere.  Heck, it's likely that we could find lists for kids in Amazon if we poked around a bit.

Starting with classroom generated lists, though, carries a significant advantage:  There is already a connection between list makers and list takers.  Students are more likely to read books suggested by their friends than by some random media specialist or Amazon user.  What's more, classroom generated lists might just lead to shared conversations around books—something that doesn't happen nearly enough in the lives of today's tween. 

So whaddya’ think?  Does this activity make any sense?  Is lumping and splitting something that you’re formally teaching your students?  Should you be?

Do you have any other strategies for helping struggling readers to sort through the huge collections in your school’s media center? 

11 thoughts on “Activity: Helping Students Find New Books


    It’s Mrs – also known as Michelle. Our daughter Hayley is in your first class of the day.
    I’ve told numerous other parents in the same boat to try it as well but most seem to view it as a toy. It certainly is a fun one but Hayley has used it for flashcards and other education apps as well. I expect her to use it more for that in middle school.
    At first it was really a convenience thing – she plays for a soccer team that is part Cary, part Durham/Chapel Hill kids so I thought she could do some reading the car on days we had practices in Chapel Hill. But it worked on more levels than we expected.
    If it is a mind trick, it’s a great one and I hope I can find about 10 more like it. When she was a bit younger, we had a lot of fun with a gaming website that adapted some of their games to run on the Wii browser so they’d use the Wii remote and play on the big TV screen. Since the Wii doesn’t use flash, the developers had to work with another gaming os but I never understood why that cross platform idea didn’t catch on more. It was simple games with math/language arts skills played thru the Wii browser. She loved doing that far more than say multiplication flash cards but it was the same core facts.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Mr(s). Hillison wrote:
    Being able to control the font size, page color and not have the physical book completely changed how she felt about reading.
    Interesting stuff, Mr. or Mrs. Hillison!
    I’ve got a Kindle too, and what I’ve found is that reluctant readers love being able to change the font size in the book because it makes them feel like they are “turning more pages” and therefore reading more.
    While a reluctant reader might only turn one page in a traditional book in 10 minutes of reading, larger fonts in the Kindle breaks that one page into three or four digital pages—and each click feels like a success.
    Maybe it’s only a mind trick, but it’s an important one. Reluctant readers need to feel successful before they’ll read more.
    Good stuff,


    My daughter is one of your new students and this is a fantastic post. She was a very reluctant reader despite having two parents who are reading fanatics and never without a book.
    On a side note, several years ago we figured out she was absolutely overwhelmed by the library selection and by the book themselves. As avid readers, we never thought a book itself would be overwhelming to her (she has ADD and some mild sensory issues).
    After loving my kindle on iphone, on a whim I put the kindle app on her itouch and gave her a gift certificate to amazon. It was like lightning in a bottle. Being able to control the font size, page color and not have the physical book completely changed how she felt about reading. She buzzed through a book that we thought she might struggle with (the first in the Clique series) and we were blown away.
    Now she likes reading, she’s more confident and that has extended to real books too. While she might never share our deep love of reading, we feel like technology really gave her some tools to be successful with reading.
    I’m looking forward to digging through your site!

  4. NCWeber

    Hey, Bill –
    Just started reading your blog for one of my education classes; I’m a big fan!
    I really like what you said about using “lumping and splitting” to help students navigate the overwhelming number of books they might be confronted with. It got me thinking, though, what are some of the other ways lumping and splitting could be useful in education?
    It seems like with any surplus of information, students could benefit from learning how to organize it. I feel, as a student myself, that not enough time is spent teaching students HOW to learn better. Taking time to teach things like note taking, outlining, lumping and splitting, etc., could be really helpful to struggling and accomplished learners alike. If there is one skill that comes in handy in college, it’s collecting and organizing information.
    Just a thought to add to this post. Thanks for the insights, and best of luck in your teaching.

  5. Gordon

    Dan suggests Shelfari which I tried one year but have found GoodReads better. I create a class account and a “shelf” with each student’s screen name. You can make a widget for each “shelf” and put it on each kid’s blog page. (You can also create a widget for the entire account and put that on the homepage to reflect all the books the whole class reads.) Having each student’s list public adds something for some readers. This year I hope to dive more deeply into GoodReads’ discussion groups and review and commenting options.

  6. Jmcquill

    Loved this article and will share it with my teachers. Bill I am a Library media specialist and agree we need to teach sorting, but libraries esp. school libraries can help just ask. I have added a High Low dot (and Catalog marking) to many new fictions books (so far) that help students and teachers ID those for reluctant readers and feature a Large shelf monthly of titles my book club helps recommend. Books are chosen from books in our collection that are on “The Ultimate Teen Readers” list from ALA. Anyone can be in our book club and we encourage “eaves” dropping for all so that they can hear what others are reading. We suggest 5 books each month, but reading them is not mandatory. We have two book drives a year that build and maintain 3 “BOOK SHARE” carts (read, return or replace with another book) No check outs. Most get returned or replaced. In addition to that our administration has started a 20 min. a day READ IN. 4 days a week (1 day a week used for group meetings). I have seen a very large surge in reading.
    Will definetly add a list searching element to my High school library. Perhaps also add a board where students can post a photocopy of the books they just read and liked and add a summary note and recommendation. Thanks

  7. Donna Bills

    As a school librarian, I think you have a great idea. Any direction or purpose given by the classroom teacher before students come to the library helps them to focus and view their media center experience as vital to the classroom experience. Student lists are wonderful. Getting reccomendations from a friend is a strategy I like to encourage. I like the way your activity is set up It should give your students a sense of autonomy and ownership of the process. Be sure and share the lists with your librarian. I’ll bet your librarian would love to collaborate with you on this project with selection strategy lessons and booktalks.
    One other aspect of this I often see working with struggling readers when they select books is that they are conflicted between subjects they like or seem popular with others in the class and books they are able to read without frustration. I think that is another area where talking with your library media specialist about your students’ reading levels might help you to collaborate in providing a positive experience for all students.
    Keep us posted this fall on your lists and lumping strategies.

  8. Deanna

    Wow, Bill! I just shared and taught book finding stratgies with students and teachers last week and this week. We generated ideas about finding books: peer recommendations, teacher recommendations, talking about books/topics, browsing topics/genres. (We have our fiction section organized by genre – much easier for that avid fantasy reader to find more good reads of interest for him!) We also talked about all the different resources for finding books: books on books, books with lists of books, catalog searching, online book sites, blogs. And we discussed the best ways to find what you’re REALLY interested in reading. Anything to cut down on the anxiety and overwhelming feelings that can happen to some kids while staring at the many stacks. And we covered all the other little strategies for picking that individual book: five finger rule, cover, plot summary, 60 sec read.

  9. mrbaird

    That sounds like a great idea! Come to think of it, I don’t think I have read a book in the last ten years that wasn’t recommended to me by someone (either in a list or in person). I will pass this on to the English teachers on my team.

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