Book Bags: Promoting Literacy Outside the Classroom
by Mitzi Watkins
“Ms. Watkins, my family and I took your book bag with us on our trip to Mexico, and we read the books in the car on our way there and back. Thanks for letting me take these books home!”—Esmeralda, 2nd grade student
Before my first year of teaching, I had many delusions about what my students would be like. I naively assumed all of them would come from households that had books for their children to read at home. The first time one of my second graders told me there were no books in his apartment, I questioned the truthfulness of the child. Did he really not have any books at home? Or, did he just want to get out of doing outside reading?
Soon I came to realize he was telling the truth, and many of his classmates were in the same situation. I felt bad about my students not having books to read at home. I knew how important independent reading time was for improving their reading and literacy skills. According to Clark and Rumbold (2005, p.9), “Reading amount and reading achievement are thought to be reciprocally related to each other – as reading amount increases, reading achievement increases, which in turn increases reading amount.”
I also knew reading at home was a great way to create a home-school connection. Involving parents in the reading process with their young learner was very important. A study conducted by Calabrese (2002) found that parents play a key role in nurturing children’s early literacy development.
When I began to think about what I could do to help my students, I came up with the book-bag strategy. My plan was to pack suitable books in gallon-size zip-lock bags that students could “check out” and keep for the week at home. Three books in each bag would provide a choice of reading material.
I needed an easy-to-use system for checking out the book bags. After all, many of these books were ones I had purchased with my own money (albeit from garage sales, Good Will, half-price stores, and library clearance sales), and I was uncertain if the students would bring them back.
First reactions to book bags
When I first introduced the book-bag system, it was a few months after the school year started. I was not sure how interested my students would be in the books. Surprisingly, they were very excited that I was going to allow them to bring these books home to read. One girl, Isabella, said, “You mean we get to take this bag of books home for the whole week!” The fact that I trusted them was new to them, and they turned out to be very responsible about returning the books.
One student, Javier, said, “Ms. Watkins, can I keep the same book bag for next week? I want to finish reading the books.” When a student wants to continue reading at home, you know you’re doing something right. Javier talked in class about how much he liked the books, and then his friends were eager to read them.
Students who often complained when asked to read in class were now asking me for permission to check out particular book bags. There is power in choice. One reason why I feel this program has been so successful is that the students are given a choice. I am not shoving books at them and saying, “Read this!” The students choose which book bag to take home.
Parents were also excited that their children were given choice in their readings. One parent, Mr. Delgado, said, “Thank you, Ms. Watkins, for always ensuring my child had a book to read at home.”
A system for circulation
I kept accumulating books so that I always had enough for each student to take home a bag. Each bag had at least three books of different genres for students to choose from. Each bag had a sticker on it listing what books were contained in it so students would know what books to look for when returning the bag, and each book bag was assigned a number for recording on the checkout sheet.
Students would write their names, the date the bag was checked out, and the bag number. When it was returned (usually on Mondays), I signed off on the checkout list. That way, if I’m missing any book bags, it is very easy to look at my list and see who has them.
A variety of ways to organize the book-bag system
This system can be modified in many ways to meet classroom needs. Here are few ways I have tried.
• Organize books by themes or topics such as seasons, holidays, animals, etc. This would allow you to recommend books to certain students based on their reading interests.
• Organize books by reading levels. This is an idea I am still working on. I want students to take home books for independent reading. However, I also want to encourage families to read together, so adding a few at various levels might increase family involvement.
• Include activity pages for the students to complete after reading a book. This would further encourage them to reflect and apply the skills they are learning at school.
Through my implementation of books bags in the classroom, I have seen increased engagement in reading and improvement in fluency, vocabulary, and background knowledge. Cullinan (1998) said, “Students’ reading achievement has been shown to correlate with success in school and the amount of independent reading they do.”
The more we practice something the more proficient we become. This is certainly true with reading. Books bags provide a quick and easy way to encourage students to read not only in the classroom but also during their time outside of school.
Calabrese, Nicki McCullough. “Literacy Liaison: Sending Literacy Home and Back at School.” Reading Horizons. (2002). Volume 42, No. 4, 294-306. Print.
Clark, C. & Rumbold, K. “Reading for Pleasure.” National Literacy Trust. (2006). P.9. Print.
Cullinan, Bernice E. “Independent Reading and School Achievement.” American Association of School Librarians. (1998). July 3, 2013.