Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to Save School Libraries and Independent Bookstores and Better Prepare Our Kids for those Dreaded Standardized Tests

Sound too good to be true? It’s not.

Let’s start with some background. About 80 percent of all children's nonfiction titles are sold to schools and libraries. This was great in the 1980s and 1990s when teachers were able to find lots of creative ways to integrate children’s literature into their lesson plans.

But then 2001 rolled around. That’s the year the No Child Left Behind Act was passed. And everything changed.

Suddenly educators had to teach to the test. They no longer had much time for creative teaching strategies, and they had to greatly reduce their use of trade books in the classroom.

The result is no surprise. Sales of nonfiction books have fallen significantly over the last decade. And in response, trade publishing houses have reduced their nonfiction lists on average 25 percent (and in some cases as much as 50 percent).

That’s a shame because trade nonfiction titles are meticulously researched and expertly crafted to delight as well as inform. They engage young readers in a way that text books and other standard teaching materials can’t.

Teachers know it.

Librarians know it.

We all know it.

Even the people who write the standardized tests know it.

That’s right. They include passages from award-winning trade nonfiction book on the tests. Students must read the passages and then answer related questions.

I can’t take credit for making this critical connection. Vicki Cobb recently wrote an excellent post about it on the I.N.K. (Interesting Nonfiction for Children) blog. As she points out, since this material is on the test, the best way to prepare kids is to expose them to as much high-quality nonfiction as possible. Just as it’s better to research using primary resource materials than secondary ones, it’s better to teach with real nonfiction books.

But that’s not the only benefit of using great children’s nonfiction titles in the classroom. These books can also serve as excellent models for the kinds of expository writing kids need to use to answer open response questions on standardized tests--not to mention write book reports and construct critical essays throughout their education.

BUT there’s a problem. We still have to face the reality that teachers just don't have time to vet all the books published each year and decide which ones are most appropriate for them to use.

Think this problem is insurmountable? Think again. Most schools have people who know the body of literature backwards and forwards and can make recommendations to the teachers. School library media specialists can play an important role in helping our kids succeed on NCLB tests. That’s just one of the many reasons we need them in our schools.

Who else do we need? Independent booksellers. They too are intimately familiar with books being published for children. And they know their community and its citizens, so they can help teachers find the best books to share with their students. Independent booksellers are especially critical in communities where school libraries have been eliminated. And sadly, there are many such communities.

So there it is. Just as I promised. Preparing kids for the test—and for life—takes a village. Parents, teachers, school library media specialists, town librarians, and independent booksellers all have roles to play. Each can contribute his or her own expertise to the effort.


  1. What a great post tying all the components of "community" together in preparing children for testing and more importantly, preparing them with some critical skills for a lifetime!

  2. Great post, Melissa. Amen to that.

  3. As a former teacher, former textbook editor and now author of non-fiction, I can attest to the difficulties of teaching to the test, and what actually makes it on the test. Great non-fiction is out there, the kind they really need to know about, and students need librarians and indy booksellers to get it into their hands.

    Great post.

  4. Great post, Melissa. You've said it all...get kids to love learning by giving them fantastic, well written, well researched nonfiction.


  5. Thanks for all your supportive comments. I hope we can all find more ways to get this important message out to the world.