I’ve been wanting to set up an FVR (free voluntary reading) library for a long time now, but logistically, it seemed too complicated. Like most adult ESL teachers, I don’t really have my own classroom. I have a classroom that I use for the semester. But the classroom is also used by other teachers at other times during the day. And each semester, I get assigned to a new classroom, based on the number of students I have. So it seemed like having a “traditional” classroom FVR library (where the books are kept and displayed in the classroom) wouldn’t really work.
So I kind of gave up on the idea for a while. But then, over the winter break, I read Stephen Krashen’s book The Power of Reading, and it convinced me that I really should find some way to give students some free reading time, give them access to books at their level, and give them choice in what they read.
Initially, I thought that maybe a rolling cart with bookshelves would be the best option for a library. I talked with two other teachers in my program who teach classes at a similar level to mine, and I thought maybe the three of us could share the library (in order to save money on books), and the rolling cart would allow us to move the cart between classrooms. But then I realized that we would need to keep the books locked when they were not being used, as there are many people who come in and out of our building on a daily basis—students, teachers, as well as other random people since our building functions as somewhat of a community center.
So I spoke with my administrator, and—after quite a bit of discussion and hunting around the building to find available space for books—I obtained a locked cabinet with bookshelves in it to use for the library. Unfortunately, it’s not a perfect situation. The cabinet is in a hallway that is somewhat removed from my classroom, and my students need to walk up a flight of stairs and then down a hallway in order to get to the library. It’s a bit frustrating, but…that’s the way it is. For now, I think it’s the best possible option, though I’m still brainstorming ways to improve it for the future.
I’ve been trying to overcome the drawbacks in a few ways:
- For the students who have started reading a book that they like and want to continue reading, I keep their books all in a pile together. Before class, I get those books out of the cabinet and bring them to class myself. This way, the only students who need to physically go to the library cabinet are the ones who are searching for a new book (usually only a few students each day). And at the end of our FVR time, I just collect the books and put them back in the cabinet myself.
- I know that a lot of other teachers with FVR libraries emphasize how important it is to display at least some of the books with their covers facing out, as a way to make the books more appealing and to entice students to read them. I can’t really do that with my locked cabinet, but I try to overcome this problem by occasionally “highlighting” certain books. I bring a book to class and show it to the students while I talk about it. (Claire Walter’s post on “Book Commercials” has some good ideas for how to do this.)
This is my library cabinet:
I tried to make the ugly gray cabinet look a little nicer by putting up some inspirational quotations related to reading. (I know, I know—I feel like I committed a horrible sin by changing the word “acquisition” to “learning” in Krashen’s quote! But for the sake of my ESL students, I figured it made more sense to use a word that they already know and will understand.)
As you can see, I divided the library into three levels—easy, medium, and difficult. (I took this picture before I put the “easy” books on the shelves, but there are some books there now!)
It has been somewhat difficult for me to find books for the library. For one thing, I’m running on a low budget. My administrator said there is no money in the budget right now to purchase new books, so all the books I am using are ones that I got for free or that I bought with my own money.
I know that a lot of other teachers face similar difficulties, so I thought I would share my ideas and show some pictures of what’s in my library in hopes that it will help others. I divided my list of ideas into three categories: free, low-cost, and more expensive.
- Print out articles—Websites like Newsela.com and BreakingNewsEnglish.com have news articles written for students, and you can even adjust the reading level of the articles. These two sites both have printable versions of their articles, so I printed out several articles that I thought would be interesting to my students, and I put them together in a folder that my students can read. I tried to find articles that were somewhat timeless—in other words, stories that will probably be interesting even several months or years from now. This means that I won’t need to spend time updating the articles very frequently.
The materials pictured above are from the Literacy Works Writers’ Circle Books. These are collections of writings from adult ESL, ABE, and GED students throughout the Chicago area. Most of the collections are made up of personal essays—each student wrote about a significant moment in his/her life or about something important to him/her. A lot of the stories are quite interesting, and I think that many of our students can probably relate to some of the writers’ experiences. As another bonus, the language tends to be fairly simple, especially the collections written by ESL students (of course, the writing has been edited by their teachers). The collections can be downloaded for free on the Literacy Works website and printed out. I put them in report covers (which I bought for a couple dollars at Office Depot) to make them look a little nicer. My favorite collections (due to the simplicity of language and the interest level) are “Life’s Experiences,” “Stories of Strong Women,” and “Looking Beyond.” One caveat: Please preview these materials before using them to make sure they are appropriate for your cultural context and the age of your students. Some of the writings do mention sensitive topics, such as domestic abuse and drug/alcohol use.
- Printable books—Some websites offer free printable books that you can use. The books pictured above are from Reading A-Z. The website offers a 14-day free trial, during which you can download about 25 books for free. The site has many different levels of books, which is helpful. However, the books are intended for children who are native speakers of the language, which means that the books are still fairly challenging for a lot of ESL students, and it also means that many of the topics are too childish for adult students. I mostly printed out their non-fiction books, which are more adult-friendly than the fictional stories. And I have found that several of their non-fiction books are pretty interesting. I definitely learned some new things by reading their books! Another website with free printable books is Scholastic Printables.
- Teacher/Class-Created Stories or Books—If you have created your own materials for students, you can print them out and have them as an option for students to read. I know that some teachers print out class-created TPRS stories (either ones created by that class or by previous classes). I made a folder with all of the texts from the stories I’ve been telling my students for Story Listening. If the students enjoy listening to the stories, I encourage them to read the stories in the folder. I’ve also seen a few teachers post online about a “Book of Jokes” that they made for their students—a folder filled with memes, funny pictures, or jokes that they found online and printed out.
- Donations—I asked the other teachers in my program, as well as some of my friends and family members, if they had any old books or magazines that they were willing to donate to the library. Many people have old children’s or young adult books at home that they don’t need any more. Of course, some of these books would be very challenging for lower-level students, but for more advanced students, they may be fine.
- Thrift stores or used book stores—Thrift stores often sell books at very cheap prices. The thrift store near my home sells paperback books for about $2.50 each, so I bought several books from the children’s/young adult section. Used book stores also usually have fairly reasonable prices, and some libraries have book sales once or twice a year. Of course, once again, there is the problem of comprehensibility. Many of these authentic books are pretty challenging for students, but they could be doable, depending on your students’ level.
This picture shows some of the “series” books that I bought at my local thrift store. Stephen Krashen has suggested that it’s helpful for students to read books in a series, since the same vocabulary words tend to be repeated throughout the books, which makes it a little easier for students as they continue reading. And after reading the first one or two books, the students become familiar with the characters and places in the story, so that eases some of the burden, too. Plus, if you can get students hooked on the first couple of books in the series, they will have a nice supply of books to read for a while. One of my colleagues recently told me about how an advanced-level ESL student who she tutors loves the Nancy Drew series since the mysteries are so compelling, and almost every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, so she keeps wanting to read more and more!
- “Who Was…” series—This is a series of biographies of famous people. The books are written at about a 3rd/4th grade reading level, but the subject matter makes them compelling for adults, too. And most of the books are only $2.50 or $3 on Amazon! I bought the Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson, and Steve Jobs books since I know that my students are already interested in these people. And I thought the Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman books would be good for them. 🙂 These books have ended up being some of the most popular books in the library—especially the Bruce Lee one. My Chinese students seem to all love him!
- Graphic novel fairy tale books—Stone Arch Books sells graphic novels of classic fairy tales, and the books are only about $5 each on Amazon. The language is a little bit difficult for ESL students; however, since it’s a graphic novel, the abundance of pictures makes it much more comprehensible. I bought the four books pictured above, but there are several other books, too. Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to the entire series of books, but if you take a look at this Beauty and the Beast link, I think the other books should show up as suggested items.
MORE EXPENSIVE IDEAS
- Graded readers—Graded readers (books written specifically for ESL students) are, in my opinion, probably the best thing to put in an FVR library since they are much more comprehensible to students than authentic books. However, these books are also usually more expensive and harder to find than authentic books. The books pictured above are from the National Geographic/Cengage Learning Pageturners series; the Compass Publishing Classic Readers series; the ProLingua Associates Hopes and Dreams series; and the Cambridge English Readers series.
- Newspapers for ESL Students—Some of my students enjoy reading the news, so I think that providing newspapers at an appropriate level for them could be a good idea. Right now, I don’t have any newspapers for my students, but in the future, I would love to get a subscription to a newspaper. News for You from New Readers’ Press and Elizabeth Claire’s Easy English News are two newspapers I know of that are written specifically for ESL students (though I haven’t used them myself, so I can’t vouch for the quality).
I apologize for this very long blog post, but I hope that it is helpful to other teachers who have an FVR library or are considering starting one. Starting an FVR library can seem like a daunting task, and I think that the special logistical challenges that many adult ESL teachers face can make it even more difficult. But it’s definitely possible.
Don’t be afraid to start small and work your way up. So far, I’ve only been using this library with one class out of the three classes I teach. (There are even more logistical challenges with my other two classes, and they are also lower-level classes, which makes it even more challenging to find appropriate materials. So I decided that for now, I would just focus on a library for this one class.) And even if you don’t have any physical storage space for books, you could simply bring reading materials with you to class on days when you want to do FVR time; however, that does limit the number of books you can bring, depending on how much weight you are willing to carry back and forth!
In the future, I plan to blog more about how exactly I do FVR time with my students and some of the benefits of it. But for now, I’ll just leave some links to more resources if you’d like to learn more about FVR libraries:
- Stephen Krashen’s article “Free Voluntary Reading: Still a Very Good Idea,” which summarizes some of the research showing the effectiveness of free voluntary reading
- Mike Peto, a high school Spanish teacher, has a lot of great resources on his blog, like his PowerPoint presentation on FVR and this post on transitioning to FVR.