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Nonfiction in the classroom library: a literacy necessity.

"Classroom libraries are a literacy necessity; they are integral to successful teaching and learning and must become a top priority if our students are to become thriving, engaged readers" (Routman, 2003, p. 64). As Routman notes, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of classroom libraries. Studies of early readers and interviews with avid readers have found that children who love to read almost always have access to books at home. Since many students today do not have that access, it is paramount that all children be provided with books in the classroom (Fractor, Woodruff, Martinez, & Teale, 1993).

Classroom libraries provide students with immediate access to books; they can provide teachers with the opportunity to put the right book in a student's hands at a moment's notice. Students who have ready access to books in their classrooms have better attitudes about reading, reading achievement, and comprehension than their peers with less access to books in the classroom. Moreover, students are likely to spend more time reading when they are in classrooms with adequate classroom libraries (Allington & Cunningham, 1996; Krashen, 1998; Routman, 2003). For example, Morrow (2003) and Neuman (1999) note that students read 50-60 percent more in classrooms with libraries than in classrooms without them.

This increase in voluntary reading can contribute to gains in reading achievement. In a study of 32 schools in Maryland, for example, Guthrie, Schafer, Von Secker, and Alban (2000) found that an abundance of trade books in the classroom predicted gains on statewide reading, writing, and science tests. According to Krashen (2004), more books in the classroom leads to more voluntary reading, which, in turn, results in higher achievement. This increased volume of voluntary reading is critical because students who score well on standardized reading tests read far more outside of school than students who perform poorly on such tests (Anderson, Wilson, & Fielding, 1988).

Providing interesting books for children is a powerful incentive for reading, perhaps the most powerful incentive possible. This conclusion is consistent with research showing that extrinsic incentives for reading have not been successful, while improving access to books has been successful in encouraging reading. (Ramos & Krashen, 1998, p. 614)

Of late, more and more experts have noted the importance of providing students with access to nonfiction texts. Such books can effectively address student interests in ways that stories cannot and they can increase student domain knowledge in a variety of areas, thereby leading to increased levels of background knowledge. Furthermore, reading more nonfiction can lead to higher reading achievement (Kletzien & Dreher, 2004; Routman, 2003). By contrast, students with little experience with nonfiction have difficulty comprehending such texts and fail to determine the important information within (Stoodt-Hill & Amspaugh-Corson, 2005).

This article will consider the place that nonfiction can and should assume in the classroom library. It will answer the following questions: How can nonfiction in the classroom library help teachers meet student interests?, How can teachers build a collection of nonfiction books?, and What strategies can teachers use to promote reading of nonfiction titles?

A Place for Nonfiction

Shelley Harwayne (1999), the well-known literacy consultant and administrator, notes, "No matter the grade level, when I walk in and out of classrooms, I expect to see classroom libraries brimming with nonfiction texts" (p. 24). All too often, however, classroom libraries contain little nonfiction literature (Duke, 2000; Duke & Bennett-Armistead, 2003; Kletzien & Dreher, 2004; Stead, 2002). According to Daniels (2004),

Language arts teachers have done a great job of hooking kids on all kinds of novels ... but students also need to engage with the nonfiction genres that represent 84% of adult, real world text (and a similar percentage of the reading passages of high stakes standardized tests). (p. 44)

In examining the content of elementary classroom libraries across a large school district in Canada, Doiron (2003) found that children were presented with predominantly fictional paperbacks as reading choices. Interestingly, counts from the school library's automated circulation records indicated that students were choosing twice as many information books as novels from their school library, but that access to such books was limited in their classroom libraries.

This finding points up the critical importance of expanding the "canon" of library books to provide access to nonfiction texts if teachers are to effectively bridge the gap between students' in- and out-of-school reading. In addition, nonfiction trade books can deepen student engagement with science, social studies, music, and art. They can provide students with the chance to examine issues related to these content areas in depth, which is seldom possible with the broad range of topics covered by today's textbooks. Furthermore, they can promote student engagement with a variety of text types, a practice that may be associated with improved reading achievement (Campbell, 1995). Finally, access to nonfiction trade books can provide students with essential exposure to the expository text that will constitute most of the reading they will do as they move through the grades and into adulthood.

Reading Interests

Student reading interests need to be considered when selecting books for classroom libraries (Routman, 2003). "In most classrooms, the opportunity for student book choice based on interest occurs far too infrequently" (Reutzel & Fawson, 2002, p. 99). Routman (2003) notes that access to interesting books is critical to struggling readers: "A wide variety of captivating choices increases reading motivation. Engagement is not to be taken lightly: Reading comprehension test scores are more influenced by students' amount of engaged reading than any other single factor" (p. 69).

Elementary school children of both genders choose nonfiction over fiction text nearly half the time, provided they are given access to quality trade books of both types (Kletzien & Szabo, 1998). Children in the primary grades and male students were even more likely to prefer informational texts. This was contrary to the predictions of the student teachers. They thought, as many of us would have, that the students would overwhelmingly prefer narrative texts. Sebesta and Monson (2003) note that children's reading interests diverge by 4th grade, with boys showing stronger preferences for nonfiction; by middle school, both genders show an increased interest in nonfiction.

How Many Books?

There is no readily agreed-upon formula for an adequate number of classroom library books. Some experts recommend at least eight per child (Fractor, Woodruff, Martinez, & Teale, 1993), while others suggest 10-12 titles per child (Reutzel & Fawson, 2002). Allington and Cunningham (1996) recommend 700-750 books for primary-grade classrooms and 400 for upper-grade rooms. We recommend that teachers gradually work towards these goals since it is more important to have high-quality books than to simply have a great number of books.

Regardless of the number of books in the classroom library, it is imperative that nonfiction be prominently displayed. Indeed, as Moss (2003) notes,

About half the collection should be devoted to engaging information books and biographies, and this percentage should increase as children move through the grades. Some books should be pertinent to classroom topics of study, while others should have a broader appeal. Students can use these books for voluntary reading, in inquiry study, reference, or browsing. (p. 63)

How Can Teachers Obtain Books for Classroom Library Collections?

We have noted that school districts in some parts of the United States provide teachers with funds for purchasing classroom library collections, yet provide little funding for school libraries. In other areas, school libraries are funded well but little or no money is available for purchasing classroom library books. In too many cases, teachers must acquire the books themselves. Here are a few suggestions for obtaining books without spending too much. First, teachers can use bonus points from classroom book clubs to obtain nonfiction books for the classroom collection. Second, garage sales often have great books at bargain prices. Third, many parents are willing to donate their children's books for classroom use. Poor quality or gently used books from garage sales and student donations often can be traded in bookstores for better quality used books. Fourth, some teachers have "wish lists" that parents who wish to purchase classroom reading materials can consult. Finally, some parent organizations and teacher unions provide small grants to buy books.

What Kinds of Information Books Should I Include? Building a Nonfiction Collection

As is true with fiction books, teachers need to carefully evaluate nonfiction books before including them in the classroom library. When evaluating a nonfiction trade book, teachers should consider the five A's: 1) the authority of the author, 2) the accuracy of the text content, 3) the appropriateness of the book for its audience, 4) the literary artistry, and 5) the appearance of the book (Moss, Leone, & DiPillo, 1997).

* Authority relates to the author's qualifications for writing the book. The best authors consult authorities in a variety of fields to ensure credibility.

* Accuracy of content, along with visual features, form the linchpin of good nonfiction.

* The best nonfiction books are appropriate to their intended audiences. They do not talk down to readers, but are successful in making complex concepts comprehensible.

* Literary artistry refers to the need for quality nonfiction texts. The best nonfiction books contain engaging information presented through the use of such narrative devices as similes and metaphors, "hooks," and other devices.

* A book's attractiveness matters to today's students, who are accustomed to an array of visual media and expect to see materials with a strong visual impact. Attractive presentation of information can mean the difference between a book students will select and one they will reject.

A quality nonfiction classroom library collection should include a range of titles provided for a range of purposes. Many school libraries contain large sets of "series" nonfiction titles, ranging from the Smithsonian Kids" Field Guides to American Indian Biographies (Capstone/Blue Earth). While some series nonfiction books titles are excellent, others are written in a pedestrian, formulaic way and fail to meet many of the criteria outlined in the 5 A's. For teachers who need help in evaluating the quality of these series, the American Library Association Web site provides reviews of nonfiction series books ( youthseriesroundup/SeriesRoundup.htm) that canhelp teachers select series books for their classrooms.

A variety of other sources can guide teachers to excellent nonfiction titles. Two awards that specifically honor outstanding nonfiction titles are the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award, and the American Library Association's Robert F. Siebert Award. Nonfiction titles are regularly included on lists of best books, including the ALA Notable Book lists, and are often recipients of other book awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award, the Pura Belpre Award, and the Newbery and Caldecott Awards. Many of these titles can be found as offerings from book clubs, such as Scholastic, Trumpet, and Troll Carnival.

A nonfiction collection also should include reference books that students can use to locate information, for general knowledge-seeking, or to connect with classroom units of study. Atlases, world record books, dictionaries (both traditional and visual), dual language dictionaries, encyclopedias, specialized visual encyclopedias, thesauruses, dictionaries of synonyms, and books of lists can be indispensable resources for students.

Small specialized text sets of books should have a special place in the classroom library. These can be books related to a topic of study in the classroom, current events, or an area of great interest to individual or groups of students. These text sets should include books from a variety of genres, including picture books, realistic and/or historical fiction, biography, information titles, poetry, and perhaps traditional literature. For example, a text set related to Mexico and Mexican American life would be of particular interest to students in classrooms with large Mexican American populations. It might consist of such Mexican folktales as Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book (Morales, 2003); contemporary stories of Mexican American life, like In My Family (Garza, 1996); nonfiction accounts detailing Mexican American celebrations of customs, such as the Day of the Dead (Day of the Dead: A Mexican-American Celebration, Hoyt-Goldsmith, 1994); or books of poetry, like Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems (1999), a bilingual poetry collection in which Francisco X. Alarcon revisits memories of growing up in Los Angeles.

Other specialized collections might include fiction/ nonfiction pairs. By combining fiction and nonfiction titles, children can deepen their understanding of both genres. See Table I for sample pairs.

It is extremely important that nonfiction collections span a range of reading levels. Because nonfiction books tend to be more difficult than fiction, it is essential that teachers meet the range of reading abilities found in the classroom. For this reason, Stead (2002) recommends varying reading levels for books on given topics.

The largest portion of the nonfiction collection, however, should be devoted to books for student voluntary reading. These titles should span a wide range of interests and reading abilities and should include books that appeal to students of both sexes. Biographies of contemporary as well as historical people should be part of the voluntary reading collection, as should books about perennial topics of interest. Obviously, these areas of interest will depend upon the students and their ages, levels of maturity, geographic location, cultural heritage, and much more. Children in Maria Bowden's 4th-grade San Diego classroom, for example, enjoyed nonfiction titles about volcanoes, various animals, skydiving, black holes, motocross, titles from the Ripley's Believe It or Not series, biographies of baseball players and musicians, and articles from Kids Discover magazine.

It is important to provide students with books in their home language when possible. Nonfiction books as well as stories can help support students in their native languages. Such biographies as Diego (Winter, 1991) and alphabet books like Calavera Abecedario: A Day of the Dead Alphabet Book (Winter, 2004) can provide support for students who need to read in their first language.

Moreover, it is important to have multiple copies of some books so small groups of students can experience the same text together, as well as books that are appropriate for students who struggle with reading. Nonfiction titles from the "Step Into Reading" series can be useful for primary grade struggling readers, as can many of the leveled books recommended in Fountas and Pinnell's (1999) Matching Books to Readers: Using Leveled Books in Guided Reading, K-3. Such titles as You Wouldn't Want To Be an Egyptian Mummy! Disgusting Things You'd Rather Not Know (Stewart, 2001) entice the most reluctant readers by using humor and engaging illustrations. Some books will represent the core or permanent collection, while others are part of a revolving collection related to holidays, particular units of study, or students' current interests (Galda & Cullinan, 2002).

Effective Library Areas

Simply having great books in the classroom is not enough to entice students to read them. Motivating students to actually read the books in the classroom library involves creating effective library areas as well as displaying books in enticing ways. Think about a recent trip to the bookstore. Adults and children are drawn to cozy reading environments and books that are enticingly displayed.

Effective library areas share certain characteristics that encourage voluntary reading (Allington & Cunningham, 1996; Chambers, 1996; Hadaway, Vardell, & Young, 2002; Morrow, 2003; Routman, 2003):

* Attractive and accessible area

* Area large enough to hold five or six students at a time

* Cozy seating

* Wide variety of literature, including picture books, nonfiction, and such magazines as National Geographic World, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and Ranger Rick

* Books written in students' home languages

* Featured books displayed on open-faced shelves

* New books regularly introduced

* A listening center so that students can read along with selected books

* A simple procedure for checking books out.

It is important to consider how the books are organized and made accessible to students. All too often, the few nonfiction trade books found in classroom libraries typically rest on a single shelf labeled "nonfiction," reflecting the misperception that all nonfiction books are alike. Nonfiction represents a broad spectrum of book types and topics, and so such organization is inadequate (Stead, 2002). Students need access to biographies, concept books, life cycle books, photo essays, and survey books on topics ranging from animals to zeppelins, and the organization of books should reflect the diversity of nonfiction books available. Teachers can make it easier for students to find nonfiction by involving them in organizing and maintaining the classroom library, even when existing systems work well (Routman, 2003; Stead, 2002).

Stead (2002) recommends using separate baskets, shelves, or tubs to hold books grouped by various topics. A sampling of books for young children about the solar system might include The Planets (Gibbons, 1993), The Moon Book (Gibbons, 1997), So That's How the Moon Changes Shape (Fowler, 1991), and The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System (Cole, 1992). Students can sort the nonfiction library books by topic to determine the best label for each nonfiction grouping. Through these experiences, students can increase their understanding of the diversity of the nonfiction genre and begin to understand that not all nonfiction books are the same. The tubs, baskets, or shelf space can be labeled and assigned numbers. Corresponding numbers can be placed on stickers for each book to make it easy for students to find and reshelve books. Teachers often note the reading levels of books to ensure that all students have access to "just right" books that meet their needs and abilities. Indeed, Calkins (2001) recommends color-coding a third of the books to help students choose "just right" books and, at the same time, allow the children to make decisions about which books are best for them.

The Role of the Teacher

For avid readers, access to books is all that is necessary to promote reading. Other students, however, need multiple experiences with books before they will read them (Bruning & Schweiger, 1997; McGill-Franzen, Allington, Yokoi, & Brooks, 1999). Likewise, Morrow (2003) notes that "without the teacher who introduces the materials and features books in their daily routines," classroom libraries will not succeed (p. 864).

Clearly, the role of the teacher is essential. When it comes to nonfiction books, teachers may themselves unconsciously promote fiction titles at the expense of nonfiction. It is important for teachers to ask themselves:

Do we see reading for pleasure as predominantly reading stories and novels? Can we not get pleasure from reading good quality information books? Do we see information books solely as resources we go to when we do research or have an information problem? (Doiron, 2003)

Teachers can promote the books in the classroom library in many ways. Through read-alouds, book talking, readers' theater, displays, and other activities, teachers demonstrate their own enthusiasm for nonfiction and show students how engaging such texts can be.


Children's reading engagement plays a key role in their academic success. Both comprehension and achievement improve when students increase their reading volume (Allington, 2006). Classroom libraries have the potential to increase student access to books and to stimulate their desire to read. Often, these collections are not considered a home for nonfiction books. The availability of intriguing and engaging nonfiction trade books, however, makes it easier than ever for teachers to incorporate these books in their classroom library collections and teaching routines. Classroom libraries overflowing with quality nonfiction titles enable students to spend more time reading, rather than completing activities related to reading (Routman, 2003), which is critical to the goal of creating successful readers for the 21st century.


Allington, R. L. (2006). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research-based programs. Boston: Pearson Allyn and Bacon.

Allington, R. L., & Cunningham, P.M. (1996). Schools that work: Where all children read and write. New York: HarperCollins.

Anderson, R. C., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L.G. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 285-303.

Bruning, R., & Schweiger, B. M. (1997). Integrating science and literacy experiences to motivate student learning. In J. T. Guthrie & A. Wigfield (Eds.), Reading engagement: Motivating readers through integrated instruction (pp. 149-167). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Calkins, L. M. (2001). The art of teaching reading. New York: Longman.

Campbell, J. R. (1995). Interviewing children about their literacy experiences: Data from NAEP's Integrated Reading Performance Record (IRPR) at Grade 4. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Chambers, A. (1996). The reading environment: How adults help children enjoy books. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Daniels, H. (2004). Building a classroom library. Voices From the Middle, 11(4), 44-46.

Doiron, R. (2003). Boybooks, girl books: Should we re-organize our school library collections? Teacher Librarian, 30(3),14-17.

Duke, N.K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35, 202-224.

Duke, N. K., & Bennett-Armistead, V. S. (2003). Reading & writing informational text in the primary grades: Research-based practices. New York: Scholastic.

Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1999). Matching books to readers: Using leveled books in guided reading, K-3. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fractor, J. S., Woodruff, M. C., Martinez, M. G., & Teale, W. H. (1993). Let's not miss opportunities to promote voluntary reading: Classroom libraries in the elementary school. Reading Teacher, 46, 476-484.

Galda, L, & Cullinan, B. (2002). Literature and the child. Atlanta, GA: Wadsworth.

Guthrie, J. T., Schafer, W. D., Von Secker, C., & Alban, T. (2000). Contributions of integrated reading instruction and text resources to achievement and engagement in a statewide school improvement program. Journal of Educational Research, 93, 211-226.

Hadaway, N. L., Vardell, S. M., & Young, T. A. (2002). Literature-based instruction for English language learners: K-12. Boston: Allyn & Bacon Longman.

Harwayne, S. (1999). Going public: Priorities and practice at the Manhattan New School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Kletzien, S. B, & Dreher, M.J. (2004). Informational text in K-3 classrooms: Helping children read and write. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Kletzien, S. B., & Szabo, R.J. (1998). Information text or narrative text? Children's preferences revisited. Paper presented at the National Reading Conference, Austin, TX.

Krashen, S.D. (1998). Every person a reader: An alternative to the California Task Force report on reading. In C. Weaver (Ed.), Reconsidering a balanced approach to reading (pp. 425-452). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Krashen, S.D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

McGill-Franzen, A., Allington, R., Yokoi, L, & Brooks, G. (1999). Putting books in the classroom seems necessary but not sufficient. Journal of Educational Research, 93(2), 67-74.

Morrow, L. M. (2003). Motivating lifelong voluntary reading. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squires, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 857-867). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Moss, B. (2003). Exploring the literature of fact: Children's nonfiction trade books in the elementary classroom. New York: Guilford Press.

Moss, B., Leone, S., & DiPillo, M. L. (1997). Exploring the literature of fact: Linking reading and writing through information trade books. Language Arts, 74(6), 418-429.

Neuman, S. B. (1999). Books make a difference: A study of access to literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 34, 286-311.

Ramos, F., & Krashen, S. (1998). The impact of one trip to the public library: Making books available may be the best incentive for reading. The Reading Teacher, 51, 614-615.

Reutzel, D. R., & Fawson, P. C. (2002). Your classroom library: New ways to give it more teaching power. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.

Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sebesta, S. L., & Monson, D. L. (2003). Reading interests. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. R. Squires, & J. M. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (pp. 835-847). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Stead, T. (2002). Is that a fact? Teaching nonfiction writing in K-3. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Stoodt-Hill, B. D., & Amspaugh-Corson, L.B. (2005). Children's literature: Discovery for a lifetime. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall.

Children's Books Cited

Alarcon, F. X. (1999). Angels ride bikes and other fall poems. San Francisco: Children's Press.

Cole, J. (1992). The magic school bus lost in the solar system. New York: Scholastic.

Fowler, A. (1991). So that's how the moon changes shape. Chicago: Children's Press.

Garza, C. L. (1996). In my family. San Francisco: Children's Book Press.

Gibbons, G. (1993). The planets. New York: Holiday House.

Gibbons, G. (1997). The moon book. New York: Holiday House.

Hoyt-Goldsmith, D. (1994). Day of the Dead: A Mexican-American celebration. New York: Holiday House.

Morales, Y. (2003). Just a minute: A trickster tale and counting book. New York: Chronicle Books.

Stewart, D. (2001). You wouldn't want to be an Egyptian mummy! Disgusting things you'd rather not know. New York: Scholastic.

Winter, J. (1991). Diego. New York: Knopf.

Winter, J. (2004). Calavera abecedario: A Day of the Dead alphabet book. New York: Harcourt.

Terrell A. Young is Professor, Literacy Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, Washington State University, Richland. Barbara Moss is Professor of Literacy, School of Teacher Education, San Diego State University.
Table 1
Sample Fiction/Nonfiction Paired Books

Fiction/Poetry Title Nonfiction Title

Bunting, Eve. How Many Lawlor, Veronica. I Was Dreaming To Come
Days to America? to America (Vi-king, 1995)
(Clarion, 1988)

Lindbergh, Reeve. A Burleigh, Robert. Flight: The Journey
View From the of Charles Lindbergh(Philomel, 1991)
Air (Viking, 1992)

French, Vivian. Godwin, Sam. The Trouble With
Growing Frogs Tadpoles: A First Look at the Life
(Candlewick Cycle of a Frog (Picture Window, 2005)
Press, 2000)

Rylant, Cynthia. Ehlert, Lois. Leaf Man (Harcourt, 2005)
Poppleton in Fall
(Scholastic, 1999)

Livingston, Myra Morrison, Gordon. Oak Tree
Cohn. A Circle of (Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
Seasons (Holiday
House, 1982)

dePaola, Tomie. Cummings, Pat. Talking With
The Art Lesson Artists (MacMillan, 1992)
(Putnam, 1989)

Wilder, Laura Erickson, Paul. Daily Life in a
Ingalls. Little Covered Wagon (Preservation
House on the Press, 1994)
(Harper, 1953)

King-Smith, Dick. King-Smith, Dick. All Pigs
Babe, the Gallant Are Beautiful (Candlewick
Pig (Random Press, 1993)
House, 1983)

White, E.B. French, Vivian. Spider
Charlotte's Web Watching (Candlewick
(Harper, 1952) Press, 1994)

Oppenheim, Sill, Cathryn. About
Joanne. Have You Birds (Peachtree, 1991)
Seen Birds?
(Scholastic, 1986)

McPhail, David. McPhail, D. In Flight With
Lost! (Little, David McPhail: A Creative
Brown, 1990) Biography (Heinemann, 1996)

Van Allsburg, Dorros, Arthur. Ant
Chris. Two Bad Cities (Crowell, 1987)
Ants (Houghton
Mifflin, 1988)

Cole, Joanna. Selsam, Millicent. How Puppies
Give a Dog a Bone: Grow (Four Winds, 1971)
Stories, Poems,
Jokes and Riddles
About Dogs
(Scholastic, 1996)
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Title Annotation:childhood literature knowledge
Author:Moss, Barbara
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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