Shopping Cards

I've been teaching first grade for a long time and I've had so many guided reading groups, I probably talk about it in my sleep.  Doesn't your "guided-reading-talk" spill over into other parts of your life, too?  My own children, who are not in elementary school anymore, will ask me homework questions like, "What does perseverate mean?" and "What's an algorithm?" and I instinctively respond, "Well, what strategy can you try to figure that out?"  I know they wish I'd check my teacher-hat at the door.

(Confession:  Sometimes I don't know the answers to their hard high school homework, so my response is really a win-win for everyone.  My kids learn to be resourceful and I don't look dumb.)

The work we do during our guided reading groups is so important, I want to make sure the children have a lot of additional time to read a lot of books that are just-right for them... books that will help them grow as readers and continue to foster a love for reading.

It's critical that all of my students have a handy collection of books to read at any given time and I've structured our schedule and classroom environment to make sure that happens daily.  A well-stocked classroom library, with a wide variety of books, is the most important part of making this a reality for my kids.  My classroom library isn't just in one part of the classroom... I've got shelves and bins and cubbies of books all over the place.  (Don't worry... it's organized.)  There's a fiction section, a nonfiction section, a section of favorite authors and one for favorite characters, and we have a leveled books section, too.

When I first started teaching (forever ago), I made my fair share of rookie mistakes, one of which was letting children choose ALL of their own books, ALL of the time.  It seems like a good idea, right?  And don't I want "buy-in?"  I mean, what's so hard about choosing books?  I do it myself all the time.  

But I'm an adult.

And they're six.

And I soon figured out something important about new, emergent readers... they don't always know how to pick out books that are going to help them grow.  It doesn't really make a lot of sense to read with children in a guided reading group on Level E books and then watch them self-select 8 Junie B. Jones chapter books from the classroom library for their personal reading collections.  That offers them little chance of practicing proficient reading behaviors on their own.  And then I realized, little kids need a little help when shopping for their books.

(You should know:  I take great care at the beginning of the year making sure our classroom culture is safe and encouraging.  We talk about individual strengths and needs and how people, including myself, set goals for areas where we want to continue growing.  We value differences and celebrate everyone's successes, big and small.  These are the kinds of conversations that need to take place so my students understand why different students have different books at different times.  They make great connections when we talk about how training wheels and swim floaties come off at different times for different kids.  And it's important that children are keenly aware of what their peers are good at and that there's a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie in the classroom.  When that is missing, competition creeps in and that's why some of our emerging readers are choosing 100-page Junie B. Jones chapter books and pretending to read them during reading workshop.  There is a place for chapter books in their reading lives, and I'll explain how I honor that in just a minute, but a large amount of time spent pretending to read isn't really helping anyone.)

This is when I started using "Shopping Cards" and I've been using them for years because they work so well for us.  Here's how they work in our room:

After I finish my initial running records at the beginning of the year, I make a shopping card for each student.  The last letter on the card indicates the child's instructional reading level... the level we're working on during our guided reading time together.  This is the level that "pushes" the reader just a bit because it's a level where they need to be actively using strategies to read and make sense of the text.  

The other two levels are just slightly lower than their instructional level. Reading books at these levels strengthens their confidence, helps them read sight words more automatically, and improves their fluency (both rate and expression).  

The cupcake represents something we call "Dessert Books."  (Hello, Junie B.)  To help them understand this, we have fun talking about desserts... about how they're not the best part of our daily diet, but oh how we want them anyway, don't we?  We talk about how it's important to have a balanced diet and how it's okay to have dessert once in a while as long as it's not the thing we're eating most often.  They understand how that's unhealthy for our bodies.  And then I make the leap to a healthy reading diet... and they're able to leap with me... they get it.  They learn that a healthy reading diet has to be full of books that are just-right for us; that are good for us; that will help us grow.  Dessert books may not be just-right for us, but they're a fun treat to have if we have just a little.

Each week, my students go shopping in our classroom library for their own books.  (I have 5 student teams, so one team goes each day.  This prevents the library from feeling too crowded.  We like happy shoppers.) They pick their own books (buy-in) with a little guidance from me... so much better than what I did my first year of teaching.  Students self-select 3 books from each leveled bin on their own shopping card and then they head over to the fiction / nonfiction sections of our library and choose ANY 3 dessert books they want.  All the books they choose go into a canvas book pocket that hangs on the back of their chair, along with all the books we've been reading during our guided reading time together. As they grow as readers, so do their cards and they begin to shop for different levels.

When we get ready to go home each day, each child picks one leveled book and one dessert book to take home.  The goal is for them to read their leveled book to a family member and then ask a family member to read their dessert book to them or with them.  

You can make your own shopping cards with a simple index card, but if it would save you some time, you can pick up these blank cards for free in my TPT store.    They go all the way up to guided reading level M, but a lot of students no longer need help choosing books after about levels J or K.  By that point, they're pretty good at knowing what's just-right for them.  I have also included a completely blank card in case you use a leveling system other than guided reading levels.

Happy Teaching!


  1. I love this!!! I do Daily 5 in my 2nd grade class, and spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year talking about "good fit" books, yet some of my kids go for the "dessert" books WAY too often. I think this will be a perfect way to keep them at levels that are a good fit for them but still give them the choice! Thanks so much for sharing!! :-)

    1. One of the 2nd grade teachers in my school does a "good fit" lesson at the beginning of the year, too. She brings in 3 shirts... one of her husband's, one of her son's, and one of her own. They have a lot of fun watching her try on the different shirts. Of course, she saves hers until last so they understand how she keeps searching until she finds the right fit for her. (I saw another teacher do the same lesson, but with shoes... very cute... and the kids never forget the point.)

  2. Andrea, this is brilliant! I am so excited to try this with my class. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Fantastic First Grade Froggies 

  3. Andrea, I love this post...I do the same thing except my kids get an ugly post it with the level book they should choose. I love what you said about getting books below their instructional level to practice fluency..great idea! You are amazing, if only you worked at my school and could be my daughter's 1st grade teacher next year....

    1. Ugly Post-It notes work too, right? Sometimes, we just scratch out the old levels and write in the new ones. (You know... when I'm not being Super Teacher.) The kids are so excited to shop in new bins, they don't mind. I could write it on their hand and they'd be happy. :)

      The lower level books work great because it's also a way to add more books to their weekly collection. I wanted to make sure they had plenty to read and reread until they shopped again. That works for 99% of the class. There's always the "one kid" who never has enough of anything. He's always "done." Do you know anyone like this? :D


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