Books on Buses and Book in a Bag: Book Access and Reading

  • amount of instruction alphabet
  • 04 August, 2018

Teachers' questions:

Can you point us to any research regarding the practice of Book In a Bag - sending leveled readers home with students each night?

What do you think of “Books on the Bus?”

Shanahan response:

I know of no research on either of these methods for increasing kids’ access to books. I checked both PscyInfo and Google for sources, and nada!

I’m not surprised, both of these schemes were local school district ideas that captured media attention—and then spread from one district to another.

I must admit I like both ideas. Generally.

In both cases, kids are encouraged to read. Can’t fault that.

In both, books are made available for kids to read. Books are good! Check.  

And there is at least some research on the importance of easy access to books—more on that later.

Both districts from whence these inquiries came were taking on these approaches in order to encourage reading while preserving instructional time during the school day.

I like that. We should all be trying to expand reading into the kids’ daily lives.

That sure beats the “drop everything and read” idea. I mean how many people can just drop their work or other responsibilities to read? “I know it’s time to place your catheter, Mrs. Mandelbaum, but I’m going to drop everything…” well, you see what I mean.

Instead of creating the mindset that reading, even reading for pleasure, is a school thing, and that if one gets that chore out of the way there, then home reading isn’t necessary, it would be better to teach kids that reading should be part of their lives—not their school lives—and that they have to learn how to manage that among the other myriad of things that they do. Smart.

If I were to quibble at all, I’d criticize the districts for committing to an idea before seeking research evidence. We need to change that sequence… first, look at the research, then make the decision.

But as I say, that’s a quibble in this instance, since these schemes both seem positive, reasonable, and even inexpensive. Whether or not they improve reading achievement or make kids like reading, they look like a lot of fun and could be affirmative ways to communicate to the kids (and their parents) that we think they should read more when not in school.

Sort of like chicken soup and colds… I don’t know if it really helps, but it couldn’t hurt! (Currently, I’m on the board of advisors of Reading is Fundamental (RIF) and in the past I’ve done that for Reach Out and Read (ROR); both are prominent organizations that work hard at increasing book access for kids.)

What can I tell you from the research?

Awhile back (2010), Jim Lindsay published a meta-analysis on access to print for Learning Point (commissioned by RIF).

Not surprisingly, most studies of increased access to books focus on less affluent kids. Since its inception the national assessment (NAEP) has reported fewer books available in the homes of poorer readers and various studies have shown that economically disadvantaged neighborhoods tend to be book deserts, particularly with regard to children’s books: fewer and more distant libraries, fewer and worse book choices, etc.

Basically, this report found that book access tended to have positive effects on a variety of outcomes including reading achievement, reading readiness, attitude, and amount of reading in which students engaged. Effects tended to be highest with the least rigorous studies and with the youngest children (prereading rather than reading outcomes).

Limiting my comments to rigorous studies conducted with elementary students that looked at reading achievement, it’s evident that average payoffs were small (and non-existent in some of the studies). In other words, you might see learning improvements from your new programs, but it’s unlikely—and if there are payoffs they are likely to be small and, perhaps, intangible.

Some of these programs did more than distribute books—and these other features may have figured in their success (or lack thereof). Some studies found that results varied based on whether the books were lent or given to the children (though it wasn’t consistently clear which was best). Most of the programs (75%) involved the kids in the book choices, and that seemed to be an important feature in whether learning gains happened. And, some of the programs provided books, but also encouragement and support for parents and others to be involved in the children’s reading—again a positive feature. (In the versions of Books on the Bus that I’ve read about, this is a key feature, with kids reading together and older kids helping younger ones).

Perhaps some of these findings will help you shape and improve your programs over time. In any event, please keep encouraging and supporting the reading habit beyond the school day. Hope it works for your communities.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kelly MacMartin Aug 04, 2018 09:38 PM

Your pieces are always supportive and thought provoking. I love the catheter reference. Ha! Keep kids reading is the answer! Thanks Tim.

Tim Shanahan Aug 05, 2018 02:32 AM

Thanks, Kelly... I appreciate.

Carole Devey Schachter Aug 05, 2018 09:24 PM

I appreciate that you recognize that something may well be a good idea, even though there is limited research to support it. I hope someone tackles this topic for future research studies.

Tim Shanahan Aug 06, 2018 03:35 AM


There is definitely a difference between something not studied and something studied with poor results... and when there isn’t research on a specific program, but there is on similar efforts I’d pay attention to that. Of course, if this effort were expensive in terms of dollars, kids’ learning time, or teacher anxiety I would have considered the lack of research to be a big problem.


Cheryl Deutschman Aug 06, 2018 03:26 PM

I agree with you that getting books into our kids hands is important. But....I believe it becomes a mute point when the kids are given books by anyone and they don't have a choice. I wish we had the means to do this better in our schools.

Sam Bommarito Aug 07, 2018 04:36 PM

I take issue with sending home leveled books in children’s bus bags et. al. Here is why. There is a real movement afoot by various literacy leaders to organize classroom libraries by interest not level, and to encourage children to pick their recreational reading books by interest not level. Burkins and Yaris recount the tale of what happens when a child is forced to pick a book at their reading level instead of a book they picked due to based on the child’s interest. They maintain that in their story, the child’s face tells it all as it goes from happy and interested to disappointed and bored. Both F&P and Calkins recommend organizing libraries by interest not levels. However, Calkins does recommend that a small portion of the library be leveled. I support this practice but with the caveat that teachers include learning how to bookshop as part of their curriculum. When selected children make choices that result in them constantly abandoning books, the teacher should scaffold those children into better choices. This could include additional book shopping lessons, and possibly limiting those children to shopping by book levels until they are better able to book shop.
Tim, I know that you do not support using workshop or Guided Reading and I respect that. However, for teachers who do use these organizational methods, I want to remind them that many leaders in the field say that MOST of the reading done by children in those settings should not be in leveled readers. Leveled readers and leveled decodable test should be used mainly in direct instruction part of the program. The choice of the reading material in the instructional part of the program should be dictated by the teaching point of the lesson. For instance, if you are teaching decoding skills, then a leveled decodable reader makes perfect sense. If you are teaching inferencing and want to be able to teach it so that the children’s ability to decode does not confound the attempt to teach, then select a text at their reading level that is rich in inferences. This increases the likelihood of teachable moments and of children applying the skill to the text after the lesson in finished.
All this is said to make the point that sending leveled books home in bus bags etc. would not be my preferred practice. Send home books that are of most interest to the child. In the St. Louis area we have several organizations that do try to get books into the hands of children, especially children in poverty areas. Here is a blog post where I talk about three of the most active organizations, Each of the organizations bring extra adults to the book giveaways themselves and those adults help the children find books of interest and help them make choices of books. There have been occasions when our local ILA uses preservice teachers to help with giveaways. When we do this, we train those preservice teachers on how to scaffold children into making good book choices. I think doing all this makes it more likely the children will do more wide reading, recreational reading. That, of course, is a very good thing. Sam

Sam Bommarito Aug 07, 2018 04:49 PM

This is the link to the blog post:

The previous link I provided gets you end to edit the blog post.

If including the blog post link is inappropriate please omit it. No need to include this correction post at all, but if you do include the link to my, please use the link above instead of the one I gave you. Sorry, this is my first time trying to include a link to the blog in comments. Sam

Gail Brown Aug 23, 2018 12:48 AM

Thanks Tim, I agree that anything to increase the amount of reading will be a good thing! And making it a routine in our day, rather than a chore or something that only happens at school is also good! Sometimes, I've found that parents here in Australia want their children to be reading more and more difficult books, often beyond what they can happily read independently - so I'd suggest that sending home appropriately levelled readers would also help parents to know where their children's reading skills are at, and help them support that? Thanks again, your posts are always good! best always, Gail

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Books on Buses and Book in a Bag: Book Access and Reading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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