Mind the Gap: Serving Readers in Sixth Through Eighth Grade

Middle school librarian Amanda Buschmann offers tips for helping build collections and serve readers in that tricky range between sixth and eighth grade.
Students attending Atascocita Middle School in the booming suburb of Humble, TX, represent a diverse range of reading interests and abilities. Sixth grade Brianna describes the type of books she finds appealing: "comic books...because they have a lot of fun words and I like the illustrations." Seasoned eighth grader Courtney tends toward the more sophisticated, explaining that she prefers "murder mysteries [in which] the ending isn't what you expected it to be. In sixth grade I read 'Junie B. Jones' Now I read stuff like Cinder. More mature...you have to infer a lot more in those books than those I read in sixth grade." Kiera_gap_2As populations increase and the interests of students change, the library must face this daunting challenge head-on to meet students’ needs. Middle school populations are unique. Sixth graders differ dramatically from eighth graders—physically, mentally, socially, and academically. For librarians, this represents a significant challenge for collection development and readers’ advisory. How do you serve the wants and needs of this range of readers who have such diverse tastes? The more informed we are about students’ interests and reading levels, the better able we’ll be to stock our shelves with engaging titles that neither frustrate nor bore students. Recent research shows that reading at an eighth grade level requires an increase in fluency and accuracy, as well as the ability to make inferences and decode complex syntax. Many sixth graders may not be developmentally ready to tackle abstract concepts that are concurrent with an increase in text fluency. Socially, sixth grade students are beginning to test their boundaries and seek out approval from authority figures and peers. Eighth grade students, meanwhile, are often preoccupied with their own selves, especially their appearance and others’ opinions of them. More often than not, eighth graders are beginning to date and “go out” with one another, while that behavior is still somewhat rarer among their middle school peers in sixth grade. The average Lexile range for sixth graders is 665L to 1000L, while eighth graders range from 805L to 1100L. Given the fact that the “end” range on both of these is very similar, a library’s collection must cater to advanced sixth grade readers who might not be emotionally or mentally mature enough for certain subject matter. On the flipside, librarians must also ensure that eighth graders reading on the lower end of the spectrum have access to high-interest materials that will not bore them or feel condescending. How do we do this tricky balancing of the collection to meet the special and varied needs of a diverse middle school population? Here are five helpful tips:


Since I use Destiny, I’ll be using their Titlewave platform as the example, though almost every ILS vendor provides some sort of analytic set of tools—ask your rep for details on what might be available to you. Once you download/export your catalog in a Marc .001 file, you can upload it onto Titlewave’s analysis tab. Once exported, your analysis will include “Reading Programs,” which further subdivides into categories such as interest level, reading level, and Lexile level. Using these tools can help you decipher any gaps or an overabundance in your collection and adjust accordingly. Titlewave screenshot 1 Titlewave screenshot 2

Screenshots of Titlewave analytic report, courtesy of author.



At the beginning of the year, I asked all RELA (Reading/English Language Arts) teachers to have their students complete an interest survey. Library aides helped me input the received data into a spreadsheet, which I then used to evaluate patterns among the grade levels. Next year, I plan on using a Google Form so that my aides won’t have to be subjected to the drudgery of data entry, and, more importantly, I can access the data in different formats. Such a tool is essential when I am deciding which books to order. Also, sitting in on the teachers’ planning meetings can help you pinpoint the students’ interests. The teachers will have priceless information on what the students are interested in and what they dislike, which can aid you in honing your collection.  


At our school, we have separate elective classes for struggling readers—I always make it a point to help support these types of readers by purchasing specially marketed “high-interest, low-level” (hi-lo) books. Generally speaking, they are series of books with a high drama factor, so readers get hooked and want to continue the series. Many publishing companies offer these types of series; some of my favorites include Orca, Saddleback, and Lorimer. Conversely, you may also have extremely advanced readers in your library, kids who can easily read adult books. While these tend to be fewer in number than the struggling reader, it is equally important to ensure you have materials for them to read. My best success in supporting these advanced readers is to have conversations with them in which I ask them to make a list of books they are interested in reading. Sometimes, depending on the student, I will even ask them to create a list for me in Titlewave. Then, I can incorporate their wishes on a future order, and they get the satisfaction and empowerment of making decisions about what the library purchases.  


Demo Advanced Reader label

Label from Demco.

When I first began here, a previous librarian told me she wanted to create a separate section just for eighth grade readers. This section would house those “advanced” books—advanced in terms of fluency and subject matter. Instead of essentially alienating sixth and seventh grade advanced readers, I purchased “Advanced Reader” labels and label those books with these stickers. When students come in for orientations at the beginning of the year, I make it a point to explain what this label means. Some sixth grade students are fully capable of reading those books; some, not so much. It can spark an interesting conversation between the student and the parent, as both sides present their arguments for or against checking out the advanced books. Since I’ve implemented this system, I have noticed fewer parent complaints about sixth graders checking out books that are too mature for them—in fact, I haven’t had any. The label system may not be a panacea but it is surely helpful in identifying more mature/fluent books.  


Most states offer a specialized Twitter hashtag for their librarians to come together and chat; for instance, every Tuesday at 8:00 PM, librarians all across Texas gather on Twitter under the hash tag #txlchat and discuss a preselected theme. I always come away with a full sheet of cool ideas and tips. You can access the hashtag at any time, and I often tweet out questions with the hash tag on other days of the week. To find your state’s hashtag, just Google “[State] librarian Twitter chat.” The best resource for librarians are other librarians, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your colleagues! Amanda Buschmann is the librarian at Atascocita Middle School in Humble, TX. She enjoys inspiring others to read, the smell of books, and all things sparkly.
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Louise Lankau

This is a great article - useful for all levels of school libraries. I especially liked your interest survey tip for students, Titlewave lists, as well as the reminder about txlchat.

Posted : May 15, 2016 07:55

Libby Gorman

Thanks for this great article! I like the idea of labeling "mature content" books but keeping them available, but I will say that I've just started an "8th grade only" collection this year and I love it. I feel like some 8th graders who aren't big readers will check out books from there just because there is cache in being the only ones who can check them out. I also keep the 8th grade collection selection separate from reading level--in fact, I'm trying to get some easier, but still older theme, books in there. It's a small enough collection that 6th and 7th graders seem ok with waiting until 8th grade--and I point the ones who REALLY want to read those books to the public library shamelessly.

Posted : Apr 21, 2016 05:51



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