Looking @ Teaching Dewey … or Don’t We?

Looking @ Teaching Dewey ... or Don't We? - I don't teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System and you don't have to either! There's a better way to teach students how to find a book in our School Libraries and it even supports content literacy in math. Read on to find out how I do Dewey... #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #deweydecimals #librarylessons #math #contentarealiteracyI don’t teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System during Library Orientation. In fact, I don’t teach it at all. The eye-opener came my second year as a librarian when I was telling students (during an incredibly boring orientation) that library books were originally shelved behind the circulation desk, and the DDC was created so librarians could organize books to find one when a patron asked for it. I suddenly realized that DDC is for me to know for organizing books, not for students to know for finding one. Students only need to know how to find a number on a shelf, and anyone who can put 3 numbers in consecutive order can do that—even a kindergartner!


Nowhere do the new AASL National School Library Standards ever mention the Dewey Decimal Classification System. (Nor did the Standards for a 21st Century Learner!) It’s not even listed in the Glossary or the Index. For the Shared Foundation CURATE the NSLS offers this:

Learner School Librarian School Library
A. THINK 2. Act on an information need by identifying possible sources of information. A. THINK – Challenge learners to act on an information need by:
2. Designing opportunities for learners to explore possible information sources.
3. Guiding learners to make critical choices about information sources to use.
C. SHARE – Facilitates the contribution & exchange within & among learning communities by:
2. Including & tracking collection materials in a system that uses standardized approaches to description & location.
3. Establishing policies that promote effective acquisition, description, circulation, sharing & access to resources within & beyond the school day.
B. CREATE 1. Gather information to the task by seeking a variety of sources. B. CREATE 4. Promote information gathering appropriate to the task by providing tools & strategies to organize information by priority, topic, or other systematic scheme.  

Notice that it’s only the School Library level that is concerned with classification or a system; such is often handled at the district level. The School Librarian‘s main concern is to simply help students use the system to find what they need. I particularly like the wording of Think #2 and I’ve written about designing such opportunities for science and for social studies in a way that coordinates DDC with both “the discipline” and with classroom learning.

Nothing in NSLS states, or even suggests, that the learner needs to “know” details of the Dewey Decimal System! A Learner only needs to identify whether the school library has a book they need, and then be able to find the book on the shelf.


Education is changing from a content-based mentality to critical-thinking and problem-solving, so why teach a content-based lesson on Dewey? DDC organizes Classes & Divisions “by discipline,” but how many School Librarians honestly understand the difference between “class,” “division,” and “discipline” well enough to explain it to each other, let alone a kid? (And a kid doesn’t need to know that content!) How many School Librarians really know more than a few Dewey Divisions? Quick, what are the 10 Divisions of 500s Science or of 700s Arts & Leisure? And those are the easy ones!

Dewey Lesson slide #1

The school library is all about problem-solving, and we need to use that approach to teach how to use an organization system to locate resources. Students only need to understand that each place value in a Dewey decimal number stands for a more specific subject or topic, so more decimals mean a narrower topic of a book. What those subjects or topics are should be a sign on a shelf, not a scrap of trivia in a kid’s brain.

This goes beyond just a lesson; it touches on the latest trend of dumping Dewey for a “kid-friendly” word-based system. I’m astonished when I hear this, since Dewey is a shorter and simpler notation for indicating the subject of a book in order to locate it on the shelf. I doubt that kids are any more likely to learn letter acronyms than Dewey numbers.

We’ll still have to teach them how to find a book using a classification system, they’ll still have to look up what the topics are, and we’ll still need to put signs on the shelves, all of which we can just as easily do with Dewey numbers!

Granted, for elementary students, especially very young ones who haven’t learned about decimals, Dewey numbers may seem a bit daunting, but even a kindergartner quickly learns to count to 100, and helping kids discern and practice numerical order seems to me a much more important skill to focus on than what the numbers stand for. It’s incredible that many of my 6th graders couldn’t do this, so a lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun for them! At least it always was for my 6th & 7th graders after I finally changed my lessons from content to process!

Dewey Lesson slide #3
Animated slide to practice putting decimals in order.


I identify areas of the library by what’s on the spine labels of the books; since there’s a Dewey number on the spine labels, it’s the Dewey area of the library. My decision to begin doing this came at that same (incredibly boring) orientation: I was explaining that we separate fiction books from the 800s into their own area of the library, but the ‘non-fiction’ area still had some fictional books, such as aliens, fairy tales, and poetry. I thought, “Why am I making this so confusing to students? If I just call them Dewey-number books I’ll alleviate confusion and questions!” So from then on, that’s what I called them. Now I clarify with students that ‘non-fiction’ is about the content of a book, not it’s location. If you take anything from this blog post, I hope it’s the terms ‘Dewey area’ and ‘Dewey-number books.’ Our kids deserve common sense.


Do Decimal Lessons with Math Classes - Don't teach Dewey! Teach students how to find a decimal-number book in the school library with their math class. Here's how I do it... #schoollibrary #deweydecimals #librarylessons #math #contentarealiteracyNumbers and decimals are part of the Math curriculum, so I bring 6th and 7th grade Math classes into the library for a Dewey Decimal lesson. Math classes rarely visit the library, and this gives them a curricular reason with practical, hands-on application. The timing is perfect: these Math classes begin decimal units around 6 weeks after school begins, when our ELA fiction reading patterns are well established and students are eager to begin checking out Dewey books.

These math lessons activate prior math knowledge with a review of what students already know about decimals, to prepare them for what they’ll be learning during their Math unit: 6g students review place values and sequencing decimals; 7g students review adding and subtracting decimals. Then students practice how decimals are used in the library by locating Dewey-decimal-number books on the shelf. Math teachers love these lessons; they like having a fun, non-graded review where they can see which students are having trouble with decimals, and they come to me to ask when they can bring their classes into the library!

line of books laying down

If the slide images have sparked your interest in my Dewey Lessons,
you can find them in my NoSweat Library store on TeachersPayTeachers:
Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic and relevant by inviting 6g Math classes to review decimal place values and sequencing! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 6g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic & relevant by inviting 7g Math classes to review adding & subtracting decimal numbers! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 7g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! Make it easier for students to find a Dewey book in your school library with these colorful, pictorial signs and shelf labels. They're just what you need for your middle school or elementary library!


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