Literacy Cafés by Alyson Beecher

Two years ago, a parent volunteer and I stumbled onto a way to get students excited about books that were being read in classrooms.  We called it the Literacy Café.  Just to clarify, when I speak about a Literacy Café, I am not referring to book talks where you have refreshments.  Nor am I referring to The CAFÉ Book by Gail Boushey.  When I use the term Literacy Cafés, I am talking about creating a way to celebrate a book and bring them alive in your classroom with your students.

Over the past two years, we have literally done dozens of Literacy Cafés with students from Kindergarten to fifth grade (and with some minor tweaking, this could easily be done on the secondary level as well).  We have used picture books, novels, and nonfiction books for the Café.  We have revised, tweaked, and experimented with what we have done in order to keep things fresh and interesting.  An important thing to remember is though we want students to have fun and we speak of celebrating books, we are very purposeful in wanting children to also learn.

So what is a Literacy Café and how can I get started?

When we first started, it began with me reading a novel aloud to a fourth grade class and inviting them to a café to celebrate the book.  The Literacy Café was in a separate room that we had available (though you can do it in your own room). We decorated the room around the themes of the book and brought in a team of volunteers to help with the six activities that were created to help students focus on various aspects of the book.  One activity used art to help children focus on the visual symbols in the story.  Another activity focused on writing descriptively about a sensory experience (again a focus of the book). And another activity focused on a cultural aspect of the book.  As we looked around the room, we saw students fully engaged in what they were learning and having fun.  Also, we realized that the activities allowed students of various abilities to participate at the right level for each of them.  At the end, we were euphoric at how well it went and excited about doing more.  Students were also excited and wanted to know when we would be doing it again.

As we thought about new cafés and how to do them for every grade level, we learned that we needed a minimum of 75 minutes to run a café though 90 minutes was preferable.  We learned that though it is nice to have a number of volunteers to help run a café we can run it with as little as two people (a teacher and a volunteer), though with younger children it is nice to have a few more hands.

This year, one of my favorite cafés was one that we did with fourth and fifth graders around the theme of the Harlem Renaissance.  We ran the café in two-parts (a pre-teach and the actual café) and repeated each part three times to cover all of the classes.

Here are a few step by step ideas for running a café:

  1. Pick a book or a collection of books around a theme to use for the café
  2. Read the book(s) aloud to your students prior to the café.
  3. Plan 2-3 activities that highlight key aspects of the story and focus on learning needs of your students. (Many of my students need more exposure to writing – so we always have a writing activity as a part of the café. Some cafés will lend themselves to science and math activities too.)
  4. If you are using volunteers, don’t forget to prep with them so they know what you expect them to do.  The worse thing is to have adult volunteers wandering around unsure of what they should be doing.
  5. Set the mood – bring in some music, or posters or decorations to make your room feel special when you hold your café.
  6. Food – you must have food, it’s a café after all. It can be incorporated into an activity or provided at the end during the de-brief.  And the food should always have a connection to the book/story.
  7. When you start the café, remember to help students understand the purpose of the café.  (Again, though I want them to have fun, we are doing some serious learning at the same time.)
  8. At the beginning, I always tell students what the exit question will be.  This seems to help them focus on and retain what we will be learning.
  9. Explain to students, your expectations for rotating from activity to activity (Will you use a timer to signal when they are to move to the next activity or a verbal cue? Do you want them to move as a group clockwise or in another order?)
  10. At the end, don’t forget to de-brief with students about what they learned.

For more information about the books and cafés that we have done, check out my blog: As a companion piece to this post, I have elaborated more on the Harlem Renaissance Literacy Café that we did.  Click here to check it out.  If you want to brainstorm about some ideas for a café, feel free to email me at

Alyson Beecher is an educator and literacy advocate.  In 2011, she co-founded Bridge to Books (, a grassroots group that seeks to build collaborations between teachers/librarians/booksellers/publishers/authors/illustrators in order to connect children and teen to books. Currently, she sits on the Scholastic Book Fair Principal Advisory Board and the Schneider Family Book Award Jury.