By Michael Telek, Sara DeMartino, Cheryl Sandora and Michelle Rimbey

Excited to bring his hard-earned golden token to the vending machine, Ernesto makes his way to the giant metal box. He carefully scans each row and happily selects B13. Ernesto feeds his token to the machine and bingo; his prize falls down to the bottom. His prize isn’t the sugary treats we’ve come to expect from a vending machine, but Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love.

This scene is taken right from the hallways of Tornillo Elementary in Tornillo, Texas. A book vending machine was introduced this school year to inspire readers and now students are reading at a record pace. 

“One of the biggest goals that we’ve had the last couple of years was to create a culture of reading,” said Principal Myrna Lopez. 

Lopez runs the rural school 40 miles southeast of El Paso, just minutes from the Mexican border where many in town have friends and family on the other side of the Rio Grande River. She, along with teachers and staff, are responsible for roughly 200 students from pre-K through second grade. Nearly all those students are considered at-risk, and Spanish is the home language for most.

When taking on the task of creating a culture of reading three years ago, Lopez envisioned a library that wasn’t just for the Tornillo students, but also the Tornillo community. After some fresh renovations, the school soon introduced reading afternoons, where parents could join their children in a lesson at the library. Another big hit? The return of the book fair. It had been at least seven years since students could shop for their favorite titles.

“We started to try and get books in the hands of kids,” said Lopez. “So that works for a little bit and then kids tend to lose interest.”

Instructional text selection often has an impact on how students see themselves as readers. For students to see themselves as readers, teachers should invite students into reading.

The National Council of Teachers of English suggests, “reading materials which draw upon students’ backgrounds…comprehension and engagement are enhanced when students can activate relevant background knowledge as they read, connecting their personal experiences with vicarious experiences…the relevance of a work to students’ daily lives or to the lives of their imaginations is worthy of consideration in the selection process,” (NCTE, 2014).

When we provide students an opportunity to engage with relevant texts instructionally, they will begin to see reading as a valuable tool as opposed to something they have to do to pass a test.

It’s an age-old question educators ask themselves time and time again, “What can I do to inspire my readers?” Lopez, now in her fourth year as principal, was searching for a solution to this question when she remembered a Twitter post showing a group of eager readers who just selected from a book vending machine.

“We had seen it a few years back. You have this goal like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to buy that machine’,” Lopez chuckled.

The school fundraised and used state allocated ESSER funding to buy the machine after two years. With the machine purchased, the team at Tornillo needed to decide how to operate it and keep it stocked with the stories students want.

Incentives were already in place for positive behavior, they turned to personal reading logs that would allow readers to earn a token that is valid at the vending machine on a book that students can keep. It’s an ongoing incentive. Each month students can complete and turn in an unlimited amount of reading logs. The logs feature clip art themes and have evolved to ask the students a question related to the book they read or other reading related questions.

“In August, that was our first month, we had 150 entries submitted,” said Lopez “For September we had 223.”

Lopez knows these numbers by heart because she signs off on every log with a sticker and a message of encouragement. She also creates a bar graph to keep track of the current tally and inspire her readers to pick up another book. Anything that will help catch up with that moving goal line of sustaining students’ interest in reading is always beneficial. Lopez and staff meet to discuss what books would pique the kids’ interest. Students are also invited to share what they would like to see in the vending machine. The “I Spy” series and multicultural titles have been a big hit this year.

“Every single time they go out to the machine, and we ask the kids what number you are going to pick? And when they put it in, there’s a big cheer,” said Lopez. “One time a parent said ‘you know what? I’ve never seen him want to read so much. He tells me, Mom, we gotta read. Mom, we gotta read.’ And one of the things that I think about is, OK, how are we going to make the culture of reading sustainable? Are we making a difference?”

National Council of Teachers of English. (2014, April). Guidelines for selection of materials in English language arts programs. [NCTE Position Statement] Retrieved from