Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Classroom libraries: To level or not to level?

UPDATE 7/5/16:  I finally wrote a piece that details my updated thinking on levels: both the benefits and drawbacks.  That piece can be found here

UPDATE 1/9/16:  I am still working on a new piece on leveling- started back in August!  Painting a complete picture of this topic is difficult.  A conversation with a colleague really brought clarity to why it's so difficult this week:  Matching readers to books is truly an art, not a science.  As teachers, we begin as the artist, then we pass the brush to our students, our reading apprentices, as soon as possible.  Post coming soon!  

UPDATE 8/5/15:  My thinking about leveling classroom libraries and student reading has evolved since this post.  It hasn't exactly changed, but it has grown.  Currently, I'm working on a new, updated piece about what I'm thinking now.  I'm looking forward to continuing this important conversation.  Look out for that post in the coming months.

*This was not an easy post for me to write.  Honestly, I've found myself going back and forth over the years about the pros and cons of leveling classroom libraries.  I still do not believe I have all the answers on the topic.  Here are my thoughts at the moment (9/2/14).  I'd love to hear yours, too.

Classroom Libraries: To Level or Not to Level?

I have been painfully pondering this idea for quite some time.  Should classroom libraries be leveled?  In a leveled library, books are sorted and arranged by reading level- usually by Fountas and Pinnell level (see chart to the right), but I've also seen DRA, Lexile, and other systems used as well.              
Proponents of leveling classroom libraries believe that elementary aged readers need to be able to easily find and access books for independent reading at their reading level.  I agree that young readers must be able to find and access books at their level.  However, I think this is only part of the puzzle to creating a classroom environment where children learn to love reading. In my twelve years as an elementary classroom teacher, my classroom library was partially arranged by level for only two of those years- when I taught second grade (even then, I had reservations when I leveled the library). My library was not leveled when I taught third and fifth grades. I do believe little guys just figuring out how to read need to be able to choose from a wide variety of books across different genres that they can accurately read and understand.  Leveling a classroom library is one way to do this.  Yet, once kiddos move past a certain point on their reading journey and a certain age, I believe we need to take a different approach.  

I understand that all children learning how to read need to have access to

books at their reading level.  I know this and I believe in it.  In fact, I think partially leveling classroom libraries in kindergarten, first, and second grade is a good idea.  First and second grade readers especially need daily, consistent practice reading books at their level.  Plus, kiddos in those grades are not typically worried about social status, appearances, and looking different. However, they still may become self conscious, so the practice of leveling must be done carefully and thoughtfully.  Also, the last thing I want is for a child at any age to select a book purely based on level. Starting in third grade, kids definitely start to notice more about what the other kids in class are doing. Despite a teacher's efforts and best intentions in creating a safe community where all readers are honored, kids can develop an insecurity about being a level as opposed to being a reader.  All it takes is one student feeling down due to not reading at a certain level for me to want to change the system.  As soon as a child (even if it's just one in a classroom) feels shame for not reading at a higher level- it's time to rethink things.

When I taught third grade, this kept me on my toes as a teacher!  During
Partial view of my 3rd Grade classroom
library. Books were arranged by genre,
series, author, and topic. 
independent reading and book selection time, I found myself  conducting book selection reading conferences quite frequently.  If a child was not reading a book at an appropriate level, we went in to the classroom library together to find a book.  However, I never mentioned the word level during these discussions.  Rather, we talked about things like using the five finger rule, finding an interesting book, determining if the first few sentences or paragraphs were read fluently and understood, and trying out a book to check if it was "just right."  Not only did I do this for my students selecting books at a too difficult level, but also I did this for students who became bored with a book or who just couldn't seem to find the right book at that moment in time.  By having consistent, predictable one to one and small group conferences with all of my readers, the class turned into an environment of kiddos reading books at their level for pleasure- despite the fact that we never talked about levels.  Plus, this taught my readers to find books in other libraries, book stores, at home, and at other places where levels and teachers were not constantly guiding their decisions.

Also, it's important to keep in mind that the social dynamics for students who are eight and nine years old start to become pretty noticeable in third grade and then beyond.  The last thing I ever wanted as a classroom teacher was for a young reader to start seeing himself or herself as a level.  Also, I didn't want a reader to feel self-conscious because he or she was reading a red dot book as opposed to a green dot book.  

All this being said, I firmly believe in the use of levels for specific instruction, such as with guided reading, one to one teacher-student reading conferences, or in other forms of instruction.  Only the teacher should see the levels in these cases. When I asked about opinions on leveling libraries on Twitter a couple weeks ago, Franki Sibberson, author of Beyond Leveled Books, responded with, "I've always believed that levels are for the teachers, not the kids.  Sometimes a helpful tool."  Franki's words really resonated with me.  I agree that levels are an important tool in the classroom- for the teacher.  I really do not see a need for children to view themselves as readers of a level.  Rather, I want them to view themselves as readers of books.  

I know that I do not have all the answers when it comes to leveling libraries in the classroom.  Also, I'm sure there are teachers out there who have leveled libraries and management systems in third grade and beyond where it may not become a source of self-consciousness for students.  There are many ways to go about developing an independent reading system in a classroom.  Whatever the system may be, children need to view themselves as readers- not as levels. 
Everything inside of me just cringes when a child looks for books based on level rather than based on interest, curiosity, or a desire to learn.  Leveling books has to be a fine balance in the classroom.  If it's done, it must be done intentionally, thoughtfully, and always with a regard not only to the reading development of a child, but also to the social development of a child.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  

Helpful articles and posts on the topic:


  1. This is a toughie, and what a thoughtful post. I can see you wrestling with it. I go back and forth on this as well. I have done it both ways at the 5th grade level. At this point, I feel levels are for assessment and teaching purposes. Just like kids, books are much more than just a level.

    As teachers we need to be aware of students' reading diets; making sure they get enough exposure to thinking at grade level and in "grade level" books. For example, flash backs don't happen in level N books so if a 5th grader has a steady diet of that kind of text, he doesn't have the opportunity to do the work of a 5th grader.

    This leads to what is in your library, and monitoring and guiding student selection. No matter how you label your books you have to have a library that is easy for your students to find texts that might fit. I like the idea of offering text bands. It feels like a compromise of sorts. The RST band is a nice place for 5th graders to try at the beginning of the year. Your library can morph over time edging up as the year progresses.

    Unfortunately for those below the RST band trouble happens. There aren't a lot of high-low books at the NOPQ text band. If I had a magic wand I'd make those texts appear. My kiddos who fall into this category are lost puppies. They can't access text that is written for their interest level and the texts they can read generally don't attract them. They aren't written for them. So the solution isn't easy no matter how you organize your selections.

    Struggling students can't afford to spend a lot of time in a book that doesn't fit. The longer they are in a too difficult text the less engaged in reading they become. Knowing your students' passions and purchasing things that might be a fit seems to be what I do every year for all my students. This means that we need to get to know our students soon and work with them to find just right books, which means so much more than a level.

    With all of this in mind, I agree whole heartedly with your closing thought: "Leveling books has to be a fine balance in the classroom. If it's done, it must be done intentionally, thoughtfully, and always with a regard not only to the reading development of a child, but also to the social development of a child."
    Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

  2. Christina,
    Such a wise post!
    I had to go read Kylene's "A Kid is not an H" before I could comment. Such a true statement!
    Very few readers fit at just one level especially since fiction and informational books have such different characteristics and can also be read for such different purposes. Too often leveled books do become the "reading" rather than one way to provide teachers with guidance.

    Two things that I have learned at Teacher's College include "text bands" which I do believe fit well even at at the K-2 grades and book clubs, that I believe are one answer for moving beyond levels for students in grades 3 and above. Books that students want to read are so much for valuable than just a bin full of books that are on topics that are hit or miss.

    Julieanne made a good point when she said that are struggling students can't afford to spend time in a book that doesn't fit. No child needs to "struggle through" a text. Our goal is to teach the skills and strategies so that a student can read independently and that those same skills and strategies will transfer across texts (and or levels - be they letter systems or grade designations). Our children are served well when we teach the reader not the book.

    I wonder what our students would tell us about levels if we asked them?

  3. Fran and Julieanne,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I really appreciate and value your insights on this tough issue. I agree that text bands are such a helpful tool/resource. Also, you are absolutely spot on in saying that no child should ever "struggle through" a text. There is no benefit to this at all.

    One thing Julieanne mentioned really hit the nail on the head for me, "Unfortunately for those below the RST band trouble happens. There aren't a lot of high-low books at the NOPQ text band. If I had a magic wand I'd make those texts appear. My kiddos who fall into this category are lost puppies." This is precisely why I just have trouble with levels (or lack of appropriate material across all levels). There simply are not enough high-low books on the market. We, teachers, are often tasked with searching for these books year after year. I've often thought about writing some. Yet, that wouldn't solve the problem in the here and now for our kiddos who require a sense of urgency.

    When I taught third grade, I once had a student who entered my class at a level E. My next closest reader to his level was at a K. The rest of the class fell in the L-O range at the time. I had the toughest time finding books at both a level E and at an interest level for a nine year-old. If my library was leveled at that point in time, there would have been no place for him- this was just unacceptable to me. I searched high and low to fill the library with books that appealed to him, and it was not an easy feat. We simply need more high-low books for these readers.

    Fran, I really love the last line of your comment, "I wonder what our students would tell us about levels if we asked them?" What a great question to ponder and throw out there. I imagine levels would hold a different meaning for different kiddos.

    Again, I certainly do not have all the answers. I really appreciate both of your comments. They are valuable food for thought with this inner struggle I have with leveling libraries. In an ideal reading world, we would always have a plethora of books to choose from across genres and interest-range at every single level! However, that is not the world our readers face each day. As teachers, reading specialists, and literacy coaches, we're tasked with helping all kiddos love reading regardless of age and level.

    Thank you for the work you do and your insights on the matter.


I'd love to hear your comments!