Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Revisiting Reading Levels

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a piece that questioned what seemed like the sudden surge in teachers scrambling to level their classroom libraries.  For the past few months, I have been attempting to revise that piece with my current thinking. Well, my current thinking doesn't seem to stay current for very long! My thinking around levels really isn't changing, but it is definitely evolving.

After reading Pernille Ripp's recent post, rereading Donalyn Miller's wonderful piece in EdWeek asking us to Guess My Lexile, and thinking of Kylene Beers' retelling of a gut wrenching conversation in A Kid is Not an H, I have to just come out and say it... 

Levels can really harm kids.

That is, levels can really harm kids when used inappropriately.  Irene Fountas, who created the alphabetic leveling system along with Gay Su Pinnell, has even come out and said that their leveling system is frequently being used in ways that they never intended.  Some of these uses include leveling entire classroom independent reading libraries, labeling children, and as a reporting system to parents (read more about all this here and here).

However, it is extremely important to also acknowledge that understanding the levels of books (notice I did not say levels of children) can also help kids. Becoming familiar with the levels of books can help teachers when creating and making decisions about guided reading groups, picking out text sets around a common topic for children in class to access, and especially when deciding which reading behaviors, skills, and strategies to teach and support around certain books.  A key thing to remember here is that a level of a book doesn't just refer to how easy or hard a book is to read, rather it refers to an increasingly complex set of skills, strategies, and behaviors that a reader may need in order to read and understand a particular book.  This idea is especially important to understand for those of us who teach elementary school.

During my two years as a literacy coach, I discussed the topic of book levels with dozens of K-5 teachers more times than I can accurately recall.  Rather than writing a summary of two years worth of conversations, I'll share my ideas about the three questions that came up most frequently.

Should I tell my students their reading level?
So many people have a different take on this.  For example,  if we ask Foutas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins this question, we just may receive two very different answers. With these two potentially different answers coming from two of our biggest elementary literacy instruction powerhouses, who do we follow? Well, my answer is always the same.  We follow our kids.  

I now pose this question:  Will telling your particular students their reading levels benefit them or hurt them?  I honestly can't definitively say.  One thing I know for sure is that the reading levels of students in a classroom should never ever be made public.  I once saw a public chart of reading levels posted in a classroom (I must mention, this was when I was visiting a school outside of my own school district), and I have to say that I was furious.  What made me especially angry was that there were two children who were outliers on this publicly displayed chart.  Most of this class hovered between a level M and P on the chart.  Two of the kiddos names were prominently displayed on their own next to a level E and a level G.  Just imagine being those two kids in that class. Simply put, a public display of levels has no place in a classroom, school, or anywhere where a love of reading is being fostered.

As I head back into the classroom next school year, I do not plan on telling my students their exact reading levels.  I do not see a real need to do this. Instead, I do plan on holding daily reading conferences where I focus on skills, strategies, and goal setting with my students.  Honestly, I do not see a need to tell them their levels.  Knowing the levels of particular books will be a tool I heavily rely on as an elementary teacher to make instructional decisions.  It will not be something students use during the school day.  On the flip side, I do know many great teachers who do make the decision to tell students their levels.  My way is not necessarily the right way for all classrooms.  However, it is the right way for my classroom and my students.  

I just urge you to handle this decision with care.  If you do make the choice to let your students know which book level is considered independent for each of them, please be vigilant about holding frequent conferences and continually assessing so they can see themselves progressing on an ongoing basis.  Please, do not allow a level to define a child's identity as a reader.  

How do I track and report reading progress if I decide not to focus on the level? 

Children grow in reading ability through learning how to access and apply different behaviors, skills, and strategies when reading different texts.  One thing we should continually do as educators of young children is notice, name, and record these indicators to track, report, and respond to progress and needs. It's most important to point out these indicators to our kids themselves.  When we point out and name a reading behavior or skill to a child, they are more likely to replicate it.  It may sound something like this, "Sarah, in our discussion, I noticed that you mentioned how your character changed and why you think she changed due to her reaction to the events in the story.  Now, I'd like to suggest a next step for you.  Start thinking about your character's internal thoughts. Try to see if you can notice any growth in your character's thoughts as you continue to read..."  

This is also something we should be doing with parents. Rather than telling a parent, "Sarah is reading at a level R," we should be holding conversations that might sound like this: "Sarah is a really engaged reader of fiction! Right now, she is particularly interested in mysteries. One thing Sarah is doing well is noticing how a character grows and changes over the course of a story. This is important because..."  Now, isn't that more informative than stating that Sarah is reading at a level R?  

Should I level my classroom library?
Well, this just seems to be the million dollar question in elementary education at the moment. Again, if we look to Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins, we will receive two different answers. 

Should all these wonderful books be labeled as a level?
They have so much more to offer! 
When I head back at the end of this summer to put together my classroom library, I am not going to arrange my library by level. It will be arranged by genre, author, interest, topic, series, you name it!  It will be a place that kids go to choose a book they love, not to choose a book based on a level.  To kick off our reading workshop, we'll first have a mini one week unit on the process of selecting and sharing books.  Levels won't even be mentioned.  Yet, difficulty/ease will be discussed- along with enjoyment factor, interest, series, topic, and any other reason a reader may choose a book or not choose a book.  

If you make the choice to not level your classroom library and notice a student is reading outside of their independent reading level, I highly recommend addressing the issue on a student by student basis.  Most of the time, there is no need to address this issue at all.  If a student is engaged and can make meaning from the text, then let them read it!  Who really cares, if in this case, that the student is reading above or below their level?  If the student is not engaged, confer as appropriate.  If the student is not making meaning from the text, confer as appropriate.  Perhaps the answer is to gently guide the student to choose a different book.  Or, the answer may be to help the student become engaged or find meaning within the text.  There is no right answer here. Rather, the right answer is to look at the child in front of you, listen, and respond appropriately.

If you do choose to level your classroom library, please be sure to consider the social-emotional implications.  Also, I implore you to ensure that students select books based on interest and desire to read, not just on their independent reading level.  I don't care how many class meetings one has about learning differences, accepting others no matter what, and setting goals- if a student is reading far below where the others in class are reading, that student knows it.  I beg of you- make sure that student feels safe and comfortable as a reader in your classroom.  I cannot stress this enough.  Do everything in your power to ensure that the students in your classroom feel safe and comfortable as readers.  

Friends, a good rule to follow is to always follow your students' lead.  We should always consider the experts, look at the research, and understand the process of how a child learns how to read and then grows as a reader.  Yet, more so, we should look at the children in front of us and ask if the decisions we are making are having a positive impact on them both academically and emotionally.  The answer should always be yes to both.

This is not an easy subject. It is certainly not a yes or no question nor a black or white answer. The answer always lies within our individual students.  

By the way- a huge thank you to my "G2Great Professional Best Friends" for encouraging me to just write this darn piece!  We all may not 100% agree on everything I wrote here, but I am so happy knowing that I am a part of a community of professionals who always want to continue the discussion! 


  1. This post says everything I think and value about reading for students. We must look at each child and make determinations based on their individual needs. That's why I have a difficult time with curriculum that boxes kids up rather than allowing for more freedom of choice. You understand this. And communicate it well. Thanks!

  2. Thank you so much for this article. You capture the tensions between leveling or not for elementary teachers so well! Your advice and cautions about leveling are so important - let your students take the lead!

  3. This is an amazing post! Lots to think about. I DO tell my 6th graders their reading level, just so they know what the data says. I think they need to know, BUT...I also don't define a child by their reading level, and I encourage them to read what they want! They can always get help, and many people (including myself!) read below their levels if the book is a good one. You're right, there's no "one way." I think THAT is important to remember, too. Jennifer Sniadecki

  4. Do you think the grade level of a student should confine a child to limits within the F &P level for the corresponding grade? Even sounds ridiculous as I pose the question. However, our district has recently changed it's policy to restrict our high readers to no more than one grade level above the current. Do you have any data or information regarding how detrimental this is to student progress, motivation or overall reading attitude? Any advice is greatly appreciated.

  5. I have more than 25 years of experience encouraging and educating all kinds of students, and this post truly highlights the difference in "inspiring and educating learners" and "teaching curriculum"! Whatever the subject, whatever the leveling system (F & P, grade levels, etc.), we are only truly effective by KNOWING our learners and which skills they are using well (or not)

  6. Completely agree!
    Christina, your thoughts?

  7. Mmmm! NZ had broad reading levels which were then narrowed for the specific and only purpose of accelerating children having Reading Recovery.Fountas and colleagues thought this would benefit classrooms so sold teachers this system.
    Unfortunately teachers in NZ who didn't have the luxury of experience some of us older teachers had, started to use the RR levels too.
    Some library books were leveled and put into independent boxes to show children reading wasn't just "readers". I definitely don't think they should be leveled other than for that.
    Haven't teachers got enough to do anyway?

  8. Thank you for writing this post. I have been struggling this year in particular with the push to use levels in so many unhelpful ways, such as assessing students according to their independent and instructional levels and hold them to that level when choosing books, to use levels as part of the grade we give kids on their report cards, and to organize classroom libraries according to levels. I strongly believe that levels, as a teacher construct, can be helpful for instructional/teaching purposes. Period. Books don't come with levels. We give books a designated level to simplify instruction and assessment. An author writes a story to tell a story and not to create a book at a particular level. That is an educational quirk to standardize and quantify everything. Your post is definitely going to push your readers to rethink levels in the classroom and to always, always think about the students we are ethically responsible for.

  9. Thanks for continuing this conversation! There are so many ideas to ponder here. One thing I know for sure is that all kiddos are different. I don't see any reason for making sure all second graders read within a certain range or all fourth graders read below a certain level. If a third grader wants to read a book at a level considered above third grade level, why should we stop him or her if the interest and motivation to read is there? Thanks again for your thoughts, all! I'm looking forward to continuing the conversation.

  10. Thanks for sharing this piece! I am in the process of writing up an article on how leveling practices can become part of students' identities as readers, and your post does a great job showing both the benefits and drawbacks of using leveled texts in the classroom (and how they can be used appropriately and inappropriately, too). Thank you!


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