Leveled Books – Questioning our Practice

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Do your students know their reading level? Why? Why not?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about leveled texts and their purpose and place in the classroom. Thanks to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell for designing a text gradient based on Reading Recovery levels, teachers have strong support and guidance when they are matching books to readers. But the level of text is only one thing we can use as a resource when making decisions. We also need to know about the child’s interests, strengths and weaknesses,  what strategic actions they are using, how they are constructing a reading processing system, etc… But I am concerned how these levels are being used in classrooms across the country. Fountas and Pinnell intended for levels to be used by teachers, as a way to help teachers analyze texts and select “just-right” books for small-group reading instruction and as a support for teachers to guide readers in choosing books. They never intended levels to be used by students. The levels on books are for teachers, not students.

“We do not recommend that students use the levels of a gradient to choose books for independent reading. The levels should be very unobtrusive (if not totally invisible) in your classroom. Students need to learn how to choose books based on their own assessment of readability, interesting topics or plots, favorite authors, and general appeal. You can teach students how to assess the appropriateness of texts they find interesting for their present reading levels.”  

-Fountas and Pinnell, Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency, page 152.

I started thinking about teaching independence and how that connects to this quote. If our goal is to teach children to be independent, self-motivated, voracious readers – then aren’t we doing them a disservice by labeling books in our classroom with levels? This is going to encourage mindlessly choosing a book because “it’s a J” – not looking and thinking if it’s a good match. I think teachers have to teach children how to choose just-right books for themselves, not teach children to rely on a leveling system.  I’m very concerned about the authenticity of teaching children to use the level of a book as a guiding factor. What happens when that child goes to the book fair, the public library, the bookstore or to a pile of books at a yard sale? Real readers in the real world don’t use a level to choose their books.  If children have access to lots of books that are “just right” from guided reading and conferences – carefully selected by teachers for that student – and teachers are teaching kids what makes a “just right” book, then shouldn’t we be giving them the opportunity to practice this when choosing books from the classroom library, the public library, a bookstore or when out with their families? We want to create real world readers who can assess whether a book will be a good choice independently.

What happens when children are told their level? Often times that becomes the way a child defines himself as a reader – bragging “I’m a level M.” or, with head hung low, “I’m only a level E.” How do you define yourself as a reader? What would your answer be if someone asked you, “what kind of reader are you?” I would guess that no adult is going to identify herself as a level.  I want my kids to say things like, “I’m a reader who loves Mo Willems, who likes to read books that are about real things and who can’t wait to see what new books arrived at the library.” Perhaps asking your students this question might give you some insight into what kind of readers they are becoming. Do we want kids who can identify what kind of reader they are or who can tell us what level they are?

Another thing that I’ve seen is a high level of competition and comparing in classrooms where children know their levels. Instead of clamoring to read the new Mo Willems book, or an enticing picture book displayed at the library, children quickly dismiss books if they are not on their level and start to look down on children who are at a lower level. At the other end, I’ve seen strong readers held back by their level – being made to stay at a level when they can really take on much more challenging and interesting texts because they’ve been identified at a level lower than where they are really reading.  That level becomes part of the readers’ identity. Kids are ashamed to be reading at a level that is not associated with that grade level. The focus becomes all about a level instead of about reading, books, authors, genres, series books, or fabulous illustrations. When I sit down to confer with a child I never want the focus to be on what level we are aiming for. Do I have that in my head as a teacher? Of course. It’s a tool I use as a teacher. But I want children to be working on their reading and setting goals relating to thinking deeply about texts, authors, genres, a variety of topics, talking about reading with others, enjoying reading and creating a reading processing system that helps them in becoming fluent, flexible, strong readers. I don’t want their goal to be moving to the next level.

What happens when parents are told the level that their child is reading? Most parents have no idea what a “level J” book means. I’m concerned that this is making school reading and real world reading two different things. It’s creating a gap comparable to when we teach young children to use words like “schema” and “metacognition” – parents are mystified as to how reading instruction is happening.  Parents may start to compare their child with others in the neighborhood, or try to push reading books at a much higher level than that child can handle at the moment. What if, instead of sharing a child’s reading level at conferences, teachers showed families examples of books where that child is reading now, and examples of benchmark texts for where we are heading? This helps families understand what their child is working on and helps them understand much more than a “level J” text.

So do my students know their reading level? No. These are a few reasons why. But are leveled books important? YES! Check back for Part II tomorrow when I will post on how I use leveled texts in my classroom as an important tool for teachers.

I would love any thoughts on this post. I realize this may leave some people uncomfortable or unsure or questioning our practice. But isn’t that what we want to do as educators? I invite you to ask yourself, your team and your school “how are we using leveled texts, and why?” As Lucy Calkins wrote in my The Art of Teaching Writing book many years ago, “be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching”. Questioning and challenging how levels are being used, and what messages we are sending, might be an area where we need to be brave.

First Days of Kindergarten Read Alouds

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 8.19.45 AMThanks to Cathy Mere (@cathymere) and Mandy Robek (@mandyrobek), August 10th is a special day for teachers and book lovers everywhere. It’s 10 for 10 Picture Book Day (#pb10for10)! I’ve decided to share my top 10 (ok, maybe a few more…) favorite read alouds for the first days of kindergarten. These are mostly old favorites, but they are loved, read and reread throughout the year. I find these books a perfect mix of nonfiction, fiction, wordless and repetitive text that draws readers in from the first day of kindergarten and leaves them begging for more after the first week. Enjoy and happy reading!

What are your favorites for the first week of school? Please share!

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A favorite nonfiction text that kids love to read and guess what animal is in the picture.

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We love Todd Parr. This is a great book to start the year with. We live the mantra, “a mistake is a chance to learn something new”, and this book helps me teach this from day 1.

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A very fun book that helps children see that they can read the pictures as well as the words. The repetitive text and detailed illustrations help children begin to tell stories and understand that they are readers – reading the pictures and the words.

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We love, love, love this book! It’s a great story that begs children to guess what will happen next and to join in on the refrain. A class favorite throughout the year.

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A good nonfiction book with fabulous photographs and a simple text line to read aloud. Children love this. And after I introduce Mrs. Wishy-Washy, they love that Joy Cowley is the author of this book, too!

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A good partner to the Red-Eyed Tree Frog, with rich photographs and a simple text line. Children are extremely engaged in this nonfiction text.

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A timeless classic that helps me teach the important lesson of “team”. We are all in this together and we are here to help, support and love each other. It’s a must-read for the first week of school.

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A fun read aloud for math workshop. Rhyming text and silly pictures pulls kids in and gets them excited about books and math.

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This repetitive text is one that children love. They will read it along with you and beg for it to be reread. A favorite throughout the year.

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A simply wonderful wordless picture book that helps me teach that reading can be reading the pictures. Children love the adventure the characters have as their chalk drawings come to life.

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Who doesn’t love Pete the Cat? The book, the song, the characters and the authors…they are all a big win in kindergarten. The message of, “it’s all good”, is one that we revisit often throughout the year.

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A classic, that children just love. Skit, skat, skoodle doot, flip, flop, flee – who doesn’t love repeating that line?

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I launch our writer’s workshop with this book on day 1. The author’s notes in the front cover show children how David Shannon got his ideas for this book. We start making books on day 1 – just like David Shannon.






“Struggling” Readers in a Growth Mindset

I was catching up on Twitter when this post caught my eye:

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I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What an excellent question! I only wish I had been at that conference to join in on what I’m sure was an amazing conversation.

2015-04-09 13.14.15The term “struggling readers” has always bothered me.  I’ve never liked “struggling” coming before “readers” (or writers, or mathematicians, or whatever identity you are describing). When Pat and I titled our book, we wanted to make sure that “readers” was the first, and most important, identity mentioned – so we decided on “Supporting READERS who Struggle”, instead of “Supporting STRUGGLING Readers”.  However, after reading this quote I couldn’t stop thinking about this. Is it the same thing? By labeling our readers “struggling” (either before or after labeling them as “readers”), are we implying that this is a fixed way of being? That they aren’t readers who are growing and learning – they are readers who are struggling?

But is “struggling” a bad word?

Can struggling be a sign of a growth mindset?

I read an article a few months ago about having and nurturing a growth mindset, where the authors question whether “struggling” might be a good thing. “That struggling means you’re committed to something and are willing to work hard. Parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should ask, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?'” I love this. “A fabulous struggle.” I know that for myself, some of my “fabulous struggles”, like completing a 108 mile trail run in the mountains or finishing graduate school left me with a huge sense of accomplishment, pride and joy. It wasn’t easy. I struggled. A lot. And I had a lot of help and support. But it was worth it.

Learning to read isn’t always easy. It can be a struggle for some children. But what if we changed our conversation about what “struggling” means, and instead, teach children that struggling is a fabulous thing to do? That, if you are committed to something, and work really hard, you can feel that amazing sense of accomplishment and joy. I think the conversation we have with our students would be the easy part. None of my kindergarteners would tell you they are “struggling”. That word is never used, and they all see themselves as readers – whether they are reading pictures in books, the letters in their name, retelling a familiar book or reading all of the words in an Elephant and Piggie book. They are simply “readers”. It is the conversation with adults that we need to change. When we discuss children in our CT meetings and our progress monitoring meetings the word struggling comes up often. After all, it is our “struggling readers” that we are meeting about. But what if we framed our conversation about the “fabulous struggles” these kids are having and how we can support them and help them grow as readers and empower them? What if our conversations worked towards growth and empowerment and looked at effort, good teaching and moving our readers (and writers, mathematicians, etc…) towards growth and success?

I’m looking forward to exploring this more. My school is focusing on the growth  mindset as one of our professional learning strands for the upcoming school year. I think this question begs conversation, reflection and thought as we examine our language and our practice.

I would love to hear your thoughts on “struggling readers” and a growth mindset. Please share!

Nurturing Meaning Making

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 6.39.23 AMWhen I read a professional book with a powerful message I just have to shout it from the rooftops!  This one’s a keeper. You may see the title and think, “Oh no, now they are pushing down the teaching of reading to pre-schoolers!” But don’t worry that’s not what this book is about. Kathy Collins and Matt Glover are talking about a different aspect of reading with preschoolers, kindergarteners, and first graders.  They realize that even before conventional reading and decoding words, children can be reading texts.  Their definition of reading is “an interaction with a text during which the reader uses a variety of resources within the text (words, pictures, graphic elements) and within themselves (schema, skills, strategies) to make meaning” p. 10. Their main purpose is to “help children love books, to read widely, and develop a lifelong enthusiasm for learning” p. 76.

The authors talk about three categories of reading texts – familiar (like Pete the Cat that the children have heard many times), unfamiliar (books a child has never seen or heard read to him before) and informational books (any non-fiction book that the child is drawn to by the cover, pictures, or topic.) The focus of their teaching is how to read this type of book.  Within each of the three categories they have come up with 3-4 language levels as to how the child reads the text. They have worked with hundreds of children to inform their decisions and provide you with ways to view videos of their work throughout the text. As they listen to children read, they think about the child’s level and then give us ideas of how to proceed and support each child further. I love the cautions they write about “leveling” as their view is similar to the one that Katie and I present in our Catching Readers book – “levels are tools for gathering information about children’s understandings rather than tools for labeling them” p. 30.

Collins and Glover are teaching us how to support children in developing a healthy reader identity before reading conventionally. They are not deemphasizing the importance of teaching letters and sounds. They acknowledge the importance of that teaching. Here’s what they have to say about their expanded view of what it means to be a reader.

“…the act of reading is made up of much more than just decoding the words on the page even though so much of the instructional focus and adult concern for our youngest readers is about getting them to decode. Although this is certainly an obvious and important part of becoming a well-rounded reader, a narrowly centered focus on teaching young children to decode at the expense of other kinds of experiences with texts may actually strip away their very early sense of agency (Johnston 2004) and comfort with books.”

This book presents a multitude of ideas for working with preK- 1st grade children (and ELL students in any grade). It answers the question, ‘what else can we be doing to support young children in developing an image of themselves as readers, whether or not they can read the words yet.’ When you read the authors’ belief system (p. 107-8) I think you will agree!  I hope you enjoy the book.

Training Volunteers

Week 14 2008 097Recently I’ve been working with some volunteers who wanted to read with students in a first-grade classroom. Though the volunteers had some past educational experiences, they were not familiar with working with early readers, especially struggling readers. I had 45 minutes to share information with them and then each one watched me as I read with some students. With less than an hour to impart some knowledge, what would you choose to share?

Here are the things I decided would be most helpful for them:

  • Learning about the three sources of information (meaning, structure, and visual cues) that students need to use when solving words was of utmost importance. Many parents and other volunteers might think that early readers solve words by “decoding” only (sounding out words.) We need to use the questions “Does it make sense?” “Does it sound right?” and “Does it look right?” so that students eventually internalize these questions and use them automatically. We want students to learn to cross-check one source of information against the other flexibly and fluently. For more information on this topic (in case you want to share this info with your volunteers) see Chapter 4, “Beyond Sound It Out,” in Catching Readers Before They Fall.
  • Another big issue for volunteers is “when do I jump in and help when a child is stuck?” For this reason I talked a bit about prompting. We looked over some possible prompts from the Fountas & Pinnell book, Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for All Children, page 161. I wanted them to review some prompts for solving words, some for supporting fluency, some to encourage self-monitoring, and some just to get the students to be active and try something (even if the child couldn’t solve the word.) I also shared the strategic behavior card that you can find in Appendix 4 of our book. After all the prompting ideas, I did tell the volunteers that if the child made some sort of attempt or two, it would be OK to give the word. Having the child feel safe and comfortable with the volunteer is crucial.
  • The teacher and I knew that, because of the population of students at this school, the individual attention would be beneficial for the students. Just having an adult listen to them read their familiar books would be time well spent. The volunteer could also read aloud a book to the student, especially if the child had been absent for some of the Read Alouds that the teacher had done recently.
  • Language, language, language. Because many of the students they would be working with are English Language Learners, I stressed how important it is to have conversations with the students about what they are reading. Authentic conversations support vocabulary building as well as the student’s oral communication. The kids need someone who will carefully listen to what they have to say and work at understanding them.

The Q/A chapter in our book, Chapter 11, may also help if you find yourself in a similar situation. The volunteers I worked with asked to borrow a book so that they could read through those suggestions. So what would you do if you had only 45 minutes to train your classroom volunteers? What’s your top priority?


Independent Reading: A look in a kindergarten classroom

2014-12-17 11.45.29Independent reading time is a key component of any reader’s workshop. It looks different at every grade level. What’s important is that we have a time, daily, for kids to read by themselves or with a partner, to choose what they read, and to have time to talk about what they are reading. In my kindergarten classroom, we have book boxes and a book box time every day.  Every child has their own box. Inside the box is a variety of books. There is a Ziplock bag with their “just-right” books. In the bag there are guided reading books, paper books that we have read together as shared reading charts throughout the week, ABC charts, name books, cut apart sentences from guided reading groups and ABC books. Children know that they are to read their baggie books first. There are also “look books” – books they can read the pictures or retell the story. They can choose 5-7 “look books” to put in their book box. These are library books, books from our classroom library and favorites that have been read aloud. This might be a super cool book on snakes, a Pete the Cat book we’ve read out loud several times, a Mo Willems or Todd Parr book from our author study or any good book they find on our shelves. Finally, each child has a poem and song binder that is full of poems and songs we’ve read together as shared reading pieces. Our book box time is social, full of energy and full of engaged kindergarten readers – reading the words, reading the pictures, retelling the books, making decisions as readers and talking about books. Children choose a cozy nook to read, they decide if they are reading by themselves, with a partner or with a group, and they choose what they read – just like readers do. Here is a glimpse into our book box time. Enjoy!

A Look at Our Day

2015-01-09 12.23.28Lately I’ve had quite a few visitors in my kindergarten classroom. One of the questions that I’m asked over and over again is, “how do you fit it all in?”. I don’t have a magic answer. There is never enough time for all I want to do and explore with my kiddos. I integrate my curriculum as much as possible, teaching the content areas throughout the day and integrating literacy whenever I can. I’m always tweaking our schedule as the needs of my children change over the year. Our schedule doesn’t look the same in September as it does now – and it will change again before June, I’m sure. Here is a look at what our day looks like now and how I fit it all in.

Monday, Wednesday, Friday Schedule

8:30 – 8:45 Children arrive – read books, talk, share stories, connect with each other and me before we start our day

8:45 Morning news show

8:50 – 9:00 Morning Meeting, Part 1: Greeting (song, chant, game), Sharing (2 kids every day), Quick calendar check (look at schedule for the day and week), Read Aloud (a short, fun book for pleasure)

9:00 – 9:30 Explore Stations (Children are free to choose from play-based stations including play dough, sensory boxes, water play, dramatic play, legos, blocks, iPads, puzzles, sand table, science stations, math stations, reading books, making books, art, etc – anything we’ve done in our classroom is open at this time) I meet with guided reading groups (2 groups, 15 minutes each).

9:30 – 9:50 Morning Meeting, Part 2: Morning Message, Dance/Movement Activity, Interactive Read-Aloud and Reading Focus lesson

9:50 – 10:20 Reading/Writing Stations (Children are free to choose from literacy stations including big books, classroom library, sensory boxes with letters or words to find, magnetic letters, name writing, making books, wiki stix letters, sound boxes to sort toys by first letter, letter stamps, play dough letter making, rhyme and sound matching cards and games – they know they have to be doing reading or writing at this time) I meet with guided reading groups (2 groups, 15 minutes each).

10:20 – 10:40 Shared Reading (poem, chart, big book – usually 3 pieces of text each week, we do the same text every day for at least a week, this usually connects with a science or social studies topic), Community Writing (shared or interactive writing for a text we are working on over time  – it may be a mural, letter, labeling a science project, retelling, etc. – often is a content area topic)

10:40 – 11:00 Recess #1

11:00 – 11:30 Lunch

11:30 – 11:45 Book Boxes (Children read from individual book boxes including: “baggie books” – guided reading books and copies of books we’ve done as shared reading, “look books” – 3-5 books that they have chosen from our class library or school library and a poetry folder – a collection of all the charts we’ve done for shared reading) I have reading conferences with children.

11:45 – 12:30 Writer’s Workshop (Includes a focus lesson that is typically a read aloud or looking back at mentor texts, community writing or a conversation, then independent writing (making books), and sharing)

12:30 – 1:45 Specials (PE, Music, Drama, Library) *on Tuesday and Thursday I only have one special, so on these days we have a full hour for Writer’s Workshop 11:30-12:30, Book Box time at 1:05, and social studies, science or Explore stations from 1:20-1:45. Science and social studies are integrated throughout my day so we do a great deal of this in our literacy block with read alouds, explore stations and community writing.

1:45 – 2:00 Recess #2 and Snack (given to kids on the playground)

2:00 – 3:00 Math Workshop (includes whole group math stories, read aloud, math counting routines, math explore stations (I meet with small math groups during this time to do problem solving) and sharing)

3:00 – 3:15 Closing Circle (end of day math routines (calendar, counting days we’ve been in school), sharing, closing song, read aloud, passing out folders)

3:20 Dismissal

I hope this gives you a look into our classroom and how our day typically goes. Again, I am flexible to the needs of the kids. If I need to meet with extra reading groups or if the kids need more time with a particular project, I may schedule an end of day Explore time to meet with another group or work on a project. If you have a great scheduling idea, we would love to hear about it!