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.