Leveled Books – Questioning our Practice – Part II

2015-09-29 14.04.53Yesterday I wrote about questioning our practice with leveled books. Today I’ll continue those thoughts on using leveled books in my classroom.

I love that we have leveled texts, I really do! It was a game changer when Matching Books to Readers was published in 1999. I spent a lot of time with that yellow book trying to understand the levels and how to best choose books for my guided reading groups that would accelerate the learning of my readers. Thankfully, teachers have a text gradient to help us choose texts to instruct children in small-group guided reading and in one-on-one conferences. But we can’t rely solely on a level. We have to make good decisions as a teacher – and we have to teach children how to make good decisions as a reader.

I choose leveled books from our book room and from my own collection of leveled texts when I am teaching children in guided reading groups or conferring one-on-one. I use the level as a guide, and then look carefully at the texts and my teaching point to decide what book I will use in my instruction. I can’t just pull a level E book off the shelf because my reader is reading at a level E. I have to use that level as a guide and then make a good instructional decision as a teacher. For example, when a teacher knows that a student is reading at a level E, she also knows that at this level the child is expected to be able to rely much more on the print and less on the pictures, understand the punctuation marks, solve longer words, read sentences over 2-3 lines and over two pages and she knows how to choose a text that will support and challenge the reader who is ready for that.

2015-09-29 10.29.40I write the level in pencil on the inside cover of my own books, and keep them organized in bins under my teaching table for me to use. I do not have a leveled books section in our class library. Our school book room books have the level on the cover, and if a child asks what that letter or number is for, I tell them, “It is a way to help me as a teacher organize and choose books. You don’t need to worry about the letters/numbers at all. It’s for teachers.” It’s important for me to always keep the focus on the book and not on the level.

After a child reads with me, the leveled book goes in their book box. These books are kept in a large baggie inside the book box  – which holds “just-right” books for my readers. I will often take several leveled books and display them for kids to choose from. I help them decide whether the book is a good match by talking through the book just like I would do when I am choosing a book. I look at the cover, leaf through the book, read the back cover, talk about the author or genre, read a page or two and look at the pictures. This is a great opportunity for teaching children how to choose books that are just-right for them. For example, if I have a child who is reading at a level E, I may take several books that are a range of levels from B-D, and are about topics I think the child will like, and then I invite the child to choose from that pile. I never mention the level. I simply say that I think he or she might like some of these books – let’s take a look and see if they are a good match. Keep in mind, my children also have 5-7 “look books” in their book boxes that are self-chosen from our classroom library and can be any book that child wants to read. I often confer with readers in the class library – helping them decide whether books they are looking at are just-right books to go in their baggie, or look books that go in their book box. I will never tell a child that a book is too easy or too hard for them. I never want to discourage a child from picking up a book.

Week 10 039I believe that it’s important to authentically teach children how to choose books and how to enjoy books. Choosing by level is not authentic and I fear that it creates dependent children who don’t know how to choose for themselves when a book is not leveled. At the same time, it’s extremely important to me that children have many just-right books to read at their fingertips. After all, that daily reading practice is how our readers are going to construct a reading processing system for themselves. But it’s also very important that children have books that are just plain fun – books they have chosen about snakes and tornadoes and Star Wars and dogs and princesses – regardless of the level. Because that’s how our children are going to get turned on to reading and love to read. And isn’t that what we want?

I would love any thoughts on these posts. I realize this may make 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 might be an area where we need to be brave.


  1. Thanks for stepping out to explore this topic. As a former first grade teacher, reading specialist, and now coach I share your practice. Leveled books have their place and are an extremely important and critical tool as we guide readers through their journey, but we are also guiding students to independence as well. Like you, I teach students how readers choose books, then allow them to have a go choosing books they think they will love from my non-leveled classroom library. These go into their book boxes along with the familiar texts, and leveled text from guided reading work. I find the baggie helps keep the GR books easy to gather to bring back to group. If we don’t allow children opportunity to apply how to choose good books, they will never learn this huge joy of reading….walking into a library or a bookstore and having such an abundance of options to delight. I find it is easy to monitor how they are doing with their choices through conferring. Some learners need more scaffolding than others.

  2. As I read this, I was trying to understand “What is new here?” “Why is this being stated?” Then it dawned on me,”Has the author experienced classrooms where children are limited by levels?” As a mom and Literacy Specialist my first reaction is sadness. Then my second is frustration bordering on irritated anger.

    Teaching someone to read is a profound process that must be honored with critical thinking. It is not plug and play process. As teachers we must take into consideration all aspects of a reader and then follow him or her with specific intentional teaching points. It is more like being a doctor than a factory line worker.

    What has happened to that would make a teacher presume just knowing a level is enough? Are we not taking our own content knowledge, or lack there of, seriously enough? Have all these “series” or basals made everyone think it’s not that complicated? Are teachers pulled in so many directions that the individualized instruction required to teach someone to read is just too overwhelming?

    Let’s remember when Fountas and Pinnell popularized the ideas of levels (leveling itself is pretty complicated), they were basing that idea on all they knew about being Reading Recovery teachers–a highly individualized diagnostic form of teaching reading. I doubt they ever meant for it to turn into something teachers use to put kids into little reading boxes.

    For now and into the future, I think it would be great for teachers to learn the complexities of each book level by heart. Then when using leveled books, they can know what behaviors the child should show for advancement.

    And as for the idea of having a library totally leveled and only allowing children to read from their “levels,” let’s remember ourselves as young readers. If you’re a Gen Xers you probably pulled encyclopedias from shelves to leaf through and study the odd and intriguing information inside them. You probably couldn’t read most the words…yet. You may have loved to look at National Geographic when it came in the mail each month even though you couldn’t really read the words…yet. That curiosity for knowledge turns into a love of reading and learning.That love and curiosity are what will really move a person forward to being lifelong reader.


  3. Thank you for stretching our thinking and writing about leveled text within our classrooms. I am so happy to read that you value student choice in look books. I do have a shelf with books a-j ( kindergarten) in the library, but I think I’ll move it to my teacher shelves. I have never felt good about kids comparing levels. I down play it as much as possible. That gets harder as the kids get older!
    I’d love to read more of your thoughts about teaching young readers how to choose a just right books. Thank you!

  4. Pingback: Have we forgotten how to teach reading? - TaraRonzetti.com

  5. I think teaching children how to choose an appropriate book is a much more valuable skill than choosing a book based on a level. Children can often read books outside their level if they are interested in the topic or have the background knowledge. If children can only read their level we are restricting their reading and they are missing out on books they may enjoy and love.

  6. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and practices with leveled readers. It does get to be a sensitive subject with kids, parents and teachers! I love how you have balanced the benefit of leveling (it really does help you find books that engage the child on his/her skill level) with the advantages of choice (kids read more when they read what they choose!) in your classroom.

    My daughters’ teachers have them choose from bins “either side” of their level (so, if they are at H, they can pick G, H or I) three days a week for take-home. On Thursdays and Fridays, they can choose any book they like, at any level. I love seeing them choose books with very simple text because they find the photographs or illustrations so engaging, or books beyond their current abilities because they know we can read it together! I want them to know that a “level” is not a label or a judgement – just a snapshot of their skills at the moment.

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