Yesterday 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.
I 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.
I 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.