Classroom Libraries: To Level or Not to Level?

UPDATE May 2021: This post was written in 2014. It seems to be making rounds again. When I reread it, I can’t help but think about how much I’ve grown as a teacher and writer since 2014! I wrote a follow-up post with further thinking on the topic of leveling classroom libraries in 2016: Revisiting Reading Levels. I’m currently working on another follow-up piece on this topic. Be on the lookout for it in the fall of 2021. Subscribe to the blog to have it delivered to your inbox.

Archive from The Teacher Triathlete (my first and now retired blog), September 10, 2014

Classroom Libraries: To Level or Not to Level?

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I have been painfully pondering this idea for quite some time.  Should classroom libraries be leveled?  In a leveled library, books are sorted and arranged by reading level- usually by Fountas and Pinnell level (see chart to the right), but I’ve also seen DRA, Lexile, and other systems used as well.              


Proponents of leveling classroom libraries believe that elementary aged readers need to be able to easily find and access books for independent reading at their reading level.  I agree that young readers must be able to find and access books at their level.  However, I think this is only part of the puzzle to creating a classroom environment where children learn to love reading. In my twelve years as an elementary classroom teacher, my classroom library was partially arranged by level for only two of those years- when I taught second grade (even then, I had reservations when I leveled the library). My library was not leveled when I taught third and fifth grades. I do believe little guys just figuring out how to read need to be able to choose from a wide variety of books across different genres that they can accurately read and understand.  Leveling a classroom library is one way to do this.  Yet, I truly believe there is a better way.

I understand that all children learning how to read need to have access to books that they can read.  I know this and I believe in it.  First and second grade readers especially need daily, consistent practice reading books they are interested in and can understand.  The last thing I want is for a child at any age to select a book purely based on level.  Despite a teacher’s efforts and best intentions in creating a safe community where all readers are honored, kids can develop an insecurity about being a level as opposed to being a reader.  All it takes is one student feeling down due to not reading at a certain level for me to want to change the system.  As soon as a child (even if it’s just one in a classroom) feels shame for not reading at a higher level- it’s time to rethink things.

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When I taught third grade, this kept me on my toes as a teacher!  During independent reading and book selection time, I found myself  conducting book selection reading conferences quite frequently.  If a child was not reading a book at an appropriate level, we went in to the classroom library together to find a book.  

However, I never mentioned the word level during these discussions.  Rather, we talked about things like using the five finger rule, finding an interesting book, determining if the first few sentences or paragraphs were read fluently and understood, and trying out a book to check if it was “just right.”  Not only did I do this for my students selecting books at a too difficult level, but also I did this for students who became bored with a book or who just couldn’t seem to find the right book at that moment in time.  By having consistent, predictable one to one and small group conferences with all of my readers, the class turned into an environment of kiddos reading books at their level for pleasure- despite the fact that we never talked about levels.  Plus, this taught my readers to find books in other libraries, book stores, at home, and at other places where levels and teachers were not constantly guiding their decisions.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the social dynamics for students who are eight and nine years old start to become pretty noticeable in third grade and then beyond.  The last thing I ever wanted as a classroom teacher was for a young reader to start seeing himself or herself as a level.  Also, I didn’t want a reader to feel self-conscious because he or she was reading a red dot book as opposed to a green dot book.  

All this being said, I firmly believe in the use of levels for specific instruction, such as with guided reading or in other forms of instruction.  Only the teacher should see the levels in these cases. When I asked about opinions on leveling libraries on Twitter a couple weeks ago, Franki Sibberson, author of Beyond Leveled Books, responded with, “I’ve always believed that levels are for the teachers, not the kids. Sometimes a helpful tool.”  Franki’s words really resonated with me.  I agree that levels are an important tool in the classroom- for the teacher.  I really do not see a need for children to view themselves as readers of a level.  Rather, I want them to view themselves as readers of books.

I know that I do not have all the answers when it comes to leveling libraries in the classroom.  There are many ways to go about developing an independent reading system in a classroom.  Whatever the system may be, children need to view themselves as readers- not as levels. Everything inside of me just cringes when a child looks for books based on level rather than based on interest, curiosity, or a desire to learn.  Leveling books has to be a fine balance in the classroom.  If it’s done, it must be done intentionally, thoughtfully, and always with a regard not only to the reading development of a child, but also to the social development of a child.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  

Helpful articles and posts on the topic:

Guided Reading: The Romance and The Reality from Fountas & Pinnell

Lexile, Move Over from Kylene Beers

A Kid is Not an H from Kylene Beers 

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My first book for teachers, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy, cowritten with Kari Yates, is now out and available from Stenhouse Publishers. Our goal with this book was to help teachers make the important practice of conferring with readers manageable, effective, and fun! 


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