Revisiting Reading Levels

UPDATE May 2021: This post was written in 2016. My thinking has again evolved around this topic. I’m currently working on a follow-up piece. Be on the lookout for it in early summer 2021. Subscribe to the blog to have it delivered to your inbox.

Archive from The Teacher Triathlete (my first and now retired blog), June 21, 2016

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a piece that questioned what seemed like the sudden surge in teachers scrambling to level their classroom libraries.  For the past few months, I have been attempting to revise that piece with my current thinking. Well, my current thinking doesn’t seem to stay current for very long! My thinking around levels really isn’t changing, but it is definitely evolving.


Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 9.04.41 PM
Four books, four different levels, one reader, no problem!

After reading Pernille Ripp’s recent post, rereading Donalyn Miller’s wonderful piece in EdWeek asking us to Guess My Lexile, and thinking of Kylene Beers’ retelling of a gut wrenching conversation in A Kid is Not an H, I have to just come out and say it… levels can really harm kids.

That is, levels can really harm kids when used inappropriately.  Irene Fountas, who created the alphabetic leveling system along with Gay Su Pinnell, has even come out and said that their leveling system is frequently being used in ways that they never intended.  Some of these uses include leveling entire classroom independent reading libraries, labeling children, and as a reporting system to parents (read more about all this here and here).

However, it is extremely important to also acknowledge that understanding the levels of books (notice I did not say levels of children) can also help kids. Becoming familiar with the levels of books can help teachers when creating and making decisions about guided reading groups, picking out text sets around a common topic for children in class to access, and especially when deciding which reading behaviors, skills, and strategies to teach and support around certain books.  A key thing to remember here is that a level of a book doesn’t just refer to how easy or hard a book is to read, rather it refers to an increasingly complex set of skills, strategies, and behaviors that a reader may need in order to read and understand a particular book.  This idea is especially important to understand for those of us who teach elementary school.

During my two years as a literacy coach, I discussed the topic of book levels with dozens of K-5 teachers more times than I can accurately recall.  Rather than writing a summary of two years worth of conversations, I’ll share my ideas about the three questions that came up most frequently.

Should I tell my students their reading level?

There are different takes on this. Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell have stated for years that levels are not for children to know and see, rather they are a tool for teachers. Yet, many school leaders still choose to tell their teachers to place leveling stickers for all to see on classroom library books. With these two different takes coming at teachers, who should they follow? Well, my answer is always the same. Teachers should always follow their students.  

I now pose this question: Will telling your particular students their current determined reading level benefit them or hurt them?  I honestly can’t definitively say.  One thing I know for sure is that the reading levels of students in a classroom should never ever be made public.  I once saw a public chart of reading levels posted in a classroom, and I have to say that I was furious.  What made me especially angry was that there were two children who were outliers on this publicly displayed chart.  Most of this class hovered between a level M and P on the chart.  Two of the kiddos names were prominently displayed on their own next to a level E and a level G.  Just imagine being those two kids in that class. Simply put, a public display of levels has no place in a classroom, school, or anywhere where a love of reading is being fostered.

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 8.28.09 PM

As I head back into the classroom next school year, I do not plan on telling my students their exact current reading levels.  I do not see a real need to do this. Instead, I do plan on holding daily reading conferences where I focus on skills, strategies, and goal setting with my students.  Honestly, I do not see a need to tell them their levels.  Knowing the levels of particular books will be a tool I heavily rely on as an elementary teacher to make instructional decisions.  It will not be something students use during the school day.  On the flip side, I do know many great teachers who do make the decision to tell students their levels.  My way is not necessarily the right way for all classrooms.  However, it is the right way for my classroom and my students.  

I just urge you to handle this decision with care.  If you do make the choice to let your students know which book level is considered independent for each of them, please be vigilant about holding frequent conferences and continually assessing so they can see themselves progressing on an ongoing basis.  Please, do not allow a level to define a child’s identity as a reader.  

How do I track and report reading progress if I decide not to focus on the level? 

Children grow in reading ability through learning how to access and apply different behaviors, skills, and strategies when reading different texts.  One thing we should continually do as educators of young children is notice, name, and record these indicators to track, report, and respond to progress and needs. It’s most important to point out these indicators to our kids themselves.  When we point out and name a reading behavior or skill to a child, they are more likely to replicate it.  It may sound something like this, “Sarah, in our discussion, I noticed that you mentioned how your character changed and why you think she changed due to her reaction to the events in the story.  Now, I’d like to suggest a next step for you.  Start thinking about your character’s internal thoughts. Try to see if you can notice any growth in your character’s thoughts as you continue to read…”  

This is also something we should be doing with parents. Rather than telling a parent, “Sarah is reading at a level R,” we should be holding conversations that might sound like this: “Sarah is a really engaged reader of fiction! Right now, she is particularly interested in mysteries. One thing Sarah is doing well is noticing how a character grows and changes over the course of a story. This is important because…”  Now, isn’t that more informative than stating that Sarah is reading at a level R?  

Should I level my classroom library?

Screen Shot 2017-05-13 at 8.29.46 PM

Well, this just seems to be the million dollar question in elementary education at the moment. 

When I head back at the end of this summer to put together my classroom library, I am not going to arrange my library by level. It will be arranged by genre, author, interest, topic, series, you name it!  It will be a place that kids go to choose a book they love, not to choose a book based on a level.  To kick off our reading workshop, we’ll first have a mini one week unit on the process of selecting and sharing books.  Levels won’t even be mentioned.  Yet, difficulty/ease will be discussed- along with enjoyment factor, interest, series, topic, and any other reason a reader may choose a book or not choose a book.  

If you make the choice to not level your classroom library and notice a student is reading outside of their independent reading level, I highly recommend addressing the issue on a student by student basis.  Most of the time, there is no need to address this issue at all.  If a student is engaged and can make meaning from the text, then let them read it!  Who really cares, if in this case, that the student is reading above or below their level?  If the student is not engaged, confer as appropriate.  If the student is not making meaning from the text, confer as appropriate.  Perhaps the answer is to gently guide the student to choose a different book.  Or, the answer may be to help the student become engaged or find meaning within the text.  There is no right answer here. Rather, the right answer is to look at the child in front of you, listen, and respond appropriately.

If you do choose to level your classroom library, please be sure to consider the social-emotional implications.  Also, I implore you to ensure that students select books based on interest and desire to read, not just on their independent reading level.  I don’t care how many class meetings one has about learning differences, accepting others no matter what, and setting goals- if a student is reading at a level far below where the others in class are reading, that student knows it.  I beg of you- make sure that student feels safe and comfortable as a reader in your classroom.  I cannot stress this enough.  Do everything in your power to ensure that the students in your classroom feel safe and comfortable as readers.  

Friends, a good rule to follow is to always follow your students’ lead.  We should always consider the experts, look at the research, and understand the process of how a child learns how to read and then grows as a reader.  Yet, more so, we should look at the children in front of us and ask if the decisions we are making are having a positive impact on them both academically and emotionally.  The answer should always be yes to both.

This is not an easy subject. It is certainly not a yes or no question nor a black or white answer. The answer always lies within our individual students.  

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 8.16.38 PM

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! 

%d bloggers like this: