There is one thing I know for sure: to learn to read and continue to develop as readers, children need to read at their independent and instructional levels. Teachers work tirelessly to stock their classroom libraries, assess students’ reading levels and match books to readers. As part of that work, many teachers use a gradient of text and read leveled books with their students in guided reading and strategy groups and to help ensure students choose appropriate books for independent reading. The term ‘level’ is a common term in schools and now, in most homes as well.
My own third grader knows his reading level. He knows the levels of many other students in his classroom and has an acute sense of who is a ‘better’ reader than he is. Right now, he is defining his reading life by a level assigned by the teacher. I know other students who feel the same way. I recently had a student ask if she could ‘level up’ after completing a benchmark reading assessment because she really wanted to read a book in a higher level book bin.
Reading levels were not intended to be tools for students, but tools for teachers. The gradient of text was created to help teachers choose appropriate texts for guided reading instruction, not to limit students’ reading choices into narrow bins labeled by a reading level or to define what it means to be a reader down to a level. As I work with teachers and graduate students, I urge them to consider the following:
Remember why levels were created.
Reading levels were created for teachers to help ensure students were engaging in appropriate reading instruction that was targeted to their individual strengths and needs. Levels help teachers think carefully and strategically about the books they choose for students and help scaffold reading instruction. They were not created for students to limit reading choices, but to help teachers and students learn how to match books to readers.
Focus on what students do as readers, not the level they are reading at.
Levels do not define readers. Our reading choices, habits and strategic actions do and those actions change based on different contexts, books and motivations as readers. Rather than focusing on a level that is right for students, we need to focus on the behaviors they need to engage in to read the books they are truly motivated to read. Sometimes, we want to read an ‘easy’ book purely for guilty pleasures. Other times, we want to stretch ourselves as readers and read a more challenging book because we are interested in the story or series or have a need to learn the content. Students need to have the freedom to do just that.
Help students make book choices based on the books themselves, not the levels.
There is no doubt that levels can be helpful to students, but they need to be described and used carefully. As teachers, we might say something like, “I think that these books are just right books for you because they are interesting stories, have characters you can relate to and have words that you can read easily.” This helps students know WHY those books are good choices and help teach them how to choose books for themselves. We need to allow students that freedom and autonomy and yes, need to allow them to choose books that might be out of their reading level at times. We might say something like, “If you want to read a different book that might be a bit more challenging, you certainly can, but you might have to work harder as a reader. If you are up for the challenge, let’s go for it!”. We need to let students know that we believe in the choices they make and know that their reading behaviors change for different reasons.
Rethink how you organize your classroom library.
There is certainly a benefit to organizing your library by levels, as long as we are teaching students about how to choose books, rather than limiting them to a particular bin. If you have bins for each level, consider labeling them by bands instead. For example, you might have a ‘L-M-N’ bin to help students learn how to make strategic book choices within a band of texts. Ensure there are spaces for non-leveled books as well: books based on content, genre, series and more.
Celebrate readers, not reading levels.
I started this post with one thing I know for sure: we need to ensure students are reading at their independent and instructional levels. Rather than over-focusing on the level, let’s focus on the work they do as readers that makes those books instructional and independent. Celebrate the strategies they use, the connections they make and the goals they set and reach as readers. Celebrate growth as a class, but keep the reading levels private. As a adults, we would not want to list our growth scores or our weight on the faculty room bulletin board for all to see. That is private information that impacts our identity and mindset as teachers and human beings. Students deserve that same consideration.
If we privilege the reading behaviors of students, rather than the reading levels, we teach students that readers learn and grow and change based on every book they encounter. We teach them they have the power to choose books and alter their habits as readers to fit their needs, purposes and motivations. We teach them they have the power to decide who they will become as readers. Once they feel that power, they can go anywhere.