Skip to main content

Is Our Focus on Reading Levels or Readers?

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.



  1. Here! Here! Stephanie! I have long believed that levels are meant for teachers not students! When I was a classroom teacher, the rule of thumb was to level 20% of your library. The rest was reserved for themes, authors, genres etc. For those bins that are leveled, I like your idea of providing a range of levels. I look forward to discussing this at our next literacy meeting. -Krista

    1. Thank you, Krista. I have some ideas to share and look forward to talking! The Reading Strategies book fits right in here!


  2. I could not agree more. We just spoke about this at a training yesterday. It is less important for students to know their levels than for them to be able to go out into the world and be successful. Sometimes as adults we are required to read texts that prove to be more challenging (training manuals, research, etc..). And because of that, there are times I choose books below my level because they are easier and prove to be 'mindless' when I just want a good book to enjoy on the beach :-) We need to do a better job of teaching students what REAL readers look like- not this picture perfect, one size fits all idea that everyone fits on a level.

    1. I think you said it perfectly, Cheryl. We need to teach students to be real readers for more than school reading. It takes a mindset shift in the classroom, but if we focus on our actions, and not our levels, that is a good place to start!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

An Instructional Coaching Toolkit!

I have a thing for notebooks. And colorful markers. And sticky notes. I use them in all aspects of my literacy teaching and coaching. During coaching conversations, I often find myself providing on-the-spot demonstrations with these tools. I might engage teachers in a brief lesson on phonemic awareness and ask them to sort sounds. I might walk teachers through word building activities so they experience a new way of engaging students. I might introduce books to teachers to model how they might do the same for their students. I might even create game boards on sticky notes as visuals for teachers to support instructional planning. These demonstrations and notes act as instant and tangible tools to further teacher learning.
Over the years, I’ve compiled these artifacts to create coaching toolkits for the teachers I work with. My toolkit for ‘word work’ might include a picture of an anchor chart created with students, a list of words appropriate to the alphabetic feature students are wor…

Focus on Coaching Cycles

At this point in the school year, many of us are deep into our classroom coaching and engaging in coaching cycles with teachers. Just as coaching can look unique from building to building, our coaching cycles are often unique to our coaching context, our purpose for partnering and the goals and needs of each individual teacher: 1:1 coaching cycles, small group coaching cycles, student-centered coaching cycles and more. Each cycle typically has a pre-coaching conversation, classroom coaching/co-teaching/observation and then follow-up conversations as well.You can find theforms and templates I tend to use for classroom coaching here.
For me, my coaching cycles right now are in the context of my graduate education courses. Each week, I engage in a single coaching cycle with each of my students: lesson planning, observing lessons and coaching conversations. We repeat this for ten weeks of the course and the focus of our cycles shift and change over time. We also meet for small-group coac…

Leading By Learning

This summer, I vowed to be intentional in how I spent my time so that when the new school year arrived, I would feel refreshed and renewed. Admittedly, the summer seemed to fly by, but I did carve out time for my own professional learning. I read every day, I wrote in my notebook (almost) daily, tried my hand at gardening, spent time with my kids and just tried to get better at being me. Some days, I killed it. And other days, well….you know. So, as I head into another school year, I know that I need to be incredibly intentional in how I spend my time and ensure that I focus on my own learning as an educator. It is this learning that fuels my work: it lifts my reading spirits, fuels my writing heart and reminds me that leading the learning of others requires that I remain a continual learner myself.
It is this core belief that drives my teaching, coaching and leading this year. I am even more committed to my own professional learning to fuel my work and lead by example. I have purpose…