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Reading Levels: Teacher Tools or Student Shackles?

I went on a celebratory date with my 10 year old son last night. Why? He wanted to celebrate his new status as a reader and knew that was exactly the kind of thing I would love to do. Every year, for Christmas, I give each of my children a book that I know they would love, carefully chosen based on their current interests and feelings about reading and books. For my daughter, a fan of Katherine Applegate, I chose Crenshaw. For my 13 year old son, a typical teenager, I chose The 57 Bus. For my youngest son, I chose The Crossover.

I chose The Crossover for him because I knew the genre would intrigue, yet not overwhelm, him. I knew the content would interest him and the authenticity of Kwame Alexander’s words would speak to his young mind. I was right. After reading those first few pages, he was hooked. He was captivated with the language, shocked with how current the pop culture references were and eager to keep reading. My heart was full.

As we sat at the restaurant together, we talked about life, about sports and about his book. My son has taught me many lessons about what it means to be a reader and last night was no exception. As we discussed the book, I shared why I chose the book for him and I asked him what made him love the book so much. He looked right at me and said, “because it was an easy book." I was floored. There are many words that I would use to describe The Crossover (inspiring, authentic, compelling, etc.), but ‘easy’ was not one of them. I asked him to “Tell me more” and he did. He told me that the book wasn’t like other books he read: it didn’t have as many words per page, the words and pages were written in interesting ways, it had things in it about the real world, but most of all, it must have been an easy reading level because he was only a level {insert level here} and he could read it. My heart sank as yet another conversation about reading boiled down to a reading level for him. He did not believe me when I said it was most certainly not an ‘easy’ book, so I showed him the reading level from the Scholastic Book Wizard. It was a level Z.

The look on his face was priceless. He went from an incredulous look of shock to an amazing look of pure joy as he realized he read a level Z book. The most beautiful words came out of his mouth: I guess you were right Mom, the levels don’t matter.” Imaginary bells and whistles sounded in the background and I smiled at him and said, “You’re right, buddy. The levels do not matter. We can read any book we want to read, no matter what.” He smiled and asked for Alexander’s ‘The Playbook’ as his next book.

That moment of pure joy as a mother and an educator when he finally realized what reading was all about was a moment I will never forget. However, along with that moment of pure joy came a moment of true frustration. Frustration that reading levels defined my son as a reader for so long and admittedly, probably still will. Frustration that reading levels dictate book choice for so other many children too. Frustration that reading levels might guide our thinking over students’ actions as readers. Frustration that reading levels might take misguided importance over readers. As a literacy teacher educator, I have much work to do.

But, I am not alone. I stand with other educators like Molly Ness, Mary Howard, Pernille Ripp, Jennifer SerravalloBrent Gilson and even Judy Blume as they too fight reducing reading to a single level or number. Reading levels are teacher tools, not student shackles. I truly believe that schools and teachers certainly do not mean to overuse or misuse levels, but in our frenzied culture of raising student achievement and using student data, they inadvertently become the loudest message that some students hear, consciously or not.


So, what do we do? We start somewhere, which just happens to be my one little phrase for 2018. We read literature about reading levels (start here, here and here) and remind ourselves of their original intent as teacher tools. We read posts like these and hold students’ stories in our minds as we interact with readers. We focus on growing as readers in terms of strategic actions, not just a staircase of complexity. We privilege students’ reading lives over reading levels.  By committing to building students’ reading lives, not just their reading abilities, we broaden the conversation in schools and as a result, at home, sending my son’s newfound message of hope that ‘the levels don’t matter’ when you are a real reader. 

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this thought provoking and personal story, Stephanie! It hits home for some many of us who are both educators and parents!

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