Over the past few months, I have read more and more articles and blogs from many well-known educators about how reading levels can be misused by good-intentioned teachers. Instead of being a tool for the TEACHER to aid in matching books with students for guided reading, they have become a label for children to use when choosing books for independent reading. That is NOT what levels are for. Now with that said, I also understand that if levels are to be used appropriately, they have to be understood. Once teachers truly understand leveling and different systems, I know they will make better decisions for students.
So, here’s a crash course in Leveling Systems 101...
Basically, leveling books is not an exact science. I think of levels as clothing sizes. When I go shopping, I may take clothes ranging from a size 8-14 into the dressing room. Sometimes, the 8 is loose, and sometimes the 14 is tight. Why? Because they are all made by different designers out of different materials to fit different body types. I can’t order clothes online because I HAVE to try them on. Leveled books are very much the same way. A level gives the TEACHER a starting point for choosing a book to use with a guided reading group, but sometimes, you have to just try it on the readers. Sometimes a D will be harder than an E for some students. Not every D will be, but there will be some, for sure.
So let’s talk leveling systems....
There is more than one kind out there. Two common types are what I call (1) formulaic systems (2) holistic systems. Formulaic systems (my term) are those that give you a grade level equivalent. I also consider Lexiles as an example of this type of leveling system because these systems are mostly based on readability---difficulty of the actual text based on words and sentences. Depending on the readability measure used, it may take into consideration word frequency, sentence length, number of words per sentence, number of words/sentences per paragraph, syllables in words, etc. There are formulas that these numbers can be plugged into that will result in a grade level equivalent. These readability levels can be useful for giving a ballpark of the level of texts a student might be able to read, but they don’t take into consideration some of the factors that make books a “fit” for a particular reader. For example, poetry always throws these readability formulas off. Poetry is often very readable (the words can be easily figured out), but understanding poetry requires quite a bit of inferential thinking. This makes it more complex. The same goes for graphic novels. They often throw readability formulas off for much of the same reason as poetry. The images in graphic novels carry much of the meaning, and it requires a different (and more complex) type of thinking to truly comprehend what is happening in a graphic novel.
Holistic systems (or at least that’s what I call them) typically use A-Z or numbers for levels. Guided reading levels, reading recovery levels, DRA, Reading A-Z, etc. use this type of leveling system to label books. The levels take into consideration different characteristics of the text such as vocabulary, topic, genre, layout, print features, themes, sentence types and lengths, and overall complexity (as opposed to just readability). Texts at each level have common characteristics that correlate with specific reading behaviors and skills that are needed to successfully navigate the texts. These levels are more helpful for guided reading because they offer a more comprehensive and detailed assessment of a book’s characteristics. The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum has detailed descriptors of each level if you want more information on how books are leveled.
So what does it all mean? ...
Leveling systems have offered teachers a great way to shop for books to use with students, but they were never intended to be used by students for that purpose. Interest should drive student choices. (Side note….The question I always get when I say that is, “What if I have a struggling reader who always chooses Harry Potter or a book that I know he can’t read?” To that I say...Let them carry Harry Potter around then. That’s an opportunity to have a conference with that student on why he is choosing that book, if he needs an audio version, and what other books that he might be interested in that he can navigate. For some of our older struggling readers, choosing those books is a way to save face in front of classmates that read better. There are bigger battles to fight. If we are diligent with one-to-one reading conferences, that issue can be turned into an opportunity to learn how to make better reading choices or how to use different modes of reading to access the book he wants.)
Now back to what I was saying….
Leveling systems can offer teachers a great tool, but that’s all they are...a tool. So, the next question is how can we use that tool in a better way? What if there was an alternative for helping students set reading goals and choose books that wouldn’t be based on a level (after all….the kids aren’t going to go to Barnes and Noble and ask for a level R!)? Why not try this?...Instead of telling students what level they are on, try teaching them the characteristics of books to look for and letting them know the reading behaviors and skills you will be working on with them. That way, when they go to the classroom library or school library, they can make some informed choices about books that they are interested in, and they can talk about what they are learning to do as readers. It’s simple, but that’s what real readers do. I know the kind of books that I will have trouble with and the kind that I can read easily because I know books, and I know myself as a reader. I know what types of books I prefer to have audio versions of and when I might need to read with a pen in hand. None of my choices--none of them-are based on a level. They are based solely on me, the books, and my purpose.
If you’d like to try this way of helping student set goals, I’ve created some goal cards here, but you can easily make your own to fit your needs: Reading Goal Cards All it requires is a teacher who understands levels, books, and kids.
I hope this helps as you start the new year, and please let me know if you have other ideas for how to use reading levels in better ways!