The Power of Un-Leveled Books by Heather Zeissler
“Your books are too easy!” A frustrated first grader told me one spring afternoon, as she methodically looked through our classroom library for a new chapter book to bring home. This outburst was unexpected, as this particular English Language Learner (ELL) student was still working on constant-vowel-constant words, along with the first 100 sight words. How could my classroom library chapter books be too easy?
I started the library when the elementary principal showed me my new classroom at the beginning of that school year. She also shared her vision about the space, “I see a bright rug and lots of books to make this a reading corner.” As this was my first full-time specialist position, I had not started collecting lots of books for a classroom library. I was dreading the expense of purchasing lots of books for five grade levels. I also wondered when my students would ever have time to read lots of books in my classroom, as I only expected to see them for a limited amount of time each week.
Luckily, I stumbled upon a youth baseball fundraiser garage sale on my way home later that day. There were amazing books at this sale! I scooped up what I could hold to start my library and with my arms overflowing, asked, “How much for all of them?”
I lucked out again a week later, when I discovered that the school librarian was going to discard all of the Spanish picture books due to lack of interest and limited shelf space. This could not happen! I rescued those books, too. Together, there were a wide range of books, from basal readers, sports, and fairies, to encyclopedias about dinosaurs in my new classroom library.
I believe in the power of self-motivation and personal choice. When a classroom teacher pointed out later that year that the books from the ELL classroom library were above my students’ official reading level, I simply smiled and explained that I had not yet leveled my classroom library. Truth be told, my personal goal was for my students to explore their interests and to want to take the books home. Whether they just looked at the pictures or attempted to read them, the goal was to share the book with their family, and develop their love of reading.
As a way to promote reading together at home, I worked with the classroom teacher of my exuberant first grader, to send home a Spanish picture book in addition to her weekly baggie book. That way, her Spanish-speaking parents could read to her in their native language, so that her prosody and background knowledge would continue to develop.
At fall conferences, her parents requested that the first grade teacher only send English books home going forward. I did not understand why, but I did not let this deter me. I found a small box of bilingual English/Spanish picture books tucked away in a closet. These books became new choices in my limited classroom library. As I was talking about this great find while showing off the covers of the books I found, another student said that his parents also knew how to read Spanish and he wanted to choose one too. I now had two students bringing my bilingual picture books home!
My philosophy, based on personal experience, is to not discourage a student from reading a particular book, just because it may be above the student’s reading level. My son’s teacher took a popular book away from him during independent reading time in fourth grade, as it was allegedly above his reading level, and then he refused to read for three years. (Thankfully, he is now reading again.)
Was my exuberant first grader really reading the chapter books she was taking home on an almost daily basis? I wanted my students to practice reading for fun, without the pointed verification questions, but I needed to understand how our classroom library books could be considered to be too easy? I scanned the back of the most recent book she had returned, and then asked her to tell me about the story she had read. I was pleasantly surprised when she excitedly retold the story. She then, with a big smile went on, “Mrs. Z, my mom and me read at home. We take turns.”
It turns out that she was using my classroom library books to teach her mother how to read English. After school, they would take turns reading each page of the chapter book and discussing the story. As the mother’s English literacy developed, so did the difficulty of books her daughter picked out to bring home. The student’s parents were able to work on their English by helping their child with her school reading. In addition, by not leveling my classroom library, I was able to bring literacy to not only my students, but also their parents and our community.
Heather Zeissler is currently a K-12 English Language Learner teacher in rural Minnesota. A native of the region, Zeissler graduated from the University of Minnesota at Duluth with degrees in Sociology and Accounting. She is currently working on her Master of Arts – Teaching at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota. Zeissler is also the author of multiple children’s books that explore Childhood Apraxia of Speech. Her most recent publication is a children’s book titled, hi, My nAMe is MArtiN, which continues the journey of Malcolm, from his siblings’ perspective.