On the Level by Donalyn Miller
While I was visiting an elementary school library in Chicago last spring, a group of third graders came into the library to return and check out books. The children wore index cards clipped to their shirts. On one side of the card was the child’s name. On the back, layers of sticky labels with the top label indicating the child’s current Lexile reading level. The poor librarian was required to check the reading level on the cards against the books the children wanted to check out. If a child picked a book that wasn’t on their level, she had to take it from them and tell them to get another one. Imagine what it feels like to hear you can’t read a book you want to read and must choose another one. Imagine your entire class witnesses this exchange. How do you feel about reading? How do you see yourself as a reader?
Again and again, I see reading level measures used to rank children, sort them into reading groups, identify at-risk readers, or generate grades. To what end? If we truly value a whole child model of education, children’s development of lifelong reading habits and skills should matter just as much as reading scores. Does our institutional zeal for reading levels have long-term negative consequences for young readers?
Restricting children’s reading choices to books that fit within their reading level warps children’s positive reading identity development and their perceptions of what reading is. Requiring students to read books “at their level” at all times limits children’s reading choices and derails intrinsic motivation to read, which is driven by interest, choice, and reader’s purpose—not reading level.
While we don’t want students laboring to read text that is too difficult for them to comprehend, or burn through books that provide little intellectual challenge, we must be mindful of how reading level systems affect how children see reading and themselves as readers. Reading levels are meant to guide, not limit or define children’s reading choices. Consider what reading level systems offer and what they don’t:
Reading level measurements apply to the texts children read, not the children themselves. Reading level instruments like Lexile were originally designed to measure text complexity. These tools were not created to assess children. Reading levels are tools that guide teachers’ instruction and text selection, not labeling systems for kids.
Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, the co-creators of the F & P Text Level Gradient™, have expressed concerns about the misuse of the leveling framework they created and how this distortion harms children’s reading agency and self-concept. In a recent School Library Journal interview, they emphasized, “It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards.” Fountas and Pinnell insist that children should not use reading levels as limits when selecting books to read.
Reading level is inconsistent and varies from reading event to reading event and reader to reader. Don’t discount reader preparedness when determining the accessibility of a text. Physical health, alertness, stress, engagement, and our self-concept about reading all affect our ability to read any given text. Reading is a transaction between the reader and the text, and we don’t walk into new texts empty-handed. Readers bring our background knowledge, culture, gender, life experiences, and prior literacy experiences into every text, which affect our comprehension and motivation to read. The quality of the text drives our ability to read it, too. Well-written, engaging books are easier to read than boring, poorly written ones. Text formatting and book design features like font, page size, visuals, and color can influence text readability from reader to reader. Your preferences and experiences differ from mine. We don’t access the same text in the same way.
Reading level systems are scaffolds. Scaffolds are meant to come down. When I go to Barnes & Noble, I do not see adult readers looking for the blue dots or using the Five Finger Rule to find books to read. The goal of all teaching is independence. How are we guiding children toward independent reading lives? Children should be able to select a book for their own purposes and determine if they can probably read it. Dependence on reading level as the primary criterion guiding children’s book selection impedes their reading independence long term.
Children need modeling and instruction in how to preview and select reading material like readers really do. We cannot presume children know how to pick books for themselves. Many children report they struggle to find enjoyable books to read. The primary drivers of independent reading are choice and interest over everything else. As reading mentors, we can suggest books based on children’s interests that we think they can successfully read. If a child selects a book you suspect they cannot read independently, what strategies can you teach or resources can you provide that will help them read it, anyway? Do you know another book that might interest this reader, but is more accessible to read? Can you collaborate with your librarian to build your book knowledge or help you match children with books? Your informed guidance supports young readers long term. There is no substitute for knowing the kids and knowing their books.
Public labeling of book levels in school and classroom libraries violates students’ academic privacy. According to the American Library Association, students’ reading levels are confidential academic information—like grades and test scores. When students are required to select books from a visibly leveled collection, their academic information becomes public to everyone in sight—including other students, staff, and volunteers. Labeling levels also alters children’s book browsing behaviors and pushes reading level ahead of more authentic book selection criteria like author, genre, or topic. Libraries should be places where children can select books without restrictions or shame.
I continue to study and learn about the relationship between reading identity development and the roles that teachers, librarians, and families play in shaping children’s reading identities—both positive and negative. Adult readers do not use reading level systems to guide their reading choices. We must consider how these systems benefit developing readers temporarily or not at all. While using reading level as a scaffold to support students, we must teach and model authentic book selection skills. Confident, competent, independent readers can successfully self-select books. We must foster children’s ability to choose.
I look forward to learning from your comments. Please include any resources that have informed your understanding, so we can all learn.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.