being a student, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, student driven

The Leveled Library; When Is It Time to Remove the Scaffold?

Levels were never meant to confine a child's reading choices or life, they were meant to help them on their way. pernille ripp

When I was a 5th grade teacher, I was told to level my library, or at least a part of it.  When I asked why, I was told that it needed to be done so that students could find the right fit books.  Yet, in our classroom, this was already happening.  I was a 5th grade teacher after all and most students had many different ways of determining whether a book would be the right fit for them or not.  This was something we had developed throughout the year.  Just like when they went to our school library, the students knew to pick up books, flip through the pages and determine whether they wanted to read a book by reading a few pages and so on.

When I present, I often discuss levels and our seemingly obsession with the boxes they create for us.  We love when we can quickly point a child in the right direction.  We love when we can hand a kid a stack of books without having read them and say; these are for you because their level told me so.  Whether Lexile, Fountas & Pinnell, AR score, or another contrived measuring form; levels seems to have permeated our educational experience.  And it makes sense, after all, with our obsession with data and standardized testing, we love when we can break something complicated down to something tangible.  But reading identity was never meant to be broken down like this.

Levels are not meant to be a child’s label, but a teacher’s tool to quote Fountas & Pinnell.  They were never meant to be hindrances to children exploring books, nor were they meant to be the focal point of how we know a reader.  They were meant for guiding us, the teachers, as we planned our instruction in order to help students succeed at the reading strategies we were teaching.  And yet, I have seen entire classroom libraries designated by letters, even whole school ones.  I have heard from librarians that were told that they had to police their book check outs to make sure a child had picked the correct books.  From teachers who have seen children stop reading because they were only allowed to pick from certain boxes.  Levels have even shown up in our book order magazines in order to help parents guide their child’s decision.

I cannot be the only one that is horrified at what this is doing to our readers?

You see, levels, much like a child’s reading level, is meant to be a scaffold.  We start our early readers by guiding them using every tool that we have, including the reading level they are at, as we try to help them figure out how to pick books by themselves.  Having a level or a letter helps them on their beginning journeys as readers.  So does the five-finger rule.  Yet at some point, our conversation needs to move beyond the letter, or whatever other designator we have.  We need to shift the exploration of reader identity past the easy and into the hard.  We need to start asking students what draws them to books and what keeps them there.  How do they know when a book will be successful for them?  How do they book shop?  How do they keep track of what they want to read next?  It has to be more than just because the level said it would work for them.  Those conversations take time, they take energy, and they take us knowing our students in a deeper way than just their supposed reading ability.  It also takes investment from our readers, which again, takes time within our curriculum.  If our goal is to create reading experiences where students will leave our classrooms and school knowing who they are as a reader, then our conversation has to extend beyond the level.

So before we level our entire library, or even tell a child what level they are at, remember that depending on our students, it may be not only unnecessary, but also damaging to their future reading life.   As educators our main goal is to create independent learners, yet the very levels we use to help students reach independence means that they are not.  Moving beyond a level, a label, or whatever else we have decided will break down a child for us must be a priority as teachers of reading.  We must ensure that their reading identity does not hinge on an outside indicator, but instead on their own understanding of themselves as readers.  That takes time, and while time seems to be something we have very little of in school, it is an investment into their future life as adult readers.

Levels were never meant to confine a child’s reading choices or life, they were meant to help them on their way.  Much like we remove training wheels from a bike when a child is old enough, we must remove the levels as well.  We owe it to the future adults we teach.

PS:  I love this post from Kylene Beers “A Kid is Not an “H””

If you are wondering why there seems to be a common thread to so many of my posts as of late, it is because I am working on two separate literacy books.  While the task is daunting and intimidating, it is incredible to once again get to share the phenomenal words of my students as they push me to be a better teacher.  The first book tentatively titled The Global Literacy Classroom is scheduled for release November, 2016 by Solution Tree.  The second, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  So until then if you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.


21 thoughts on “The Leveled Library; When Is It Time to Remove the Scaffold?”

  1. Thank you for writing this post. Like you said, these levels were meant to help children, not define them. They were for teachers to tailor instruction. The idea that a child wouldn’t get to read a book because it wasn’t their guided reading level or AR level is sad. Good intentions are taking kids love of reading away. We need to stand up for our kids and reignite a live of reading. I always love reading your perspective on education and your advocacy for our kids.

  2. I was at the bookstore yesterday in the kid section and ran into a mom having a hard time finding books for her daughter. I offered to help and said I teach middle school. So I asked the girl what kind of books she likes (expecting a genre or specific titles) and all she could say was “I have a high Lexile level.” 😖

  3. How do you balance this out – I have 6th graders that will not move on from 2nd and 3rd grade level books if I don’t push (require) that they move beyond that. How can you build reading skills and vocabulary when they are choosing to read so far below their level? I want to build readers. I don’t want to discourage, but it seems by the time I get them they have developed a loathing for reading. They don’t like reading and will choose to read these books just to be done. I do conference with them about things they are interested in. My class library is arranged by genre and topics, not levels, but my books are marked with levels. I would love your suggestions.

  4. I sometimes get in trouble with my staff because I don’t tell kids they can’t sign out a book because it’s not at their level. Our compromise: one is their choice one is independent-ish reading level. Reading interest cannot be undervalued.

  5. I’m a teacher librarian and have assisted my students as we build our school library together for almost 25 years. From time to time I have been asked to “level” our library as programs come and go. I never will. Many of my “successes” have been reluctant readers who have found books according to their personal motivation and interests FIRST, regardless of a “level” or required reading assignment. They almost always have expanded their reading over time beyond their first “likes”… and many have come back to tell me that they now love to read! Whenever a teacher or parent asks to “level” a child or limit their choice I will agree that the child can choose a book for that purpose, but in addition ALWAYS a book of their personal choice without restriction or limit. Recreational reading is a predictor of future learning success so I measure their recreational reading growth by the smiles on their faces when they find a book worth their personal time!

  6. Surely the most important scaffold is the human support you give to students. They will borrow books they cannot read independently because they like the pictures, because they like the topic, because they think someone will read it to them or with them and slowly they learn to choose ‘just right’ books for them. We kill the pleasure of reading by controlling – death by levels!!!

  7. I love this. I teach 5th grade and have the biggest classroom library in the school. I am one of a few who have graphic novels. A few years ago a class of third graders wanted to borrow from my library. Their teacher was so obsessed with levels (and I hadn’t leveled mine) that she gave detention to anyone who borrowed my books. I said to her that maybe they could just read them for fun and not for class and she blew her stack. I was talking to her later and she was bragging about AR tests and how many levels her kids came up. I asked her what books did her class enjoy and she didn’t have a title because books now to her have stopped being stories but are just levels to conquer. This made me so sad because I have kids pick books mostly for interest.

  8. Oh wow! Pernille, this is such a beautifully written take on levels in the classroom. I really appreciate how you discuss the progression of the use of levels as we start with our littlest readers then move up to support our older readers. Levels do have an instructional purpose, but should never ever be used as a label, crutch, selection-device, or anything similar. Thank you so much for speaking up on this important issue in literacy ed. Your words are much appreciated.

  9. This is such a wonderful post. I do have my classroom library leveled, but it is arranged by interest. As long as students enjoy reading, I don’t limit them very much. However, our school librarian requires us to put colored dots on the back of all the student cards and kids can only choose from their own level or one level above that if they are really interested in the topic. It breaks my heart at times to see kids feel defeated because they are limited in what they can try to read. Thank God most of my kids find plenty to love in their reading levels because I tend to give very broad ranges for my students. We are also required to participate in AR. I hate that kids just want to finish books to get AR points. I, too, want them to fall in love with reading. When I was in school, I never let my teachers know how much I read because we were supposed to write a summary of every book we wrote. I pretended i only read about a quarter of what I really read so I didn’t have to do a summary on a book that had a huge impact on me. Since I was such a voracious reader, I could get away with only reporting on one out of every four books I read. Anyway, I feel your frustration and wish I was brave enough to buck the system like you do. I just want my students to love reading as much as I do. I keep thinking that maybe I could do something instead of AR if I could come up with a good idea to sell to school administration and the librarian. I’ve thought about possibly having partner book-talk time. Or book talks where kids just tell the class why they should read a particular book. I wonder if that would encourage some kids to read more if they got to talk about it. Most of my students love to get up and talk about what they’ve done or read.

    I’ve read many of your posts, but if you have any specific ideas for how to approach admin or librarians, please let me know. In the meantime, I’ll keep up my research on what makes kids learn to love to read.

  10. I had an ELL student this year who was in his first “regular” English class as a high school sophomore. He struggled a lot with reading and speaking in English, but told me around October that he’d always been interested in the Titanic since seeing the movie a long time ago. I asked him if he’d ever read a book about the Titanic, and he said, “No, they say those books are not my level.” He found three books about the Titanic on Goodreads that sounded like something he’d like to read, and I ordered them. They were challenges for him for sure, but he was really interested in the subject and he LOVED them – easily his favorite books of the year. I can’t imagine being so tied to a child’s “level” that I’d willingly hold them back from pursuing their interests!

  11. Leveled books are a teaching tool meant for Instructional reading level instruction and practice, which is not the same as Independent reading level, or interest. Bear in mind that the term ‘leveled libraries’ does not only include the school library, but also classroom libraries. Some levels, like Lexile, are based mainly on the difficulty of words in the text period. Other leveling systems take into account word difficulty, comprehension, fluency, etc. Most children can fairly impressively read most of the words in many books that they cannot yet understand, especially when motivated by high interest. Leveled books serve a strong purpose in instruction for K,1,2 students, and for some students through grades 3 and 4. The key is balance and not to limit non-instructional reading to a child’s own level. Generally speaking, it’s the primary grades teachers who best understand the reading process, how reading is acquired by children, and how to support our youngest readers and scaffold the learning load. Upper elementary teachers often don’t have that same degree of targeted expertise.

    As a literacy specialist of long experience, I never forget the mid-career 4th grade teacher who had his entire class, in the first weeks of school, “read” a novel (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) for reading instructional time which was written at anywhere from a very late 5th to 8th or 9th grade reading level. The copies he used did say R.L. 4 on the cover, but he had no inkling from his own reading of the text that the actual reading level had since been determined by all the big leveling systems to be considerably higher. He would read aloud to them the first page or two of each chapter with the expectation that all students, some with strong help, would “follow along” and then finish reading the chapter on their own. He read aloud at a fairly fast adult rate and was flabbergasted when most of the class could not follow along in their own books because they could not keep up. The less able students (SpEd and Title One-identified) just refused to do the work. It was too far over their heads both access-wise and also interest-wise. Most could not decode enough words (or struggled too hard to do so) to get the meaning of individual sentences, much less the paragraph or the chapter. They had little idea what the words even meant due to poor vocabularies. Nor could they answer simple questions about the text. All their effort had gone into decoding the words. That teacher had a lot of learning to do about fair expectations of students. He also did not know much at all about reading levels and book levels. Shortly after that, I was told that 9th grade struggling readers at the local high school were reading that same book as part of a larger interdisciplinary school-wide initiative. In a very white state, the class of brand new 4th graders had little real concept of racial issues, African-Americans, or the Great Depression. Was it time for them to learn about those themes, yes. Was his book selection a good one? No. What happened? The lower half of the class was given a different novel to read, discuss, and respond to questions about., one that they had some realistic shot of actually reading and understanding. The teacher himself was also given basic training in book levels.

    Leveled books have a purpose. Not all books are created equal, especially for instructional purposes. Lower elementary classrooms often have two classroom libraries: one of leveled books for self-selected independent reading choice near a child’s actual reading level; and another unleveled library for independent self-selection based on tubs of books by authors, or science, or holidays, or animals, etc. The unleveled classroom libraries are where young children choose books on topics of high interest to them during independent reading time, even if that’s only looking at the pictures, and it often is.

    Do some schools carry the use of leveled books too far? Absolutely.

  12. Books were never leveled when I taught 5th and 6th grade, but now I teach first. No one tells us how to level the books, but I’ve written the DRA and/or F&P levels on many–and have one basket for 1-4, 6-8, 10-14, and 16-18. The majority are grouped by author or genre. The trouble I run into is having a first grader who is reading at about a level 8, staring at a Magic Tree House book, which is a level 34. They are pretending to be able to read the book. When there are so many other options closer to his/her level, it makes me a little crazy. At the beginning of the year, we talk about wearing the right shoes for the job–I bring in sandals, Muck boots, sneakers, workboots for the demonstration. I tell them to grow as a reader they need a book that is a “comfy sneaker fit.” When one is reading a book at a level so much higher than where the child is at–it feels like a waste of his/her time (unless it’s a book with many pictures–non fiction with photos–or a book we’ve read aloud in class), so I gently steer them towards lots of “comfy fit” options.

    1. I always tell others that in the younger grades, levels can be a wonderful tool as children discover where they are comfortable and realize there is nothing shameful with wherever they are at. I think the push for me is to remove them when they get older so that the conversation changes. 1st grade plants the seed for those future conversations.

      1. Ah–I understand. My firsties love knowing how far they’ve grown when we assess. It’s also so nice when a high level reader enjoys lower level books and is heard laughing over the story. My class always supports and accepts where each is. Love that.

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