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.
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.