November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Thinking Outside the Bin: Why labeling books by reading level disempowers young readers

Illustration by James Steinberg

A child enters the library, looking for something to read. She wanders the aisles, glancing at book spines, running her finger along the shelf, and lingering at a display of new titles. “Can I help you?” asks the librarian, following with more questions about her tastes: What was the last book you read? What was your favorite part? What TV shows or movies do you enjoy?

The librarian is engaging in readers’ advisory—matching readers to books. Effective readers’ advisers understand that their success depends on familiarity with a range of books, as well as with their patrons. The librarian may spend several minutes talking with a child, observing body language for clues, and walking together through the stacks while offering suggestions. Professionals know that readers’ advisory doesn’t end when a patron walks out with books in hand. The next time this librarian sees the child, she’ll inquire about the selections, which titles the student enjoyed (or didn’t), further refining understanding of the reader.

That process is often different from the hunt for “just right” books in classrooms and collections in which books are organized by reading level. Rather than having a conversation about interests, children in leveled classrooms and school libraries are often directed to color-coded bins or shelves labeled by level. “Your books have a green sticker on the cover,” a student may be told.

In classrooms across the country, reading instruction, assessment, and labeling of material have impacted how people search for and engage with books, sometimes resulting in restricted reading choices—even for independent reading. That, as Betty Carter, professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University, noted in a July 2000 SLJ article, is a “formula for failure.”

What’s wrong with “just right” books?

The move toward leveled or “just right” books stems from research showing that children’s reading comprehension improves when they read texts at—or slightly above—their reading level. What that level is, how it’s determined, and how reading instruction is implemented varies from school to school, district to district, and state to state. Two of the most common methods for leveling books are Lexile and the “A to Z” gradient found in Fountas and Pinnell’s Guided Reading system.

“Research says that students should spend most of their time in ‘just right’ or ‘at their level’ books, but that research does not say to limit students and what they would like to read,” says Pernille Ripp, creator of the Global Read Aloud and author of Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower Your Students (Routledge, 2015).

Most educators and researchers agree that student choice is a huge part of reading motivation. Does restricting kids to a prescribed level do more harm than good? Yes, according to Ripp. “Those levels, to quote Fountas and Pinnell, are ‘a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label.’ But that’s exactly what levels have become—labels that restrict our readers and tell them that their reading identity needs to be based on an outside influence—the teacher—and not their own intuition,” she says.

Donalyn Miller, author of Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits (Jossey-Bass, 2013), has called leveling “educational malpractice.” Schools have gone too far, she believes. “There is a lack of fundamental understanding by many educators about the limitations of leveling systems and their role in children’s reading development,” she says. “Matching children with books solely by reading level removes the teacher’s responsibility for knowing much about children’s literature or teaching children meaningful strategies for self-selecting books beyond level.”

Helping youth develop the skills needed to find interesting, appropriate reading material, without leveling, was the focus of Linda Wedwick Haling’s doctoral research and led her and coauthor Jessica Ann Wutz to write Bookmatch: How to Scaffold Student Book Selection for Independent Reading (IRA, 2008). Now an assistant professor at the Center for Reading and Literacy at the College of Education at Illinois State University, Haling believes that “the readability formulas have some usefulness. But ultimately, they never account for…what the reader brings to the experience. A reader’s ‘match’ to a book is going to change with what prior knowledge the individual brings to that specific topic. What’s most important is teaching kids how to match themselves to ‘just right’ books. In the real world, books are not leveled.”

Bookmatch focuses on teaching children nine key criteria—collectively forming the acronym BOOKMATCH—to consider when selecting a title for independent reading: book length, ordinary language, organization, knowledge prior to book, manageable text, appeal to genre, topic appropriateness, connection, and high interest. It’s a process that involves asking questions, interacting with the text, considering personal preferences, and allowing room for trial and error as kids strengthen their skills.

Carter agrees that more attention is needed on teaching children how to find books rather than relying on prescriptive reading systems. “If we are trying to help kids become independent learners, then they need to develop skills for finding their own books,” she says.

Leveling the books, or the child?

In a 2012 article for Reading.org, “Guided Reading: the Romance and the Reality”, Fountas and Pinnell cautioned that they “never recommended that the school library or classroom libraries be leveled or that levels be reported to parents.” Using leveled texts in classrooms following the “A to Z” matrix, Lexile, or other systems, however, seems to contradict this advice, as educators report that more schools are leveling, with some districts mandating it. Teachers often discuss individual reading levels with their students, and some let students know one another’s levels.

Miller says that this can be very damaging. “While children are learning the skills of reading, they must also develop a positive reading identity or they will not become lifelong readers,” she says. “Removing, defining, limiting, or rejecting children’s reading choices disempowers them and creates negative attitudes toward reading—and most likely, school.”

Ripp agrees. “I think a few kids will be empowered by it, mostly if they are above grade level,” she says. However, those with lower levels “would not be motivated,” feeling so behind that they might never catch up.

Fountas and Pinnell advise against making reading levels known to individual students: “We level books, not children.” Still, many lament leveling’s overuse, to the detriment of literacy and considering the whole child. “Painting kids into a level can…break their desire to read,” says Eric Neuman, a school librarian in New York City. “I have witnessed kids with low reading levels working their way through difficult texts because of how interested they are in the subject matter. I’ve also witnessed proficient readers mess up on passages that they’re not interested in.”

Supporters, however, view leveling as a motivator. It provides clear goals for improvement that can offer encouragement and structure. “[L]evels were instrumental in helping my eight-year-old overcome her reading struggles,” says Jacqueline Miller of Darien, CT. “She could not read the [higher level] books that her friends were reading, and that was far more shame-inducing than knowing what level books were her ‘just right’ books,” Miller says. “The leveled books didn’t matter as much for my non-struggling reader. And they both read a huge variety of non-leveled books outside of school.”

At the school library

Many school librarians have leveled collections to support curriculum and in response to mandates from district literacy specialists. Michael Bento, a school librarian in Burien, WA, labeled his books according to Fountas and Pinnell’s “A to Z” gradient. It’s a slow, time-consuming process, Bento notes, but he is pleased with the results. “Students and teachers now refer to this leveling system when looking for appropriate [material],” he says. “It makes it easier for us to help them if we are on board as well.”

Neuman says that several years ago, he felt pressure from teachers to level the school library. He resisted and presented a compromise solution. Neuman installed Level It Books, an app for iOS that allows users to scan an ISBN and look up Lexile numbers for most texts. “If a student absolutely had to read something on their specific level, I could make that happen,” he says. The New York City Department of Education also provides Follett’s Destiny to school libraries to manage circulation, and Destiny includes reading levels for most titles, he adds. “So when kids check books in and out, I can see a level.”

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), strongly discourages school librarians from labeling, according to the ALA Position Statement on Labeling Books with Reading Levels. “It is the responsibility of school librarians to promote free access for students and not to aid in restricting their library materials,” reads the statement. It also notes that labeling by level can compromise student privacy and First Amendment rights as well as negatively affect browsing and motivational reading.

An ALA document clarifying the Library Bill of Rights states “While some parents and teachers may find housing books by grade or reading levels helpful in guiding developing young readers, a library should not use such labels as a classification system, or to promote any restrictive or prejudicial practice.”

Public librarians have also reported requests from parents and teachers to adapt their collections to match classroom reading systems. Amy Martin, a children’s librarian at Oakland (CA) Public Library, notes a scenario in which “a teacher brings [in] a class of 25 students, tells me a number or letter range for each one, and asks me to help each find one book at their level…in the space of a 30-minute class visit,” she says. “This would not be difficult in a leveled collection….But in a public library, where books are categorized by type (picture book, easy reader, etc.), it’s extremely difficult.”

What’s a librarian to do?

Martin focuses on creating a teachable moment—even for teachers—and doing her best to have her patrons leave satisfied. “When a parent or teacher asks me for books at a certain level, I start by explaining a little about how the public library organizes books and say something along the lines of ‘Your school library may organize books by reading level; at this library, we organize them by book type,’ and then give them a quick tour of the collection,” she says. “I ask what kind of books they like, what other books they’ve read lately, and show them a couple samples and ask if they look too hard/too easy/just right. I get them to focus on one or two books, and then say, ‘OK, let’s see what level those are.’ ”

For school librarians in districts where leveling is the norm, supporting school practices and empowering student choice can be tricky. “The librarian ends up in a hard situation because they see kids who want to check out books that are above or below their perceived level,” says Ripp. “Are they then supposed to go behind the teacher’s back in allowing the students to check that book out?”

Haling says that it comes down to investing time in helping kids develop skills to select books independently. “We should trust kids when it comes to selecting their own books,” she says. “They do have opinions and preferences, even if they’re in first grade. They are capable of learning to match themselves to ‘just right’ books—without the teacher directing them to a labeled bin.”

The key is more choice, not less, Carter believes. “Let them take out a lot of books so that somewhere in that pile they find something that satisfies them,” she says. “But we have to keep that process going….When they come into the library the next time, talk about their choices: what worked; what didn’t. They have to learn their own processes for selecting books, and if we keep narrowing the choices by artificial constraints, we aren’t giving them that chance.”

Pat Scales, past president of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) and author of SLJ’s “Scales on Censorship” column, denounced labeling library books by reading level in a March 2015 interview on the ALSC Blog. She advises public librarians to communicate with their school counterparts about reading lists, selection, and student privacy issues.

It’s essential, Ripp adds, that librarians and educators step up as advocates for the freedom to read—even if that choice extends below or above a student’s reading level. “If a child wants to check out a book, let them….Students are telling us in droves they don’t like to read anymore because of these rules. So as school communities, we need to start listening to the students and let them read the books they want to read.”

This article was published in School Library Journal's August 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Kiera Parrott About Kiera Parrott

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for School Library Journal and Library Journal and a former children's librarian. Her favorite books are ones that make her cry—or snort—on public transportation.

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Comments

  1. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Thank you for this clear discussion of a very important issue. Leveling books and directing children to bins that match their supposed level can be a very hurtful practice. As you mentioned, it is better to show children how to select books than to restrict their access to only certain books. I have met children who wanted to read certain books, but were told those books were not on their level. They were upset and so was I. This issue deserves our attention.

  2. Georgie Camacho says:

    Thank you for starting this discussion. I will be sharing it with the Literacy Department in my district. I really love the discussion about putting the librarian between a rock and a hard place, because that is often the case.

    My first thought as I started reading this argument was my own reading as a child, falling in love with Little Women in the 4th grade. I also absolutely devoured Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books (Wolves of Willoughby Chase series). There was so much Cockney and so many British references that I didn’t understand, but that did not stop me from falling in love with such an engaging heroine and sharing her exciting adventures. Reading those books also gave me the background I needed for enjoying the works I enjoy today, including many BBC offerings. What if someone had told me not to try to read those books as a child because they were too hard and I wouldn’t understand them because they were not the right reading level for me? Something for me to keep in mind going forward when it comes to helping my students pick their books – starting tomorrow! Great article.

  3. Sarah Gasamis says:

    I believe there can be some middle ground here. As an elementary school librarian (who also spent 10 years teaching in the classroom), I can see both sides of this issue. I help teachers and students by providing easy access to books they need to read for “Independent Reading” in the classroom (on level) AND I teach students to find books based on interest, author, recommendations, etc. “The key is more choice, not less,” says the article, and that is what I do. When I became librarian, the limit for student check-out was 2 books at a time. I upped the limit to 5 books, but encourage kids to get at least one book on their level out of these 5. I do have books that are levels A-J in a leveled area and require my K and 1st graders to get at least one book on their reading level. They can get anything else for the other 4 and nothing is off limits. Ideally there would be no limits to the number of books checked out, but that is not feasible for me. The district in which I work (the same one as Michael Bento actually) asked librarians to raise the number of books that can be checked out in order to get more books in kids’ hands, especially books for their independent reading time. I like to teach readability/level as just another consideration when looking for a great book!

    • LeAnne Balzer says:

      Well said. Students can easily get frustrated if they read too often above their reading level.

    • Barbara Young says:

      Agreed. A leveled reading system need not operate exclusively on leveled books. The best way to meet children’s reading needs is to encourage both leveled and choice books. Our schools use the Fountas & Pinnell leveled system based out of Columbia University’s Reader’s / Writer’s Workshop founded by Lucy Caulkins. All students have opportunities to read choice books below and above their own level for their own interest and pleasure, while receiving instruction at their individually determined level, which is continually changing due to their forward progression of reading skills, expanding vocabulary, and comprehension. Consistent reading growth over time is one goal and a combination of multiple strategies and tools supports not only the students’ growth but fosters a love of reading, an equally important goal.

    • Catherine Wimpey says:

      Agree with Sarah Gasamis: middle ground! As a homeroom teacher, and having used Daily Five for a long time, I understand the value of allowing readers to choose books that they are passionate about – a ‘good fit’. As a learning support teacher, I also understand that building a solid foundation of literacy acquisition skills can be hard work for many readers and require another type of ‘just right’ book. Allowing readers a lot of choice, and helping them to understand how different types of books help to develop their different areas of reading need, is paramount. Great discussion!

  4. No matter what we feel about leveling systems or their potential value or harm–we can all agree that leveling is a scaffold. Scaffolds are meant to come down. If we are devoted to leveling systems, how are we incrementally reducing students’ reliance on these systems as book selection criteria as they move through school? We should be moving students toward lives as independent readers. I don’t see adult readers looking for the blue dots in the library or bookstore. Children need authentic book-selection strategies apart from leveling. Thank you for the well-resourced and thoughtful piece!

  5. A teacher says:

    So much thinking based on feelings, and so little based on data. Of course all children are different, and their mileage will vary. But can’t some unbiased education Ph.D. candidate do the following: Pick five schools with AR leveling, and five comparable schools without leveling. Then, figure out the check-out rate per student from each school’s library? Either one approach or the other will have greater library checkouts on a per capita basis, or they will be a wash. Then there will be a basis for discussion, instead of this anecdotal thinking largely based on people’s individual experiences.

    • Would be interested to see those numbers as well! However, I would emphasize caution regarding what conclusions could really be drawn from those numbers. From my experience what student’s check out from school or classroom libraries and what they actually read are two different things. There is also the variability of how many books teachers ask students to have at one time for independent reading influencing those numbers. Some say one or two books at a time and others want five books in a bin at a time. Again, not all of those books are actually read. Therefore the data you propose collecting wouldn’t necessarily be a reliable measure of the effectiveness of these strategies to change reading habits or ability.

    • ditto..having been a school librarian for over 30 years….I too naively thought. The more books a child could take out..the more reading…ah no way to put that into statistics…actually from my own voracious experience…hard to read two books at once. thus this year…ha we have limited books to two….HOWEVER, we are encouraging ardantly…daily book exchange…encouraging independence…and making thoughtful choices( especially if you can only choose two at a time!)…ah…before vacations….we let up to five….and parents are also encouraged to check out books.

  6. Diane Karlis says:

    I am a retired Reading Recovery teacher and small business owner. For the past 10 years I have been developing a product for public libraries, schools and mentors that provides multiple bags of leveled reading books with instructions for mentors. This project has been shared by word of mouth through interested reading teachers and has been largely grant funded. It covers levels 1-20 (recently reduced from levels above 20). Books In Bags is currently in eight Michigan libraries and six elementary schools, and has been widely used by mentors and tutors. Using leveled readers for students reading at kindergarten through second grade seems to be very appropriate. My former website was printed on every instruction sheet (which I authored) at each level. For the past 10 years no one has ever contacted me-and we all know that people can be very quick to criticize! I am developing a new website soon which will offer these packages of leveled books online.

    I agree that “real reading” comes from books chosen freely. Each leveled bag is filled with carefully selected fiction and non fiction books, representing as many ethnicities as I could find among these well written books from 12 publishers. There is also a strong folk and fairy tale strand beginning at level three. I have never chosen a book that I don’t personally own and use with either the students in my classroom or students that I currently tutor.

    I would welcome discusssion as I move forward with this project!

  7. Paulene Walsh says:

    Yes I am enjoying reading the comments.
    I also can see both sides to this article.
    Knowing our students, knowing all about them, creating a wonderful environment where they just want to read. They will then read at, above and even below their level if they find a series of books that they love. Millions of words can be read in a year. Happy Reading Everyone.

  8. Helen Turner says:

    Enjoying reading the discussion. Our librarian allows 5 books per student… I stipulate that the students selection must include fiction, nonfiction and at least one picture book. I encourage books to be “just right” and also at a higher level… The discussions above have reminded me that I need to check in with my students after their selection and also to remind parents about what we are trying to achieve. May I also add that to top this off students need a “comfy” place to read. At home few people sit at a table or desk to read for enjoyment…. the same should apply for the classroom. I introduced some bean bags, old cushions and even a floor mat…. my students can choose any seat…. no one ever chooses a seat at a desk. We also develop their reading stamina ( Daily 5) ….. I believe it is also important for teachers to read when students read and of course we all know the benefits and enjoyment from reading a book to the class.

  9. I agree that holding kids to a level could be detrimental, but I think we need more teacher training. I have levels in my classroom, but I do not hold my students to just read within their level. It is used as a guide. I also think that having interest bins that are sorted more by topic and have a range of levels within that bin Is a beneficial transition to leveling. Teacher training would help the teachers that are using leveling as a way to teach reading instead of a tool to help students find the right books for them. Interest in a topic should always be the driving force to choosing a book.

  10. ditto to above…very hard to know what happens to the books children take home. IN the beginning of my 30 year career as school librarian, I also promoted 5 books… This year in twilight of my career….we are limiting checkouts to two books at a time( frankly can one read two books at a time..including the class levelled book)..ah…but we are ardently encouraging independent…even daily book return. NOw after three weeks of school…Yes….children are coming in on their own…of course we have encouraged our teachers to remind and encourage return…ah during morning snack time is a good option.

  11. Sarah Aloise says:

    At my former elementary, there was a tremendous focus on Lexile levels. In some cases, students were prevented from continuing in a series by well-meaning teachers and reading coaches. I asked the principal to give me a few minutes on the faculty meeting agenda. I brought in a few adult books from the New York Times bestseller list and started by quietly writing down the titles and lexiles on the overhead. I heard audible gasps and very quietly said that I was grateful that no one made me read on my lexile. Some of the titles were truly rich in content (think The Kite Runner). We then had a very productive and non-defensive faculty discussion on this issue. Following that meeting, I noticed a definite change in practice to a more balanced approach. School librarians can definitely aid in bringing awareness and perspective to the reading selection discussion. I, personally, believe we need to do this, especially in the current high-stakes testing culture. Data truly isn’t everything and sometimes we need to hit pause to remember that.

  12. Elementary Teacher says:

    There is much talk of interest. Sometimes you don’t know whether you’ll find something interesting or not until you’ve actually read it! I’ve been in book clubs for most of my adult life (over 20 years) and in that time I’ve read many books that I would not normally have picked off a shelf – some I didn’t enjoy but others surprised me and I was glad that I was ‘forced’ to read them. There is something to be said for encouraging children (and adults) to step out of their comfort/interest zone and take a risk with new or different reading material…

  13. Megan Brevard says:

    Thank you for discussing this prevalent issue. I am going to share this article with my Director of Studies and my school’s English dept. I think there are some wonderful suggestions with BOOKMATCH

  14. Mary Zdrojewski says:

    Thank you for this great article for me to keep in my “Why My Answer Is No” file when this question comes up every year or so with teachers and administrators.

    I do have one small section of my library “leveled.” I pulled my easy readers out of E and my early chapter books out of F and turned them into the “Stepping Stone” section. They are loosely leveled with 1 stone (1 sentence per page), 2 stone (simple stories), and 3 stone (early chapter). This was done, not as an administrative directive, but in response to my students. Many of them want to move on to “chapter books” before they have the capability to find appropriate books in our larger fiction section. These labeled sections empower them to find books that they are comfortable reading without always needing an adult to help.

    With that said, my students are not required to check out books from these shelves, nor are they limited. I do ask that one of their library books each week be a “just right” book, but they determine that themselves, not with a number or letter.

    The goal of any library organizing system should be to empower the patron to find the books they need at that moment, and no “reading level” can measure a reader’s heart. Crushing young readers’ spirits is not in my job description.

  15. Terri Harding says:

    In my classroom I have books leveled in one area, and books sorted for subject/genre, in another. Children pick what they are interested in reading. I do not dwell on reading level. All of my students from grade 1-9 would read books the whole day if they were allowed. I teach in a multi graded classroom, and have been there for 8 years. In the beginning they couldn’t read for more than 5 minutes without talking or moving. the teacher before me had leveled all of the books and sorted their library based on that. they were also only allowed books that were chosen for them, and at their level. Now I have to keep a watch on them for sneaking reading time. My students are ok with having and knowing their level- we work hard on how to pick a good fit book for them- I think giving them the information about reading level helps to give them power(knowledge is power right) and having more advanced readers in the room sharing their love of books, helping them pick books around their level that they loved themselves, makes my students want to push harder to be stronger readers.

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