December 16, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Fountas and Pinnell Say Librarians Should Guide Readers by Interest, Not Level

Our recent article on reading levels and the dangers of using strictly prescribed leveling systems in libraries for young readers sparked much dialogue and debate. One of the most popular and widely used reading systems is the “A to Z” gradient, developed by Irene C. Fountas, professor in the School of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, and Gay Su Pinnell, professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University. Both researchers have been adamant that their leveling system was designed as “a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label.” We caught up with Fountas and Pinnell, who jointly gave their perspective on leveling, libraries, reading comprehension, and what they say to districts mandating leveled collections.

The system you developed to assess student reading ability and comprehension involves more than just a leveling system for books. In a nutshell, what is the system designed to do and how did you develop it?

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons, user Mr. Absurd.

We developed the F&P Text Level Gradient™ to describe differences in the demands of texts using 10 different text characteristics, placing books in categories along the A to Z spectrum. The behaviors and understandings for each letter level on the gradient provide a picture of how reading systems of strategic actions develop over time from the very young reader to the almost adult reader. By looking at the progression of competencies and behaviors and understandings, you have a map of reading progress. Following the development of the F&P Text Level Gradient™, we created the Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) as a systematic, standardized way to determine where children are along that progression of competencies. When we have this kind of data about our students, we can use that information to guide our teaching decisions and provide materials for students that offer the appropriate amount of challenge. Using language that facilitates their growth, the precise teaching can move students toward higher and more complex levels along the gradient of progress. It’s also important to note that using the BAS, teachers gain a rich body of information in a short amount of time and use it to inform the teaching of the children immediately, offering a road map of where to begin instruction.

In the recent piece we published on leveling, we pointed out that you never intended the A to Z reading levels to be used in the way they often are. That is, teachers informing students (and sometimes their classmates) of their current letter level, making parents aware of the level, and organizing classroom libraries by level. How is this different from how you intended the system to be used by teachers?

It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards. That was certainly not our intention that levels be used in these ways. We designed the F&P Text Level Gradient™ to help teachers think more analytically about the characteristics of texts and their demands on the reading process, and the A to Z levels were used to show small steps from easiest to most difficult. The goal was for teachers to learn about the characteristics of each level to inform their decisions in teaching—how they introduce a book, how they discuss a book, how they help children problem-solve as they process a book. We created the levels for books, and not as labels for children, and our goal was that these levels be in the hands of people who understand their complexity and use them to make good decisions in instruction.

We certainly never intended that children focus on a label for themselves in choosing books in classroom libraries. Classroom libraries need to be inviting places where children are drawn to topics and genres and authors and illustrators that they love. And while students are choosing books that interest them, the teacher is there to help them learn how to make good choices so the books they select are ones that they can read and enjoy. If a child chooses a book that is too hard for them to read, they may stretch themselves and enjoy that book for a period of time. The teacher will be there to hold conferences with individual children to listen to them read and check on their understanding and help provide sensitive guidance to choices that each student will very much appreciate.

What is the best way, according to the research you’ve done and the expertise you have, to organize libraries? What are the best ways to help children become confident readers?

Libraries should engage readers and provide high-quality, high-interest, fascinating materials. A good library could be organized like a good bookstore—trying to sell books to readers. And the librarian is such a key person in the school in guiding students according to their interests, not their levels. The librarian may recommend books that are especially good for a particular age group or even for individual children that the literacy team is working with based on what they know about the books and the readers. We believe that choice is a really important part of going to the library and using the library. It’s at the heart of what it means to become a confident reader. If you have an opportunity to choose what you read, and then to talk about it with others, maybe to draw and write about it, it builds your sense of yourself as a reader and your self-efficacy as a reader. That’s where confidence really begins.

From left: Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, creators of one of the most widely used reading and leveling systems. Photo courtesy of Heinemann Publishing.

Do you think classroom libraries should be organized differently than general school libraries? How does independent reading fit into the overall approach to reading instruction and assessment?

For general school libraries, it’s great to see baskets of books organized by topics students may be studying in other areas of classroom instruction, like social studies or science. Teachers can also organize titles by genre or favorite authors or illustrators, or put together baskets of award-winning books or work by an author who may be visiting the school later that year. Our hope is that the way a school library is organized will create interest in students and entice them to want to read. Organizing books by level does not help students engage with books and pursue their own interests.

Independent reading is really the goal of all reading instruction. What children can do for themselves is what matters most, and they become more proficient in reading on their own by engaging and thinking and talking about books with others. By engaging with books across a whole variety of instructional contexts in the classroom, students practice living a literate life every day, which serves to build their own competencies and habits and attitudes about reading and about themselves as literate people.

How can educators communicate with parents and caregivers about a child’s reading progress without relying on levels?

Educators can talk with parents and caregivers in conferences and can share a book the child was reading at the beginning of the year vs. a book that the child is reading later in the year and talk through some of the text characteristics of each book so that parents can see that difficulty is increasing. It’s also important to use language that families understand. For example, “your child is reading at a level that is about what we would hope for at this point in time in this grade,” or “your child is reading beyond a level that is appropriate at this point in time in this grade” or “your child is not yet reading at a level that we would hope he would be reading at, but we are supporting your child in these ways,” etc.

Alongside talking about what a child is able to read independently and instructionally, teachers can also talk about a child’s engagement with reading: how many books the child has read, what his tastes are, whether the student is putting in a lot of effort or showing initiative. Of course, parents deserve to know how their children are progressing, but there are so many different aspects of reading progress and many different ways to communicate this in family conferences.

What would you say to district leaders who mandate the use of labeling books by level and restricting kids to reading on specific levels?

It’s important to try to have an open line of communication with district leaders about how best to serve students in the classroom and school communities. Most administrators we’ve worked with understand the harmful effects of sorting children into groups based on their abilities—labeling children in this way is detrimental to their self-esteem, their engagement, and, ultimately, their progress. Often, district leaders who mandate labeling books by level make those requirements because they may not understand the complexity behind a reading level. The truth is that children can read books on a wide variety of levels, and in fact, they experience many different levels of books across the day.

We would encourage teachers to share articles and ideas and invite administrators to learn more about what levels mean and how teachers use them in the classroom. We wrote an article called “Guided Reading: The Romance and the Reality,” which might be a nice way to open up a conversation between administrators and faculty thinking together about the role of levels in small-group instruction. Of course, the whole school community wants to do what they think is right for their students, and it’s easy to think that relying on levels alone is an answer—but it’s too simplistic and works against what we’re trying to achieve. We would never take a book out of a child’s hands. And when we restrict kids to reading on a specific level, we’re really restricting their opportunities. When teachers and administrators come together to define effective instruction, they take great strides toward creating the opportunities that children need to excel in schools.

Anything else you’d like to add to the leveling conversation?

Having a library is a treasure, and having a librarian is a gift. And when reading teachers, classroom teachers, specialists, and school librarians come together as a team, their collective knowledge about texts can help every child love to read independently, love to read in their classroom, and love to read at home.

 

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. I enjoyed reading this article and am giving it more thought. My first thought (which may not be my best thought), but I will share it for what it is worth. My first thought was, I was lucky to have a mother who never interfered or censored what I brought home from the library to read. She did comment occasionally that the books I had chosen might be too adult for me; so if I wanted to ask her about anything I did not understand I could always just ask. So, as an avid child reader, I read books both below and above my grade levels. I still read every day, at whatever grabs my attention. I still find writers whom I do not understand. I still find writers who totally disgust or confuse me. BUT, I will forever read. It is a skill I want ALL God’s children to accomplish.

    • Thanks Wilma!!!!!!! I feel the same way. My mom never censored what I read and nor did I censor my children. Especially when they tried to make a big deal out of Harry Potter!!!!! OMG! If we start changing the game of reading, we won’t have readers!!!!! That’s the problem now. Let the kids be free!!!!!

    • Zeke Edwards says:

      Yes, I agree with a majority of your comments.
      Whether a child is reading above/below their grade level (or a mixture of both), I think it is a win overall. If the subject is interesting, they will probably look up the meaning to words they don’t understand (at least that is what I did and still do).

    • Alice Watkins says:

      Yay! Wilma! Keep reading that way. I still do and I’m in my 50’s. Levels might help the beginning or frustrated reader, but interest has to be there as well.

  2. Happy to read this article, which has thrown light on how the school library shelf arrangment should be. This article is useful because i am reshaping my books collection and trying to arrange it exactly the same way it is mentioned here. Lot of work but satisfying.

  3. It’s nice to hear “It is our belief that levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards. That was certainly not our intention that levels be used in these ways.”
    The way they are used are so upsetting and frustrating especially when a child is into a book and a parent or teacher says no because of the letter level. I was a school librarian now a public librarian and I ALWAYS led children by interest not level. I basically ignore the level letter until a patron demands to know.

  4. Myra Zarnowski says:

    Thank you for this large dose of common sense. My undergraduate students are confused by the contradictions they see between what they learn in college and what they see in classrooms. We all need to clearly understand that choice is a central feature of independent reading and that our job as teachers is to help children make these choices. And thank you Irene Fountas and Gay Sue Pinnell for clarifying why you developed the F & P Text Level Gradient.

  5. Absolutely agree with interest driving book choice. If the book is too hard for a child to read independently , then parents can read WITH the child. My only addendum is that when a child is learning TO read, levels are important as it allows teachers to help children read books where they have SUCCESS as independent readers. Lexile ratings and PM levels, F&P levels means that for guided instructional reading…. readers are reading at a level independently where they will succeed. INTEREST dictates that readers should be able to choose leisure reading material without censure. My 6 yr old son was told he couldn’t get out a book from the school library because he couldn’t read it. Um. Hello. That’s what bedtime story time is all about!! Enjoyment listening to books. Not children phonetically deciding words!!

  6. Bonnie McReynolds says:

    When teaching my Library Media students, I always stress the importance of checking the reliability of sources. One of the concerns is whether an article is biased based on an agenda or personal profit. Regardless, any reading program OR reading placement can be done “right” or “wrong”. Leveling a student and informing others of a child’s level is unkind, and a breech of confidentiality. Our philosophy is to see where our students excel, where they struggle, and the level where they will obtain the most growth. One example – we had a student who continually surprised us with his high reading level as he quickly read through the Harry Potter series. Once I conferenced with his teacher and discussed his reading assessment, it became apparent that while his choices were impressive, he was acrually needing books at a much lower level. He was simply checking out the books, but not reading them. My role as a librarian is to encourage students where they are, and to provide a quality selection of materials on many reading levels. While our library’s collection is leveled, the books are arranged in a traditional library method. Many of our teachers encourage students to read a variety of texts, and allow a “free” book selection. Many times students are reminded that we want students to read what is appropriate for them to help them become a better reader where they are. While we would love for students to read for the love of it, many students need encouragement, motivation and reinforcement. I always refer to to the analogy that, while I love my job, I would not go to work each day if I wasn’t paid.

  7. Julie McCormack says:

    Excellent. Just excellent. Shared on social media, with our teachers, and with librarians in our district. Thank you for affirming what many of us already knew.

  8. Librarians have traditionally supported choice through readers’ advisory, long before the advent of your system. It would appear that your system is influencing school librarians in a negative way, likely through the administration of common core and assessment. If you feel strongly you could release something addressed specifically to administrators and teachers. With school libraries constantly subject to defunding and elimination, the librarians are likely doing what they think they must in order to survive. It would help the kids, who need to experience the same reading autonomy and self-determination that we ourselves expect.

  9. Darla Wallace says:

    This is an eye opener for me! Good article and will be making some changes in my room. I want my students to love reading and be great readers, but I now see how I have squelched that for the past two years that my district has had F&P BAS, leveled readers, and guided reading because leveling became so important. This article has certainly made me realize the changes that I need to make in my classroom and in my thinking about growing readers. I love learning from this community!

  10. Cassie Bentley says:

    When I worked in a school library and had a teacher insist on a certain reading level, I had the student also checkout a book of his/her interest. Satisfied both needs and I loved watching them take their time choosing.

    • Julie Mercer says:

      As a retired school librarian i can certainly relate to Cassie’s comment. I always let the students take multiple books our if their teacher insisted on interfering with their choices. We want to get them to read not make a chore of it.

  11. This post needs to be shouted from the rooftops! In my experience, the F/P leveling system has been used to do EXACTLY what Fountas and Pinnell themselves say should not be done.

  12. This is a struggle among staff in school district which uses Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study. Administration insists on labeling our libraries, saying that’s what Lucy recommends. Does anyone who has been to New York know if this is true?

    • Leeann Wille says:

      Yes, it is true. I’m using Lucy Calkins and having an internal battle about this topic. They are supposed to read “just right” leveled books for instruction. I’ve rationalized it that students may read based on interest for books not used for instruction, but for our lessons, they need to be at their instructional level to grow their reading ability.

  13. I was glad to hear that Fountas & Pinnell is not intended as a system of leveling children. I agree with Matt that schools that use this system should be made aware of this. As someone who works in a public library we are constantly asked for books at a specific level. The way the request is phrased is usually “my child is a level…”. When we provide books at the particular level, the response is usually disappointment and that the book is too young for the child. We try to steer them towards other books that interest the child. However there are always those parents who are rigid and insist that the school says books at a particular level are what the child is supposed to read. Children who are so restricted are not going to develop a love of reading.

  14. Administrators need to wake up and stop cow-towing to what the latest craze is. Yes, it’s good to know a child’s reading level,(and that’s what F & P does) but that’s where it ends. The job of the teacher is then to guide the child to books around their level, but most importantly expose them to books on topics the child is interested in. Never discourage when a child reads below or above their level. Don’t restrict children to their reading level. Leveled libraries are what’s going to turn off kids from reading. They should be exploring all the books on book shelves. Shame on any school district who just focusses on a reading level. This article is hopefully an eye opener to the many districts who don’t get what F & P is all about. Thank goodness F & P have said it themselves.

  15. For the past 5 years my district has been doing F & P. It is done once in September and a second time in February. The September evaluation gives a general starting point for the teacher (we don’t hold the student to the exact level, because we don’t want to turn them off, which could happen) and then in February to see how progress is going. We always send the results to the next year’s teacher. As September is a busy month in school, our reading teachers spend an entire day or two in each classroom and assist the teacher with F & P. It’s a system that works and the year can get off to a good start. What I like about this article is what many districts and teachers don’t get. It’s just a general level of the student. It’s not the “end-all” evaluation. It saddens me when I hear how F & P is being used and in some cases, how many times students are taking this evaluation throughout a school year. It is very time consuming and what happens is the other students are losing valuable instruction time. We learned this our first year and now with the help of our reading teachers spending up to two full days in our classrooms, they get done quickly and the year begins. (Please note we don’t start tF & P the first week of school. Children need to adjust coming back after being off.)

    • Great article. So many administrators and districts have no idea what P & F is all about it. Every administrator out there should read this article. Children are smart, years ago they all knew which group of kids were in the “bottom group” and here we are doing it again. You’re an “L”, You’re and “N”. They all know what letter is “higher” in the alphabet. Way to go teachers, making kids feeling bad about themselves.

    • Stacy….In my school, we are required to report each child’s reading level, using this system, on our data wall for our literacy specialist and administrator, every month! If letters aren’t changing enough over the months, we are expected to develop a plan for how to make it happen. Exhausting and not helpful for learning, in my opinion, especially with the time it takes away from instruction. It adds up. Further, I’ve seen countless books within individual levels that are vastly different in their level of challenge for readers. Because, as we know, the measures that are used to “level” books, F & P and others, could not possibly create a group of books, all with an accurate, even measure of difficulty.

      Giselle… I completely agree with you about making kids feel bad about themselves. Many teachers feel the way you do, but are required to assess the levels and use leveled texts to teach, no matter how gross some think that it is and would not do otherwise.

      • I am a teacher and agree that students should not be made to feel badly about themselves and labeling them a particular letter. I believe there is a way to use a leveling system without pigeon holing students. However, I would ask how students are able to develop as readers if they don’t have consistent access to books at their reading level. Of course we want students to have access to all kinds of texts but they also need plenty of time accessing books that they can practice the actual act of reading. Otherwise, how will they get better? I also hope teachers are using the F&P assessment to inform their instruction and not just administer it, get the level, and move on. I don’t believe that is the intent of their assessment.

  16. Meredith Wilkes says:

    This is a very interesting article. The teachers at my school are currently under debate about how the F&P level is the single largest factor in deciding a grade level on a report card. How was it decided that children should be reading at C level by the end of kindergarten to be considered to be at grade level, and so on. We are finding that the levels do not correspond with the gov’t program of studies. To read about how “Levels have no place… on report cards” supports our argument that they should not be considered when determining the report card marks. I am just curious about how this has happened.

    • Wow !!! So agreed. Putting a “Level” on a report card would be a disaster. Talk about “labeling” a child. Some administrators are out of control with this. It’s time they were “taught a lesson”.

  17. A great article, right from the horse’s mouths, so to speak. Wake up administrators !!!

  18. Lisa Sherman says:

    My preference is to use the level as a starting point for students to find something that is good for them. They use the “5 Finger Test” to see if the book is a Good Fit for them. I do put the levels on my books, but I show the kids how they differ; for example Graphic Novels have a low ATOS level and a very high F&P level. I tell them that the levels are like shoe sizes: just because the label says it is the right size doesn’t mean it is right for them and the “wrong” size is sometimes a better fit! I do have some teachers who have been very strict with the levels. I believe it is due to the AR quizzes that we used for years.

  19. Alice Watkins says:

    Great information! I would have been dragging my parents to school if Anyone tried to stop me from reading anything I wanted to read because even as a very young child I was an avid reader.

  20. The question is WHO IS THE READER…not WHAT IS THE LEVEL?

    Since 2009 ABookandHug.com has been dedicated to empowering teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to find a book that connects with who they are.

    I would argue that matching a book to a child is about figuring out how that child takes in information, how that child processes that information and how that child perceives the world.

    When you mirror those qualities of a child with the voice in a book, you have a winner. You create a reader.

    As a children’s librarian in a public library in Maryland, I saw family after family come into the library guided by the Fountas and Pinnell letter their child had been assigned. Other families came in with the Accelerated Reader level their child had to use.

    It’s time to take another look at children and stories. It’s time to give children stories they want to read.

    Please visit abookandahug.com and invite your readers to use our Reader Personality Assessments. They are great places to begin the wonderful journey into the wonder of story.

  21. Dr Jim Field says:

    I’d like to see Fountas and Pinnell take some responsibility for what their actions have produced. If someone does something and it has deleterious effects, even ones beyond their intentions, I think its incumbent upon them to try to make amends. How about sending some of the money they made, and I’ll bet it’s staggering, back to the places that “F& P-ed” their classrooms, libraries, and districts, to re-educate administrators, re-train teachers, re-do libraries, and rehabilitate children adversely effected?

  22. This leaves me very bewildered. In all I have read and studied about F & P since they first became known years ago, as well as Calkins’ work, this is the first time I have read or heard F & P say anything like this. I agree with the idea of letting kids read what interests them, but I have also run into the issue that fourth graders want to read what is popular, but the books are too hard and many kids can’t read or understand them. When I tactfully try to say this or steer kids in another direction after having them try to tell me about the book or read a page out loud, the kids get very upset.

  23. Carolyn McKnight says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you.
    Let’s keep supporting student selection to promote LOVE OF READING!

  24. Norman Eriksen says:

    The world of education has always been about the latest way to measure the “results” of the teacher and to show progress toward a “goal”. For those of us who are not in the classroom , we have to remember that education is now a data driven business that has to produce specific results.
    I am an adult services public librarian with an education background so I like to keep in touch with what is going on in the field.
    From what I see Levels etc. are an easy short cut to give books to children without really finding out what they like to read and what type of materials they can read. Parents are often told by teachers that this is the best way to get the “right” books in the hands of their children quickly and without much work on their part.
    Many times the staff in the young adult/childrens services division of my building have to remind adult services librarians that they should not automatically send children and teens to them for help without asking what the child needs just because they see a young person and not an adult in front of them. Some of my best interactions are with these library users since they often show a tremendous interest in what they are looking for and are willing to do the work to get the information they need.
    Back in the dark ages (1960’s) when I was in grammar school I had trouble with the librarians on the county bookmobile who kept trying to give me books they thought were for my age level and not my reading level( sixth grade fourth year college) and I had to keep “retraining” the new staff to understand what I wanted to read was very much different than what they kept trying to give me. My parents let me read anything I could get my hands, which resulted in a very wide range of interests across a wide cultural spectrum.
    Levels and other measuring tool have a purpose but we a librarians must make sure we are the gate way to the diverse and crazy world that we now live in but parents must become involved in what their children are learning in school.

  25. I would like to reference this article in a school assignment. How would I find the volume and page numbers for this article? Thank you.

  26. I agree with the premise of this article in many ways, but I think it doesn’t fully reflect all realities some schools face. I am the reading interventionist and librarian at a low-income urban school where over 50% of our students are reading significantly below grade level. For this type of school reality, reading levels become a significant measure we focus on as we work hard to change our current situation. Students need to practice reading at their current level using strategies taught in small groups. They can and should stretch themselves some, but not to the point where they are not getting anything out of it. Leaveling libraries and making students aware of their levels helps to hold them accountable to where they are and excites them to push themselves to master skills and grow their level. (Progress Monitoring must be done often to see how students are growing and meeting goal- important for teachers and students).

    Another factor is parent communication regarding reading levels. Parents need to be aware of where the students are currently performing, so they can work hard to help their students grow and reach the level that is expected for their grade. Many times parents are unaware if their students are behind or even how far behind they truly might be if teachers not have communicated the specifics with them.

    On the other hand, when you’re in a traditional school where are the majority of your students are performing on grade level, then the situation is different in how students choose books and how parents are communicated with. And in that case I think what I suggested in this article is perfectly appropriate. Students should not focus entirely on specific levels and instead should be directed to pick books that interest them and that they are able to read based off of their own measure. Parents should know if their student is performing on, above, or below grade level, but do not need as many specifics. I know firsthand in other experiences I’ve had how this can create a very competitive environment among parents as they push their students to be further and further above grade level. That’s not where we want the focus to be but rather in developing excellent readers who have a deep love of reading.

    That’s my food for thought.

  27. When I was a classroom teacher, my library was divided into themes like a bookstore. However, I also had leveled books with colored dots so students could chose from his/her “just right” basket. Students selected both types of books to read in class and for take-home reading. As someone stated above, the interest books could be the read-aloud with a skilled reader and the student takes he wheel reading the just right book. I agree school library system should not need leveled books, but I would hope the classroom offers these leveled books for students. In the public libraries however, it would be helpful for parents to have some leveled books. As skilled reading teachers or specialist we can look at a book and give an estimate on level and ability for a child…not so for a parent. I think we are overly sensitive to labeling students; these are just data points with goals. How can you reach your destination without a starting point and ending destination? Otherwise, you are driving in circles!

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