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

Creators of a widely used reading and book leveling system say their system is intended as a tool for educators—not as a means of labeling or restricting reading choices for students.

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.


Photo from Wikipedia Commons, user Mr. Absurd.

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? 

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.  

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Oh come on! How can F & P really say that they never intended for the child to be labeled by their book level? One of their books is called Matching Books to Readers. Is it that much of a leap to assume that once you’ve matched a book level to the child’s ability, that a teacher would not then use that child’s level to inform her instruction & how she groups children? Even the authors state in the interview that “ ...we created the Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) as a systematic, standardized way to determine where children are along that progression of competencies.” (Or - my words - at what book level they can read.) “When we have this kind of data about our students, we can use that information to guide our teaching decision and provide materials ( my words - books) for students that offer the appropriate amount of challenge.” (or - my words- “since Johnny can read a level F book, I should let Johnny choose books at that level b/c I know he can understand them. Hence, Johnny is a level F book reader!) F & P certainly didn’t complain when charts were printed saying at what level students should be reading at. They really didn’t think that teacher-parents weren’t going to ask THEIR child’s teacher what book level they were reading at. Come on!!! F&P need to take some responsibility for students being assigned a reading level. Did they truly not know that this was happening all over the country?Please! They only developed the (BAS) because the DRA reading assessment was making a ton of money from school districts by providing teachers an easier way to administer running records. Teachers discovered that once you could determine a student’s DRA level, it was easy to match a student to F&P’s book levels. They even made money charging teachers to have access to their leveled book lists. Follow the money!! I was a disciple of F&P, bought all their books, and created centers. That was until I realized nothing in their “Guided Reading” approach truly worked for the dyslexic student! Don’t be fooled by this interview. It is because of F&P’s Guided Reading approach that many, many, language impaired students failed to get the correct instruction and 1000’s of teachers were duped into thinking that this was the best way to help students learn to read. Be Angry!!

Posted : Apr 28, 2018 05:17


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!

Posted : Dec 07, 2017 12:05


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.

Posted : Dec 02, 2017 08:48


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.

Posted : Nov 27, 2017 09:08

Norman Eriksen

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.

Posted : Nov 09, 2017 01:47

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