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

Leveled reading systems are popular in many school districts but are they doing more harm than good?

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.”

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Terri Harding

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.

Posted : Oct 14, 2017 11:12


Mary Zdrojewski

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.

Posted : Oct 13, 2017 06:25


Megan Brevard

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

Posted : Oct 06, 2017 07:12


Elementary Teacher

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...

Posted : Sep 13, 2017 12:23

Dan Hotchkins

While I agree with the idea of encouraging students to read outside their comfort zone, I would be very careful in my encouragement. While I understand the analogy you are making (re: your participation in book clubs), you have probably been an avid reader and book nerd for your whole life! In other words, you know how to take risks in reading, and sometimes you take them. When dealing with small children who aren't necessarily as avid a read as you, I would think we'd have to be very careful with the firmness of our suggestions to them. It's unlikely that anyone could ever say anything to you about your reading choices that would cause you to stop reading altogether; for these students, however, if we push too hard, they might abandon reading before they've even been able to give it a chance.

Posted : Sep 13, 2017 12:23


Sarah Aloise

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.

Posted : Sep 13, 2017 07:29


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