Reading Levels Unfairly Label Learners, Say Critics. And Then There's the Research.

Debates over leveling focus on how to best teach reading versus how to foster passionate readers who choose their own books. How did we get here?




When Tim Shanahan, a leading literacy and reading expert, taught first grade, he used the leveled reading approach with his students. Shanahan has devoted his career to literacy and was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in 2007. As his stature rose, he became a vocal critic of leveled reading. What changed?

Among other factors, while researching aspects of reading effectiveness, Shanahan discovered that a key study used to promote the benefits of having children read books within their prescribed reading level contained data that was not backed up by direct evidence.

Shanahan detailed his findings in a paper that was part of the 1983 book Reading Research Revisited and has used more recent data to challenge many of the assumptions of leveled reading benefits.

It was Emmett Betts’s 1946 textbook, Foundations of Reading Instruction, that first put forth the idea that students made the biggest gains by reading materials at their level.

Betts, an influential authority on reading, spent his professional life in academia, writing more than 1,300 papers on aspects of education and reading. The theory cited in Betts’s book came from a doctoral dissertation written by one of his students. When Shanahan tracked down that 1942 dissertation, he found that it “provided no direct evidence for instruction level text matching,” he says. Shanahan published an abbreviated version of the 1942 study in Reading Research Revisited.

Leveled reading has been supported by myriad other studies since 1942, and the methods are deeply entrenched.

One of the most widely used metrics is the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) system. Irene C. Fountas, director of the Center for Reading Recovery in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University, and Gay Su Pinnell, professor emerita in the School of Teaching and Learning at Ohio State University, created the popular A–Z gradient for the publisher Heinemann. Many schools use it to match students with books.

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

The system matches letter grades to students from kindergarten to eighth grade. Most grades cover three different letters, such as books labeled Q, R, and S for fourth graders, but kindergarten (4) and first grade (6) have more levels. The highest level is Z+, for high school and beyond.

Critics say that such systems, along with the Accelerated Reader (AR) scale and Lexile levels, snuff curiosity and label children. Amid the debates about leveled reading, including numerous comments on SLJ’s article “Thinking Outside the Bin” by SLJ reviews and production director Kiera Parrott, Fountas and Pinnell spoke up two years ago to say that their system was created to level books, not to label readers and limit what they can read.

Today, points of debate focus on how to best teach reading versus how to “grow” a reader who not only likes reading but can choose their own books. How did we get here?

Matching students with “just right” books has been the “basic way of doing business for a long time,” Shanahan says. The general premise of leveled reading is that kids learn the most when they understand more than about 95 percent of a text’s words and score more than 75 to 80 percent on reading comprehension.

“I was trained to do that, and I did that,” Shanahan says, adding that he taught this method as a college professor. But problems he encountered gnawed at him—until he traced the justification for the practice back to the 1942 study.

Publishers had embraced the leveled approach, creating guided reading series targeted to the educator market and parents. But even books that aren’t part of a series can be assigned a level. For instance, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is ranked at 880 on the Lexile level, is assigned 12 points in the AR program, and ranks as V in the F&P system. What does all this mean? Roughly, that the book is good for readers at a fifth or sixth grade reading level.


Inconsistent rankings

Part of the appeal of matching readers to books on their level is that it seems like common sense, a Goldilocks fit. Students don’t get frustrated, and they are also more challenged than they would be by a book below their level.

It also makes things easy: Teachers and parents don’t need to know all about a book or a student’s likes to suggest a match.

But the very reasons that this system is popular today are cited by opponents as weaknesses. A half dozen different formulas could give you a range of two to three years for one book, says Mary Keeling, president of the American Association of School Librarians. “It’s not precise.”

While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is ranked about the same in the three methods above, leveling other books can vary much more widely. Twilight is 720L in Lexile, putting it on a second or third grade level. But its F&P grade is Z+, meaning it’s best for high school students. Meanwhile, AR’s ranking for the text is 4.9, meaning that it’s nearly fifth grade level. Smile, Raina Telgemeier’s phenomenally popular graphic memoir, ranges from grades two to five through eight, depending on the ranking system.

Not only are reading levels not measured consistently, but due to so many subjective factors, there’s no way to make these determinations better, says literacy expert Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer.

In addition, if adults don’t take into account a student’s passion and knowledge in an area, they can miss the chance to give a student a challenging book about, say, baking or skateboarding. “Even within a reading level, there’s so many factors that go into ability,” says Cheryl Wolf, librarian at the Neighborhood School and S.T.A.R. Academy in New York City.

The biggest argument against leveled reading, made by Miller and other experts, is that the system has moved from ranking books to labeling students. On her blog, Miller describes seeing kids at the library wearing tags stating what range of books they can check out. “This is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s level,” she says. It also limits the opportunity to browse widely. “When kids come from schools that are highly leveled, they don’t know how to choose a book.”


Ongoing debates

With the old research discredited, other studies are filling the gap of how best to match readers with books. One is Alisa Morgan’s work, published online in The Journal of Educational Research in 2010, that randomly put second graders in one of three groups: reading on grade level, reading two grades above their level, or reading four grades above their level.

After a period of time, that research showed, students reading on their instructional level learned less than those reading two levels above, according to Shanahan. Future studies, mostly with elementary students, backed up this finding.

Another issue with leveling, Shanahan adds, is that the system leaves some students short of where they should be when they graduate high school. “Literacy demands have gone up. Sending kids out with the same level we used to isn’t enough.”

But findings from recent studies can take time to filter into the actions of school administrators, teachers, and librarians, he says. “The research is very solid behind what I’m saying, but it’s an uphill fight because [leveled reading] is so entrenched.”

Another common complaint is that students can get pigeonholed with a certain reading score for too long, robbing them of the ability to move to more difficult books as the school year progresses and their reading ability rises.

“Reading the same level book [for one school year] is educational malpractice,” says Paula J. Schwanenflugel, coauthor of The Psychology of Reading. “An observant teacher won’t let that happen.”

In addition, students have a lot to gain by reading books above or below their assigned level. Reading a book above their level may require more interaction with a teacher or librarian who can support, scaffold, and explain a book as the student progresses. In today’s world of larger class sizes and librarian cutbacks, this time is harder to find for reading teachers.

Miller notes that students reading below their level can gain valuable reading skills, such as increasing their speed, fluency, and ability to chunk words. Karen Yingling, librarian at Blendon Middle School in Westerville, OH, says that one summer her third grade daughter, who was five grade levels ahead of her age group, spent the summer reading HarperCollins’s “I Can Read!” books for hours on end. When she returned to school in the fall, her reading level had increased.


Creative solutions

Despite the heated rhetoric about this topic, there is some middle ground. As Yingling says, “Leveling is an educational tool. It can be used well or used poorly.”

Shanahan says research makes it clear that kindergartners and first graders shouldn’t be reading books that are harder than their ability, especially when reading is mostly about decoding words. “I’m a little protective of beginners,” he says, but even by second grade, he says, schools “are holding students back for bad reasons.”

Yingling says using Renaissance’s Star Reading test helps her understand how children, including her own, are comprehending what they read. “If they can’t understand their book and they are in fifth grade, pick a fourth grade level book,” she says. Yingling says she doesn’t pay attention to books’ levels when helping stronger readers.

Wolf runs a library shared by two schools in New York City. While she understands that leveled reading is useful for teachers, she knows her library exists to support individual reading and choice for pre-K to fifth grade students. To balance this gap, she created her own system, adding color-coded stickers to books instead of making separate fiction categories. While students don’t notice the stickers, she says, the system helps her guide readers without limiting them.

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

If librarians face pressure to level their collection against their wishes, Miller recommends that they say, “Here’s the research informing my decision to not level the school library. I know you want research-based practices in the school.”

Miller points out that administrator leaders making the request often don’t have research to counter their arguments. Librarians can find articles or a policy statement from the American Library Association to back up their claims, she adds.

Shanahan invokes an athletic comparison when offering advice. Top runners don’t train at one level, he says: They take long runs, fast but shorter runs, and also can lift weights to build specific muscles. Variety should be the key for readers, too. “Kids should read a wide range of texts, and libraries can help,” he says. “They should read easy books to things that kick their butt. The variation of difficulty does matter.”

Wayne D’Orio wrote SLJ’s January cover story on school boards. 

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Catherine Lynch

I appreciate Wayne D’Orio and the discussion centered around leveled books. As a Special Education Teacher, teaching students phonics who are 2 years behind, my job is to teach them first the sound/letter correspondence needed to read the letters, sounding out letters into words, building through explicit instruction- the structure of words. It's incremental and sequential. And controlled. My issue then, in the schools where I have taught, where balanced literacy with F & P is the reading program, is that I am continually stymied in attempting to find decodable text within the school. My 2nd grade students are told to read books at B, C or D level. Yet none of these books start with closed syllables of three or four letters. There is no beginning place for these students. The first page usually includes words with "vowel teams" such as "believe" or words with "gh" in the middle. They are told to memorize word lists in order to move on to the next level. But with 1/5 students struggling with dyslexia or a language based disability, I long for a school that will help young students learn to read through a reading system using decodable texts. Stop the nonsense with the 100 or 200 word sight word list and teach explicit instruction in reading and spelling. Once the student has mastered the beginning levels he is able to soar. Kindly consider the needs of all students by offering controlled texts- in addition to the leveled texts.

Posted : Apr 11, 2020 07:11

Kathryn Hopson

Levelled readers and the creating of levelled reader books is a large business. As a librarian working in schools I see collections with separate collections of levelled readers. What happens it becomes a competition between students ‘I’m on level 8’ - So what I’m on level 18! It becomes harder for lower students to achieve and so a deep profound hate for reading begins. The love of literature and appreciation of an authors words are lost in these ‘levelled reader books. The simplified text and frankly boring writing doesn’t lead to a love of literature. The creators of readers know that schools will buy levels in bulk- a publishers dream and a great income. While quality books cost a good school library a great deal more. Readers are great for years Prep to year 3 and struggling readers. When a student becomes proficient at reading them choices are vital! Appreciation and a love of reading that will last a life time has to be carefully taught from a very young age. We know that a students diet just on fast food is unhealthy, a diet of simplified readers for years is also unhealthy.
Kathryn Hopson MIT LIS

Posted : Mar 02, 2020 05:00

Deb Kelly

Articles like this show that the researchers are not in the classroom. From my years of teaching reading, teachers use the levels as a tool and certainly allow students to read from higher-level books. Lower-level books too. Most teachers use a balanced approach. I am not going to tell a student they cannot read a book either above or below their level if it's a book of interest to them. I will, however, monitor them and make sure they are also reading other books closer to their level. Also, a balanced literacy approach allows teachers to include higher-level texts in an appropriate manner, with guidance. I'm wondering why we don't take some lessons from successful countries like Finland, instead of trying to race our children to the top. Reading is not a race or a level. It's a guided process with a human being. On another note, the school that has students wearing tags to the library stating what level book they can check out is NOT the norm and that is a problem with the school, not reading instruction itself.

Posted : Feb 07, 2020 03:40

Hana B

I work in a public library system and the local school system uses the Accelerated Reader program. So I get many parents coming in looking for books at specific levels because they have been told by their child's teacher to look for that level. The kids read the books and then take the tests at school that check comprehension. So the teachers may not be intending to limit the variety of what a child is reading, but nevertheless many well intentioned parents come in a don't want to 'waste time' reading something that is outside the level they were told to look for. Additionally, they are often annoyed that we don't have an easy way for them to find the level they want ("Where are your 4th grade books?"). I try to persuade parents that letting children have a say in what they are reading for fun is important but I can tell I am often disregarded.

Posted : Feb 10, 2020 10:04

Brittany E

I also work in a public library where I face the same situation. Maybe within the classroom, teachers are not intending to limit by level, but the reality is that most of the children and parents I encounter will only take books from a specific level and do not listen when I try to explain the importance or reading at all levels. If teachers insist on using leveled reading, they need to better explain to families that their children do not need to only read within their level.

Posted : Feb 19, 2020 04:36

Teacher A

The AR program uses the STAR test to give students a specific "ZPD" which tells them the range of book levels they should be reading. I'm not doubting your personal experience with how it has been implemented, but the system absolutely intends to limit students to an upper limit of text complexity.

Posted : Feb 20, 2020 03:49



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