Leveled Texts in My Daughter’s Classroom

Last evening, I met with my daughter’s teacher. I was worried about the ways that my little one has come to identify herself as a “leveled” reader — as in “I’m a level I reader, Mom, so I don’t read level M books”.   At home, she has told me, “I can’t read those words, they’re too hard,” and “I don’t want to read. I can’t do it,” and “This book is NOT at my level.”  The reading comprehension researcher in me can’t help but find this troubling…so it was time to ask questions,  listen and share my concerns with her teacher.

Now, to be fair, my daughter has become a more fluent oral reader since the start of Grade 1. She started the year at a level C. Now, she’s a level I. She knows more words. She’s reading. She’s improving. She seems to have developed essential foundational skills that we know correlate with reading comprehension performance in later grades. And, her teacher is, without question, incredibly committed to supporting my daughter’s growth. So what’s the big deal? What is there complain about, really?

Two things, actually. First, the focus on levels in my daughter’s classroom has lead her to believe that good reading = fast reading and knowing all of the words. She told me so herself, last night when I asked her to describe a good reader. Second, I worry that the use of levels is limiting my daughter’s definitions of herself as a reader and creating, in her, a very narrow framework for understanding her own growth and learning. Is she only to feel proud of her reading accomplishments when she “moves up a level?” Certainly, moving up a level is cause for celebration in the classroom…everyone seems to know what level everyone else is at. They’re encouraged to say “good job” when they know a peer has “moved up”.

It seems that most of the books in the classroom have been sorted by level. Even if the books are trade books — regular children’s literature books that one might buy at a book store — the teacher has organized them by level of difficulty in boxes. She does allow kids to choose from among certain of these books during “read-to-self” time but her focus on steering kids toward books that are “just right” has eclipsed another important aspect of supporting early readers — opportunities to engage in many different ways  with texts at multiple levels and genres. I know that the teacher would wholeheartedly agree with this idea but in an effort to ensure kids look at the words and are able to decode them, she has forgotten that early readers also benefit from interactions with texts that are beautiful and just plain interesting.

Informational texts have only just been introduced. I’m happy they’ve been introduced at all — but the notion that the introduction of informational texts should wait until kids can adequately decode is problematic for me because even non-readers can extract information from the images and come to understand text structures before they’re able to decode the words.

This might sound like a criticism of my daughter’s teacher. It isn’t meant to be. As I noted above, she’s wonderful. That said, teachers can only be as good as the systems that support them. There is no librarian in the building with whom my daughter’s teacher can liaise.  There is no professional learning network in my daughter’s school focusing on best instructional practices to support emergent literacy development. And perhaps most importantly, my daughter’s teacher is held accountable for the reading levels her students achieve. So, that’s it. If she’s expected to get all of her students to a level “I” by the end of the school year, then leveled books are going to be a central aspect of her language arts curriculum.

I do have some questions for the school district, however. Where is the curriculum leadership? Who is helping teachers think critically about their pedagogical choices? Who is encouraging them to take risks, to introduce new and innovative ideas, to not think about testing for a while? Who is telling them that leveled readers should be ancillary rather than central to the language arts curriculum?

Hmmm…I guess it’s time to make an appointment with the Superintendent.

I’m a level “J” so I can’t read level “K” books…

My daughter is in the first grade and she is learning to read. Until the first grade, I would have characterized her as more interested in the pictures  than the text (like most kids are) but with a keen interest in decoding words. She has always demonstrated a voracious appetite for narrative and informational texts alike and my husband and I have fed her on a diet of rich and varied high-interests books, websites and magazines. Print — in traditional and digital forms — surrounds her at home. She sees us reading almost constantly (I am a doctoral student after all; my husband is a professor of history…) and we make a big deal about almost anything related to reading.

Over the past couple of months, however, I have heard her say things such as, “I was tested again this week and I moved up a level” and “I’m a level J reader, Mom, I can’t read level K books” and “This book is NOT at my level. I can’t read it,” and most dishearteningly,  “I don’t want to read those words, they’re too hard.”

image from: http://www.primaryconcepts.com/bookcarts/leveled-rdg-book-browser-cart-13.asp

When I ask my daughter about what she’s reading at school, she tells me she is given books to read that are at her level. The books show up in her book box. She doesn’t have any input, it seems, into what books she reads. She reports no choice in the matter — she just reads what she is given. So, it will come as no surprise to my colleagues who study reading motivation  (Selena Protacio and Laura Jimenez) that my 6-year old is not exactly feeling the love when it comes to reading these days. John Guthrie’s work tells me that motivation to read is a key determinant of reading success; it’s a major determinant of future reading comprehension proficiency; it will define, in part, the type of reader she will become. And, as work by Jo Worthy and so many others (including John Dewey) has shown us, when kids get to choose what they read, they’re more excited to read.

My other concern is with this notion of leveling as a way to determine and label reading development. My daughter’s school uses the Reading A-Z program. Children read “leveled books” specially designed to scaffold their fluency over time. Without a doubt, fluency is a fundamental reading skill. My problem with the way this program is being implemented stems from the simple view that fluency = reading in my daughter’s school. There doesn’t seem to be an understanding that fluency changes in response to text genre and structure, a child’s background knowledge of the topic, and, importantly, a child’s motivation to read a particular book. Moreover, this overwhelming focus on fluency as children learn to read means there is less focus on comprehension. If kids get the impression early on that reading quickly is what matters most, should we be surprised to find that many children are poorly prepared to construct meaning from texts in the 3rd and 4th grades?

My amazing colleague, Paul Morsink, dug up these quote for me from authors Fountas and Pinnell who have authored leveled reading programs.

“The gradient [of books organized according to the difficulty level] is neither a precise sequence of texts that everyone must read nor a reading ‘program.’ Gradient levels are not intended to function as ‘labels’ for individual readers. In fact, classroom collections are to be organized around topics, themes, genres, and authors rather than by levels. The text gradient is designed to be a flexible tool to help the teacher choose texts for reading instruction. …. [Children] are not expected to read every book on a level. [There] is no ‘order’ to the books at any given level. Students making fast progress will skip levels.” (p. 95)

“We do not recommend organizing students’ independent reading around leveled texts; it’s more important for your students to learn to use a range of criteria for selecting books for themselves. You don’t want them to see themselves as limited to a level” (p. 103).

It seems that the authors’ intentions for these programs get muddied on implementation in real classrooms — and perhaps, even more so, in school districts with limited resources and very limited classroom library collections.

Tonight, I’m meeting with my daughter’s teacher to talk over my worries. I’ll listen first, and ask questions. I’m hoping we might find some solutions together. I’ll post about our conversation next time.

Pinnell, G. S., & Fountas, I. (2002). Leveled books for readers, grades 3-6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.