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.”
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.