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.

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

  1. Thank you for this post. My son is in a similar situation and coincidentally at Level J. After his reading a book he loved last week, I flipped it over and saw that it was a K. He was amazed with himself. Also, when reading any non-fiction regarding animals, he’s able to read at a higher level. I’d be interested in hearing how you move forward.

    • Stephanie,
      Thanks so much for your comment.
      Your observation about your son’s “reading levels” is so consistent with what research shows about all readers — we can read much more sophisticated texts when we’re (a) interested in the material and (b) already know a lot about the content. I’d guess that your son is really excited about animal books — which is probably also connected to a high level of knowledge. Plus, he may have come to understand the structures of non-fiction texts — which also helps readers to understand them. So, as you’ve observed, it’s most likely that Level J readers can read at many different levels, depending on interest and

      For us, the key at home was to emphasize that the idea of “level” is sort of a made up idea — and that all readers, moms and dads included, read at many different levels based on many different factors. We talked about what good readers do — that they explore the images and try to understand the story using those images, they make guesses about what will happen based on what they have understood so far, but also based on their understanding of story/informational text structures and the conventions of the genre, they ask questions as they read to make sure they have understood what they read. We also emphasized that reading fast does not necessarily mean reading well. If readers understand what they’re reading, they should vary their pacing accordingly.

      Here in Michigan, the summer reading season is now upon us 🙂 My daughter has just finished the second grade and she is reading much more confidently — but she hasn’t yet made the leap to reading short chapter books independently at home. We’ll be looking for texts of any type — informational, narrative, graphic etc. — that she’s excited to read. Because, just as you’ve observed, excitement really is the key to persistence when the text is a little bit challenging 🙂

  2. I think you pose an interesting dilemma. We also use a leveling system for reading for our students. We would never want to stifle a child’s passion for reading, but we also want to be sure the child is thoroughly reading a grasping the text at a deeper level before rushing off to the next level. Sometimes, students can feel as if it’s a “race to Z” to get through as many levels as possible. Reading is so much more than simply being able to decode the words. We want students to connect with the author an understand the text, deeper levels of comprehension, etc. The risk we often run into is that as children reach more complex levels of text, especially in early elementary, the content often becomes inappropriate. Higher level texts are often written for Middle School and have topics in them that would be inappropriate for a 6 year old to be reading about. Students should certainly have choice in their book selections though, perhaps a wide selection of level J book she can choose from would be helpful. I suspect your conversation with the teacher will be really helpful.

    • Dear elsparto — thank you so much for your comments and response to this post. Your comment raises some really important questions for teachers. I wonder, for instance, to what extent the “rushing to level Z” is a response to the discourse of levelling in the first place? Would children rush to level Z if there were no levels for them to “conquer” or “achieve”? I don’t know the answer…but I think your points about the complexities of reading, and encouraging children to engage deeply with texts that they want to read is where our focus ought to be. My daughter is now in grade 3. She continues to talk about the colour of her ‘dot’ and the color of dot that other kids in the class are able to read. I’m less concerned about my daughter coming to define herself as a “blue dot reader” now because she seems to have actually internalized her mother’s insistence on a broader definition of herself as a reader. And yet, I do worry about the kids who, as she notes, “are still orange dot readers…” and do not receive– whether at home or at school — support that would enable them to build broader definitions of themselves as readers. I agree that finding books that children can read, and that enable them to feel confident and accomplished, is absolutely critical. I guess my only hope is that children grow up in classrooms that honour what they DO know and frame reading development as a continuum of growth through which everyone moves as their own pace.

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