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.