Education Opinion

Readers Seek Their Own Level

By Donalyn Miller — November 04, 2008 2 min read
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It takes some of my students longer than others to fall in love with books, so it cheered me last week to see Bobby checking out all six books in Gordon Korman’s action-packed On the Run series. Bobby, a developing reader, has had a bit of trouble finding books that he enjoys. Sidling up to him, I said, “Wow, it seems like you are really making some reading plans. What interests you in reading On the Run? I know that a lot of kids in the class love it.”

Looking guilty, Bobby asked, “May I check out all of them? I know we are supposed to only check out three books at a time. I need to check out all of them before you change your mind.”

“Bobby, why would I change my mind?”

“Well, last year, at my old school, I read Chasing the Falconers (the first book), but my teacher would not let me read the next book because it had a red sticker and I was only supposed to read books with yellow stickers. I used my five fingers like you taught us and I think they are all ‘just right books’ for me. Please can I read them? Do you think I am a red sticker now?”

With tears in my eyes, I helped Bobby list all six of those books on his library card and carry them back to his desk. How sad that he defined himself by a reading level sticker instead of seeing himself as a reader with interests and the freedom and skill to choose his own books.

Determining the reading level of books is a valuable tool for teachers. By knowing the levels of the books in my class library and the reading ability of my students I can:

• determine a starting point for guided reading instruction

• make recommendations for independent reading

• develop text sets for thematic studies that include a gradient of difficulty

• compare books with the same author, topic, or genre

Slavish devotion to a reading level system has some innate problems for young readers, however:

• the same book can have different readability scores depending on the passage you choose to analyze or the method of leveling used

• the content of a book may not be age appropriate even when the reading level is

• text structure, unusual vocabulary, punctuation, or an unfamiliar topic can make a book harder to read

• reading books below reading level can still increase a reader’s background knowledge, reading rate, and fluency

• newer books may not appear on leveling lists for up to a year after publication

• student motivation is always a factor. Some students will read a more challenging book because they are interested in it. It follows that students, who are not motivated to read a book, won’t, even when the book is on their level.

While book leveling systems are a good idea in theory, the single-minded use of such systems at the expense of other assessments (or just common sense about books and kids) has the potential to prevent students from reading the books they want to read.

Teach students how to pick for themselves and allow them the opportunity to abandon a book that does not work. Ultimately, branding kids with a reading level label does not prepare them to choose books for themselves in the real world of bookstores and public libraries. Isn’t reading independence for all students our goal?

Bobby is now happily reading The Fugitive Factor, the same book he was barred from reading last year. Bottom line—knowing the predetermined level of a text does not replace knowing books or readers.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.