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>What’s the difference between confidence and fluency?

>Commenter Zolah passed along this story about a proposed scheme in the U.K. to label children’s books by “reading age.” Let’s hope the Brits don’t try to bring this one into Boston Harbor. The organizers claim that children will not be put off by having their books belly-branded with “early, “developing,” “confident,” or “fluent,” but I know I would. And who will be assigning the designations and by what criteria: will individual publishers make their best guesses (there goes “for all ages”) or will a central Authority feed all the books through a Lexile machine?

What I’d mostly like to know is what the presence of these labels is supposed to do. The article calls the idea “an important breakthrough in children’s literacy,” but how?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Thank (Deity of Your Choice)! I am not alone in thinking this is a barmy idea…

    Zoe Marriott

  2. >This is the worst idea I’ve ever heard. I’m stunned by it.
    What on earth could they be thinking?

  3. >Roger, the US already has this.
    It sounds as if they’re trying to catch up with US publishers — who use some of the same designations for their various stages of early readers.

    If only they would all use the same criteria. Some publishers label their books A, B, and C. Others use Early beginner books, Beginner books, etc. I think that Harper uses numbers and has 4 levels for their “I can Read” books — or is it 5?

    And then the teachers — What’s a Chapter Book? Why do you send your students into the library for a “chapter book.”
    When they ask me (a librarian), I show them Frog and Toad in the Early Readers, Magic Tree House in the transitional readers and Harry Potter for those who want more chapters. Not to mention, Adult books with Chapters. Which ‘chapter book’ type does the teacher mean?

    That’s not really a way to judge reading level, yet teachers insist their students read Chapter Books. When we librarians know that a good Picture book has a higher reading level — after all it was written for adults to read to children.

    I could go on — but I’ll stop now.
    -a children’s librarian

  4. >The UK has a long tradition of labelling books by reading age. The Puffin books always had advice in the inside covers. There was a series of books which had dragons in the right hand corner of the front page and the colour of the dragon told you how hard the book was.

    This is not new, nor is there any “catch up” with the US market.

    Me: I’m a subversive. I think a child will happily struggle with a difficult book if it interests them.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >It’s true here that easy readers and early chapter books often have elaborate and frequently inscrutable levels plastered onto or into them; what’s new here seems to be the application of this idea across the whole of children’s books.

    The idea seems to be that more parents will buy more books (imo, a leap) and thus raise literacy levels (a BIG leap).

  6. Ariel Zeitlin Cooke says:

    >Roger, I recently realized all over again how silly it is to put ages on books. My 7-year-old, who had a lot of trouble learning to read initially, recently catapulted up several levels because she just had to finish Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I realize parents need shorthand to choose books but in many cases it’s really passion that makes a book work for a kid. Or not.

  7. >The numbering and lettering systems that the children’s librarian mentioned above are for books for beginning readers– that makes some sense to me, because the maturity level of the content is pretty consistent. These age bands make no sense at all because they don’t seem to have anything to do with content. Most age ranges I have seen used on US books suggest that say, a book for 13 and up might have material that isn’t appropriate for an 8 year old, no matter how well she reads.

    Of course, if you don’t have “fluent” readers until they get to high school, I’d say the education system has more problems than just the labels on the back of books.

  8. >The letters scheme (Fountas-Pinnell, if I’m spelling right) goes through 5th grade at least, they use it at my child’s elementary school. And it does cover “all” books, if you can figure out what the appropriate letter is–most publishers just seem to write “ages 8-12” and don’t include the nifty letter/number schemes (this is hardly the only scheme for rating books that goes beyond early readers!).

    Most bookstores are already doing this basic scheme they’re talking about–you have the picture books, the early readers, the “chapter” books (another form of early reader!), the childrens, the young-adult & the teen books. So why would this help an adult trying to purchase a book? You’d STILL need to know the interests of the child & their approximate reading skill!

    Oh, and the method for choosing an “just right” book is roughly this: open to a page in the middle. Read the page. As you read, count the words you don’t know or have trouble with. If you get above 5, it’s too hard, if you get too few, it may be too easy. Naturally, this falls apart on books with small numbers of words per page, but it’s a metric the child themselves can apply, which is what I like about it!

  9. >Yes, anon. I always thought that the reason books weren’t labeled with exacting detail was because you could open them and look inside, unlike some toy packages. When Naomi Wolf (name right?) of the NYT had a fit about the Gossip Girls, she suggested labeling them because of their explicit content, to warn parents. Much as I said about fluency above, if you have people too clueless to be able to tell if a book is appropriate for their child, you have a problem far bigger than labels.

  10. >I’m waiting for publishers to start putting the Accelerated Reader (AR) reading levels on the covers of books. If you’re not familiar with this reading program, a child is assigned a reading level (3.0-3.9) and can only read books that fall in that level for points – after reading the book, the child takes an online test and if they pass, they get the points. Points are added up over a grading period to reach their goal.

    As a children’s librarian, there is nothing that bothers me more than a parent saying, “Put that book back. It’s not on your level.” Even if the book is interesting to a child, they are not allowed to read it because it’s not ‘on their level’ — even if it’s ABOVE their level!!

    On the flip side, I helped a 5th grader last spring who had a very high reading level (10.0 +) – and you wouldn’t believe the books he had to choose from….Macbeth is the only one I can remember offhand, but they were ALL inappropriate for a 5th grader.

    Talk about killing the joy of reading!

  11. Elaine Magliaro says:

    >A lot of this labeling of books came about when many schools stopped using basal readers to teach children reading. Teachers were encouraged to use “trade” books in the classroom instead.

    Because most trade books, didn’t have controlled vocabulary–or teacher’s guides with coordinated phonics and skill lessons, educators began developing lists of books suggested for different reading levels. Some individuals even compiled lists of children’s books suggested for use when teaching specific phonetic sounds–such as long a or short e.
    Teachers began writing curriculum guides to go along with books they were reading with their students in the classroom. (Some publishers followed suit.)

    So it was that we came full circle with the basalization of children’s literature.

    There is an excellent article by Natalie Babbitt entitled “Protecting Children’s Literature” that was included in the third edition of ONLY CONNECT: READINGS ON CHILDREN’S LITERATURE. The article had originally appeared in the November/December 1990 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Natalie’s article is required reading for the students in my children’s literature course.

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