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Does leveled reading create life-long readers?

Leveled readers #3Imagine you’re in the library, looking for a new book to read. You see the covers and spines of many books with intriguing titles and related to topics about which you care deeply or desire to learn more. Your excitement mounts as you take in the seemingly boundless possibilities. But then, upon closer inspection, you realize that you’re only eligible to take out a thin sliver of those books – you see your reading level on a tag under just one measly shelf of the whole library. The librarian comes over, redirects you from the shelves where you found yourself drawn, and instructs you that you must choose to read a book from this special, just-right-for-you shelf. How motivated and excited do you feel about the book you’ll walk out of the library holding?

While the above exercise takes leveled reading theory to an extreme, the vision of this chopped-up library is not vastly different from many classrooms and libraries in elementary schools today. Well-meaning teachers act as this confining librarian, for the sake of making sure that students choose a book that will be a good fit for them. In many schools, students are required to read books from a slim basket that aligns with their reading level even during independent reading time. And as discussed in a previous post, the books in these baskets are all-too-frequently not the books that kids are jazzed-up to read.

Leveled reading programs argue that they respond to motivation theory, claiming that students will be motivated to be successful readers when they read books that are at their “just-right” level. While I agree that students need to grapple with text with which they can ultimately be successful (most of the time), I believe that students will be more motivated readers if they are empowered to be involved in determining what a “just right” book means for them. Three key ways in which leveled reading programs potentially undermine student motivation are the lack of autonomy and empowerment given to students regarding what books they will read, their lack of translation into the real-world. and their failure to account for student interest as a factor in reading ability.

The lack of autonomy granted to students to choose their own reading materials when using a leveled reading system runs counter to much research about motivation, which emphasizes that when students have “voice and choice” in what they do, their interest in what they are doing and their intrinsic drive to learn increases dramatically. While leveled reading baskets may contain what seems like a choice – students do get to choose from a variety of titles at their level – it is in many ways a false choice, as we still force the students to choose something of which we as educators approve and exercise control over. Even the youngest students are not fooled into thinking they have genuine “choice” when they see their peers able to select the books that they might be interested in reading.
Obviously students cannot simply read any book that they want, but they could certainly be granted the opportunity to arrive at the decision that a book is too challenging for them on their own terms. The unwillingness to allow students to make independent choices about their reading leads to disconnection from what it means to be a reader in the real world – a world in which, I, a proficient reader, had to look up eleven words in a short story I was reading the other day.

In life, students are not always going to be handed a piece of text at their ideal level and we leave them unprepared to make wise reading choices and to engage in productive struggle when we don’t teach them to select engaging texts related to their interests and that connect to their live or the skills for how to stick with a book, even when it may be very difficult. How will a student make a wise book selection if from his earliest days of schooling, he’s always been handed books or shown to a specific basket, assigned according to a letter or number that means very little when looking at the shelves of titles at a bookstore or library? How will she demonstrate perseverance if rather than being taught how to overcome reading challenges, she’s had a book taken away because it’s “too difficult?”

What qualifies as a “just-right” book can vary widely depending on a students’ interest level in what they’re reading, a fact not incorporated into calculations of a reading level. There is no “Did you like this book?” question that follows the scripted comprehension questions that can make or break a student’s ascension into a higher reading level, though it’s clear that the answer to that question likely impacts the outcome of that assessment. Last year, the importance of student interest in the text became clear to me when one of my weakest readers (or so I thought) lit up my reading group table when I let her choose a book well above her level but about a topic she genuinely cared about – marine animals. Suddenly, this student was demonstrating many of the reading skills I’d been unsuccessful at getting her to apply before. She was willing to work hard, to struggle to read the book, because she cared about what it had to say and believed the payoff would be worth it.

How many other students might be in the same boat if given a chance to make a genuine (but reasonable) choice about a text to read? When I was in the second grade, I had a steadfast desire to read Ella Enchanted, a chapter book that today would probably have been yanked out of my hands because it wasn’t at my level. But instead, what my teacher did was support me in my reading of this book. It took me months to read the text, but I stayed with it as my interest propelled me through the story, and I learned not only skills needed to be a proficient reader, but also that I could stick with and overcome a challenge. I trace this experience directly to my avid passion for reading and books.

As educators, we can take steps to help students develop passion for reading by supporting them as they make their own book choices, at the very least during independent reading time. In school environments where students’ autonomy is continuing to be reduced due to high-stakes assessments and scripted curriculum, we can take deliberate action to make sure that they have at least some reading experiences that are not undermined or defined by labels put on students’ abilities that do not translate to the real world. If we all aspire to create lifelong readers, we must take steps to structure our reading instruction so that it reflects what actually leads to increased motivation and engagement.

A great follow-up article to this post that I highly recommend is “How to Create Nonreaders” by Alfie Kohn, available at


Part of a four-part series on leveled reading.
You can find the others here.

Nicole Hewes
Nicole Hewes
Nicole Hewes is currently serving as an impact manager at a public elementary school with City Year New Hampshire. She previously taught second grade in rural Maine for two years and received an M.Ed in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
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Nicole Hewes

Thanks for sharing this story, Meg. Your story of interest sparking a love of reading connects with what I've seen happen in my classroom. Your library patrons are lucky to have you!

Posted : Jul 28, 2016 03:59

Meg Diskin

Your story of reading Ella Enchanted struck a chord with me. As a public library employee, I've told patrons the story countless times about how my daughter, at the end of first grade, was barely able to read Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad. But after listening to the first three Harry Potter books as audio books, she wanted to tackle reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by herself. She began at page one, and painstakingly sounded out each word. It would take her a good bit of time just to get through a page, let alone a chapter. But, by the time she finished reading that book in midsummer, she had become a fluent reader. She went on to read the rest of the series, and became of voracious reader of fantasy novels. Those novels fueled her friendships, interests, and her own writing. Had I told her to stick with Frog and Toad, she would possibly be a very different person than she is today. So, I encourage patrons to allow their children to check out books above, or below, their reading levels if that is what interests the them (along with some so-called "just right" books if they want). It's free; why not take a chance and possibly spark a lifetime of reading?

Posted : Jul 27, 2016 01:22


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