The appropriateness of age-appropriate reading levels

By Eric Neuman

Library media specialist Eric Neuman discusses the use of reading levels and how these may affect reading engagement.

As an educator, especially one who works with books and literacy, it feels taboo to not use or appreciate the value of reading levels, but we have chosen not to apply them in our library.

For those not familiar with what they are, reading levels are a measure used by teachers to see how well their students are reading. The most popular levelling programs assess students based on a mix of criteria: fluency, comprehension, the ability to use context clues, whether a student self-corrects, and so on. Depending on the program that the school uses, students are assigned a letter or number that indicates their reading level. The students are then expected to read texts at or around their level until they advance up the ranks and score beyond the limits of whatever program their school uses.

Over the past 12 years, I have had students come to me in the library asking where to find books at a certain level and my general reply is that our library is not levelled. I should note that when I was in a primary school setting, and had a large population of emerging readers, I did affix level stickers to certain books, but I have never sorted an entire school library according to any reading level system. My sentiment is shared by some and has opened some colourful discussions with others.

First and foremost, we don’t use reading levels in our library because there is no single standard for reading levels to adhere to, titles are rated differently across reading programs, and there can be large disparities in how a text is levelled (Schwanenflugel & Knapp 2017). The most basic form of text levelling is Lexile levelling, which is generated by an algorithm reflecting word complexity and sentence structure (Renaissance EdWords). Other levelling systems such as DRA, Guided Reading, and Accelerated Reader use a combination of word complexity and content to level texts (Manna nd).

According to Scholastic’s Teachers website, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck has a Lexile score of 630L, a DRA score of 70, and a Guided Reading level of Z. The Accelerated Reader website indicates that Of Mice and Men has an AR/ATOS score of 4.5. This means that the same text has been levelled somewhere between 2nd and 3rd grade level for one system, as high as 8th grade for another system, and somewhere in the middle of 4th grade for a third levelling system (Guided Reading Programs; Gaston County Schools).

My second reason for not levelling our library is that the world is not levelled. When you walk into a bookstore or browse online retailers, there isn’t an option to find titles by reading level. My local bookstore has a children’s section, a teen section, and an adult section. By design these sections are geared towards certain age groups based on subject matter and text complexity; they are not, however, broken down into 20 or 30 different levels. Also, by design, our current library contains titles that are geared towards the ages and interests of our students. Everything should be fair game to every kid; we don’t generally have books in our collection that are too easy or too difficult for our students. We keep a few far-reaching titles on hand for students that are exceptions to the rule, but most of our collection is centred around the kids who are browsing our shelves.

Stack of books

My final reason for not sorting out our library by reading level is because students should be free to read what they are interested in. I have seen children read texts that are supposed to be far beyond their level when they are motivated to do so; peer pressure, interesting topics, and intrinsic motivation can push a struggling reader to get through texts that might be more difficult. Conversely, I’ve seen high-scoring, adept readers struggle to read texts that they are not interested in or that they find to be too easy. Additionally, Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, two of the biggest names in reading levels, came forward and said, ‘Our hope is that the way a school library is organised will create interest in students and entice them to want to read. Organising books by level does not help students engage with books and pursue their own interests’ (Parrott 2017).

As with most things in the worlds of teaching and libraries, it comes down to what’s mandated by your school, and what your personal preference and teaching style are. So long as I’m not mandated to level our library, I have chosen not to do so.

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Eric Neuman

Eric Neuman

Library media specialist

New York, USA