To Level or Not to Level?

You may have heard differing schools of thought about leveling your classroom library…or not leveling it.  This is a personal decision you’ll have to make.  In this post, I hope to shed some light on this big topic so you will better understand whether you should level books or not.

First, some history.

Researchers Adria Klein and Diane DeFord, contributors to the book Beyond Leveled Books:  Supporting Early and Transitional Readers in Grades K-5, share how leveled books came about.  They explain:

The idea of leveling texts goes way, way back–to the 1800’s with the McGuffey readers.  Then, in the 1950’s and 60’s, good old Dick and Jane were introduced.  I’m certain you’ve met them, and understand why we aren’t still hanging out together, cute as they may be.  

The 80’s and early 90’s brought us the polar opposite direction, whole language (which is NOT balanced literacy, btw!).  Basal readers were another big trend around this same time.  These one size fits all approaches, we learned, were also a big mistake.  

In the United States, researcher Marie Clay’s work was just becoming widely practiced around this same time.  Her Reading Recovery work was (and still is) grounded in the philosophy that teachers should build literacy instruction around what the child can control already, then push them forward in small increments, remaining within their ZPD.   In order to teach in this way, there became a big need for tightly leveled, little books for children to read.  

Fountas and Pinnell came to the forefront in the mid-to late 90’s and remained strong for a very long time.  All of their work is based on Clay’s work, and they did a great deal to help us understand, in fine detail,  the different text characteristics of the gradient of text levels.  They did this so that we, as teachers, could choose books for students that would act as both an anchor to what is known and a scaffold for what is not yet under control–things we want to teach.  They did this for teachers to understand what books would best support a group of students in a particular moment in time, so that we could instruct.  They did not ever intend for teachers to use those levels to label or limit students.  

In their blog post titled “A Level is a Teacher’s Tool, NOT a Child’s Label,” this is very clearly spelled out.

One section of their blog post stands out to me:  

Levels can be a resource for you and your colleagues to guide student choices for independent reading, but they should not be a limitation or a requirement. Leveled books are instructional tools for teachers who understand them—nothing more. Above all else, a level is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label.

So, what does this mean for your classroom library set up?

Think about the line from Fountas and Pinnell’s blog that I’ve highlighted above.  First and foremost, this means learning where your students are as readers.  Think about what you know about children who typically come to you at the beginning of the year and the kinds of things they are able to confidently read and can talk about and what they enjoy.  Look at any previous data your school might provide about your students.  For example, if I’m a second grade teacher and I already know that many of my kids ended first grade reading around a level J, I’m going to be sure to pull out my Piggie and Elephants, Henry and Mudge, and Fly Guy books.  I’ll want to have lots of books around an H/I/J level, as well as a few Ks and Ls.  Those boxes of long chapter books will not come out quite yet.  Those will wait until later in the year, when my kids are more ready.  

For now, I’ll put out the books I know kids can read independently and that they’ll love, because that’s going to build their confidence, stamina, and engagement.  

So should you level books or not?

I agree with Fountas and Pinnell that kids should have no idea what “level” they are.  Most especially, neither should their parents.   Kids and their parents should understand what kinds of books, in terms of interest, background knowledge, length, complexity, and picture support for comprehension are best fits.  

 But I also know that every classroom is going to have a huge range of ability levels, and I know that there are hundreds upon hundreds of books in a strong classroom library.  It would be overwhelming to students to choose without any direction, and we need to be sure that kids were choosing books that they could read independently, with confidence, enjoyment, and strong comprehension. This is one of the biggest ways we can support our readers.

Arranging Books

For that reason, I take my cue from Tony Stead (from his book Good Choice!  Supporting Independent Reading and Response) and Lucy Calkins, and I think in terms of level bands.  I still wouldn’t label anything with levels, and I never have. Instead, I group similar books together–like G/H/I and J/K.  This was roughly 40-50% of my K-2 library, (and not at all done in my 4th grade library).  The bins would simply be labeled with a color–I always used those colored garage sale dots.  The levels were not visible at all. Every book within a particular bin also had a colored dot on it, and I was mindful of including all kinds of topics and genres within these baskets.  I had a red dot books basket, orange, green, etc.  When I taught my students how to shop for books, they had this support in place.  I required a certain number of “dot books,” and a much smaller number of “other” books.  The “other” books were separated by author, genre, and topic, much like any book store would do.  

In this way, I was able to guide them toward just-right books.  I knew each basket would have some easier books, some books that would slightly push them, and plenty that were in that Goldilocks zone.  I was also easily able to steer them toward the next level as I saw that they were ready for it.  

Be Flexible

Did my red dot book kids sometimes want to reach for the much more difficult orange dots?  Absolutely.  And that’s where I seized the teachable moment to test out a couple of orange dot books to help kids think about–for themselves–whether or not it was a good fit and why.  9/10 times, they came to realize why it wasn’t, and decided for themselves that they would be better off practicing with books at the current stage for a little longer–and then move on.  That remaining 1%–I let them.  After too much struggle, even that child always came to realize what would be a best fit and what wouldn’t, but by allowing them to learn that on their own, I didn’t squash their motivation.  In fact, it often increased, because now that child had an intrinsic goal to work toward!  And just as often, because motivation was so high, that book wasn’t such a stretch after all.

Conversely, sometimes, of course, my higher level kids would want to read books that were way too easy for them.  I 100% allowed this, but kept a very close eye on it.  Way too easy reading couldn’t be their only reading all the time.  Classroom independent reading time is precious, and it cannot be squandered. After all, I knew that the time spent reading during school might very well be my students’ only time reading.   Again, these were always wonderful opportunities to seize the teachable moment.  

Reading for enjoyment means just that–so if kids want to read some things that are easy for them but they love it, I will not stand in their way.  

This system shifted tremendously as I moved up grade levels, to where by the time I taught fourth grade, I no longer needed any system other than genre and topic separation, but was even more guided by students’ interests.  

The Bottom Line

At any age, when you ask a child what they’re like as a reader, they should light up and respond with kinds of books, genres, topics, and authors they like.  

The word “level” should not even cross their mind…because, in the wise words of Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, “a level is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label.”  

I’m curious…what are your thoughts on how a classroom library should be set up?  I’d love to hear your ideas!

Could you use a thinking partner to help solve your literacy puzzles? Contact me to set up a coaching call, so we can think it through together!   And,  join my private FB group for immediate support from like-minded educators!

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Related posts: Setting Up Your Classroom Library, The Secret to Setting Up Your Library for Maximum Student Impact

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