Kids are Readers [Not Letters]

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where what was being talked about was way nearly incomprehensible to you? For me, it’s hearing my husband on a call with one of his sales team members. He works for a large food company, and his role is to negotiate sales. The acronyms and terms he uses so fluently with his sales team are akin to the “alphabet soup” that we teachers use–I have no idea what he’s talking about on his sales calls just like he’d never understand what’s going on in an IEP meeting. For both of us, the profession-specific terminology we each understand deeply and easily is lost on the other person.

Even in our own field, there are terms that are so often confused by teachers, especially those that are new to the profession. IEP, 504, modification, accommodation, SIC, PLC, BLT, RTI, MTSS, ESL, ML, ESOL, guided reading, strategy groups, shared reading, read aloud, interactive read aloud….and on and on. Not to mention all the terms every state uses that are specific to their end of year assessments! It’s like a whole other language we have to learn, and we have to learn them pretty deeply to really understand how they work.

Book leveling is a whole language all by itself.

Entire books have been written about this for decades. There is a ton of nuance to the early levels, and big considerations for every level. It’s sooooo much more than a mathematical formula, which is why Lexile levels are so problematic.

As Jennifer Serravallo teaches us in her recent Understanding Texts & Readers, and as Scarborough’s Rope explained decades ago, there are many factors to think about when considering what books to use for instruction. Things like background knowledge, vocabulary, length, maturity level regarding themes and concepts, culture, and genre are just some of the things that make a book more or less complex. Leveling is difficult, and can get a little muddy.

To make it even harder…

Because background knowledge and interest play such critical roles in reading, a child might be able to read books considered above their independent level with little difficulty, and conversely might find books that are an easier level to be a challenge.

Even more difficult–every publisher has a varied level of difficulty within a level, so some books will be easier and some will be harder, even at the same level. AND students, especially at the earlier levels, move through them quickly, so where you instruct them in mid-September will be quite different from where you instruct them a month later.

In a previous post I wrote about whether or not we should level our classroom libraries (the answer may surprise you) and why kids should not identify themselves with a level. I also point you straight to the horse’s mouth, where Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell themselves urge teachers not to share levels with students. That’s not my point here.

In this post, my point is that leveling is tricky, and as teachers, we need to really understand what they mean–and really understand our students so that we can make the best instructional choices to support them.

It’s a lot.

And it takes a well-versed teacher to wade through it all.

Serravallo’s book is a fabulous resource for helping teachers understand levels from J and up, and I highly recommend it (no, I’m not an affiliate marketer). For an even deeper dive, and for learning what’s involved in levels below J, I cannot recommend Fountas & Pinnell’s Continuum of Literacy Learning enough.

Now put yourself in a parent’s shoes.

When teachers tell parents that their child is a level (regardless of the system your district uses), it means nothing. So they will look to make their own meaning…they’ll perhaps compare their child to a sibling when they were that age, or compare their child to their relatives’ or neighbors’ kids. Maybe they’ve seen an F & P reading level chart of some sort that shows the increase in levels, so then all they understand is that higher is better–but they have zero idea what’s involved in getting there.

Nor do they have any idea about ZPD, so they also don’t know how high is too high.

So they go home and push their child to “move up levels.” They ask you to send books home that are higher level, or for book recommendations at higher levels. They do a Pinterest search on “popular level ____ books” and order a whole bunch of them. Or they go out and buy the whole Diary of a Wimpy Kid (level S/T, btw) or Harry Potter (V/W) series for their first or second grader.

Parents equate levels with grades, because that’s all they know. In their mind, low levels = bad, high levels = good. Parents so desperately want their kids to succeed, they’ll do whatever they think needs to be done to give their kids an edge. As a parent myself, I totally get that. But they know NOTHING about what makes a level a level, and even less about what it takes to teach their child what it takes to be able to handle a new level.

Teachers: please don’t share levels with parents!

Instead, teach them where their child is, and where you want them to go. Show them how to find appropriate books that will support them as readers.

Show parents a few books that are at their child’s independent level, and compare them to a few that are their instructional level range. Explain to them what the difference is, what skills and strategies their child is able to do independently, and what they’re working on. Let them know what challenges texts at the instructional level poses, and share ways they can support their child at home in reaching the same goals you’re working on at school.

Depending on the level, you might even show them a book or two that is the goal for a few months from now, and share a bit about the bigger challenges in those books that the books their kids are working with now will prepare them for.

Physically showing parents what books look like that best support their developing reader gives them the information they need in order to best support their child at home. It eliminates the need for them to make their own meaning of “level ___,” and it drastically cuts down their inclination to compete with other children.

In essence, you’re clearly teaching parents what you’re teaching their child. You’re showing them where their child is, helping them make sense of it, and sharing ways to support them as they grow into stronger readers. You’re guiding them to be a partner in their child’s learning, which of course is the goal.

SO much more helpful than telling a parent “your child is reading on a level ___.”

If my husband would only have explained to me from the get-go that “DC” means distribution center, “P & L” is a profit and loss statement, and “GSV” is the gross sales volume, those overheard calls would have made so much more sense!

Want some help figuring out how to share your goals for students’ reading with parents without naming levels? 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: To Level or Not to Level, Setting Up a Classroom Library, Getting the Most from Your Reading Assessments, Getting to Know Your Readers and Writers to Save Time Later

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