But First, a Trip Through Years Past.
A leveled library, organized from A-K.
Letters written on bright stickers — front cover.
“Moving on up!” notes for kids to bring home after each independent running record.
Or worse, no notes to bring home. Like a failed swim test. “We’ll practice more and try again next time!”
“Now that you are reading level F books, here are the things we’re going to work on,” conferences.
“Oh, you’re still shopping from the C bin? I used to read those books at the beginning of first grade.”
“My mom says I should be reading level J books. She wants you to assess me.”
“I’m at a higher reading level than you now.”
I’ll Just Take the Letters Away and Everything Will Change
Letters turned to colored dots.
C bin became “Blue dot” bin.
Bins shuffled out of order. Now they’ll never know!
Nothing changed but the label they found on their book bag card.
“I’m a blue dot reader now!”
“Orange is higher than yellow because I used to read yellow.”
The green bin (filled with little books that had one line of print) shoppers couldn’t help but notice their friends peruse the Henry and Mudge bin.
…as I sorted through the piles of papers left behind from last year, I found my end of year reflection. My eyes were drawn to a sentence scribbled on the back:
This is the first year that no kids talked about reading levels.
Not only that, but:
It was the first year that every kid identified as a reader and felt confident reading any book.
It was the first year that I did not hear: “That book is too hard for me.”
It was the first year that I didn’t have a parent tell me their child feels less than their peers.
It was the first year that kids chose what and were they read and who to read with during independent reading time.
It was the first year that kids had access to every book in our library.
It was the year in which I had most success with kids closely approaching, meeting, and exceeding benchmarks. In fact, 33% more kids met and exceeded benchmarks than the previous year. This isn’t to say there weren’t other factors — there always are behind any score. However, it’s worth noting that overall proficiency did not drop when kids were not confined to shopping from, or identifying with a reading level. The fact that overall proficiency was higher is worth further thought, not to mention improved reading behaviors, such as engagement and reading identity, that were not included in the assessment, but were instrumental in kids’ success.
It was the first year that I shifted my focus from the number of independent books kids had in their book bags to the number of books kids had that they were highly engaged in. Kids took ownership of their book bags, and with that, they soared.
I’m not here to convince you to that reading levels are intended as a tool for educators to drive instruction. Experts before me have already done so much better and with more research than I have to provide.
My intention is to share a beliefs-perspective on reading levels and changes I made in my practice that led to a result I think we can all agree on — to bring an end to the competitive nature that reading is turning into.
Grounded in Beliefs
Before making any shift to practice, or jumping on any educational bandwagon, we can make sure to understand the principles behind it. What does this decision say about my beliefs about kids and their rights?
You’ve heard it before from me: Kids are capable. My most simple, most important, most referred-to belief.
In the context of reading levels:
- Kids are capable of reading many kinds of books. When the books are too easy or too hard, they are still practicing reading behaviors. There are many entry points to access books beyond decoding.
- Kids are capable of selecting and engaging in books they are interested in, curious about, and love.
- Kids have the right to read every book that is included in the classroom library.
No Kids Talked About Reading Levels Last Year, and There Are Two Simple Reasons Why:
- Kids had access to the entire library.
- Kids were not told they had a reading level.
Here’s an excerpt from an email I send to families about interpreting reading levels on progress reports:
How Do You Organize Your Library Without Reading Levels?
- At the beginning of the year, the majority of our library was comprised of picture books. I began with predictable interest topics and series, and grew more categories with kids as we learned about each other.
- I slowly added leveled books to the library, in another section, which connected to a current unit of study. As we studied pattern books (levels A-C), I added pattern books to practice with. As we began decoding work, I added more challenging level C and D books. Throughout the year, the books in our leveled library matched the text span that most of the class was reading. For most kids, this meant the library had their independent level and instructional level. I made intentional choices about which books I added, but to the kids, they were simply exciting new books to try out our important work with.
- The leveled books can be organized together as a community. My class made the categories based on type of book: Story Books, Animal Books, Teaching Books. They also made categories based on author/publisher (since the books look the same and often feature the same characters): Brand New Reader books, Handprint books, Rigby books, Biscuit books, Tiny books.
How Do Kids Shop For Books Without Reading Levels?
This is by no means the only way, but here’s what worked for us:
- Kids shopped for books in small groups, based on my knowledge of their independent reading levels. This gave me an opportunity to bring out a couple of new bins of books for them to shop from (in addition to the rest of the leveled library), if they were reading far above or far below the majority of the class. “I thought you might be interested in these series/non-fiction books since we have been reading similar books in our clubs.”
- They picked 7-8 books from the leveled library (which we referred to as different names based on our unit of study — ex. Star books, pattern books, super power books, avid reader books). Kids pick an additional 2-3 picture books, which were on the opposite end of the library. If they really wanted 1-2 more of either, great!
How Do You Make Sure Kids Have Books They Can Read?
- Let’s take a step back to remember that there are many ways to read. Especially in primary classrooms, reading is primarily a meaning-making practice. Kids can make meaning from pictures. Just because we focus on emergent reading in the beginning of kindergarten, doesn’t mean its proven benefits to language development and more challenging comprehension work stop there.
- Kids can have a shared reading folder/notebook in their book bags, which include all of the poems, songs, and photocopies of shared reading texts the class has studied together. Kids across the span of all reading levels love paging through this each day. Since they have memorized them, they can read them by memory (while practicing 1:1 matching) or by decoding.
- Lots and lots of guided reading, partner guided reading (where strategic partners are assigned), small group shared reading, and strategy groups means lots of new books. Especially in the earliest levels, kids can get multiple new books in one session.
- Carry leveled books around during conferences. Give kids or partners a quick book introduction and coach them through the beginning of the book. Say, “I just found this book and thought you’d love it because… Let’s try it together!” Kids keep the new book in their book bags after. This works well with multiple copies as well, because friends nearby will want to join in — bonus!
- By the time kids bring their book bags home, they have a variety of high-interest books that their grown-ups can read to them and many books that they can read by themselves.
What If Kids Aren’t Reading Books At Their Independent Level For the Whole Independent Reading Time?
- Look for what they are doing rather than focusing on what they are not. With this, and responsive decision-making, we can see opportunities for meaningful instruction.
- If a book is a bit too challenging, respond with a coaching conference, similar to a 1:1 guided reading.
- If a reader is engaged in a book below their independent reading level, it is an opportunity to practice fluency or comprehension.
- If a reader is engaged in a book far too challenging, work on strategies for reading the pictures, such as thinking about what the author is trying to teach in a diagram or what the characters are doing and saying.
- If you’re concerned that a reader or group of readers have spent too long on a day reading books that are beyond their independent reading level, engage them in a guided or shared reading session.
My Books Are Already Leveled. What If Kids Notice Them?
Mine are too. I have far more beneficial things to do with prep time than spend hours peeling stickers off.
Will kids notice them? Yes. It’s bound to happen.
Validate the noticing, redirect to a different focus, and move on quickly.
|“There’s a letter D on this book!”||“That’s true, there is a letter D on it. Oh, look, there’s the title. It’s called…”|
|“This book is a level E.”||“Yep, and it’s a story about….where the characters will do lots of talking. Let’s take a peek.”|
|“Why is there a G/Level 2/Beginning Reader/etc. on my book?”||“Sometimes the publisher puts information on books that grown-ups use. They don’t really mean anything to us as readers, because they don’t help us understand what the book is about, like the rest of the information on the cover. Let’s check those other details out.”|
|“My teacher last year/my grown-up over the summer told me I am a level_ reader.”||“That’s interesting! I can’t wait to learn what kind of reader you will be this year. A reader who likes to read non-fiction books? A reader who likes to read mysteries? A reader who can’t put down Elephant and Piggie books?|
No Kids Talked About Reading Levels Because They Didn’t Need To
Instead, they talked about books. They talked about themselves as readers. They knew the kinds of books they loved. They knew when books felt easy, and they celebrated that. They knew when books felt tricky, and they attempted them with persistence. They set goals for themselves as readers — not to get to level I, not to read higher than their brother or sister or best friend, but to read every single Worm book, to sound more like their favorite characters, to use more reading super powers to tackle tricky words, to point to every single word on the page, to learn more snap words. Kids knew what they were working on as readers, and it wasn’t to become independent at a new level. Kids knew they were readers of many, many books. Readers of their library, the whole thing.