Last fall, when we still had teacher candidates out in schools, there was a classroom I visited that had a sign on the front door that said, “Everyone is a reader, but some just haven’t found the right book yet.” It immediately caught my attention and put a smile on my face whenever I was in that building and saw it. I love not only the idea of everyone thinking of themselves as a reader but having a lifelong love for it.

But then I got to thinking, “How do we help readers find the “right” book? And what does the “right” book even mean?” If you ask five different teachers, you might get five different answers. 

In recent years, book leveling has become the way that so many people have decided is the “right” way to match kids and books.  And there’s no shortage of leveling programs out there–Lexile, F & P, DRA, the list goes on and on.  

But here’s the thing: 

  • Book levels don’t take into consideration student interest or background knowledge
  • There are as many ways to level books as there are books (not quite, but it sure feels that way sometimes)
  • Paying too much attention to book levels might narrow the choices so much that students won’t be able to find that “perfect book” that makes them love to read

In this blog post, I’m breaking down when using leveled books is appropriate and when it isn’t. 

The best part?

It’s a pretty simple formula any teacher can implement.  

Using leveled texts has been advocated by the likes of such big reading names as Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell (they have their own system to level books that is very widely used) and Marie Clay for use in Reading Recovery (one of the biggest reading intervention programs ever).  Guided reading sessions and intervention times are two widely used examples of when leveled texts are often appropriately used. 

Many schools do a form of reading incentive plan such as Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts.  They may also participate in outside programs like Book-It.  All of these programs are geared to help encourage reading and, hopefully, to develop lifelong readers.  When testing in AR or Reading Counts, students are often asked to read within the level of books that have been determined best for them by assessment.  This is when we can get into a gray area.  

Yes, students will likely be more successful at passing quizzes when the readability of a book is within a certain range.  However, is passing a quiz the greatest determiner of love of reading? I think not.  Usually, students who are already voracious readers will be the ones who amass the most points.  I saw this time and time again when I was in the classroom. Those that find reading more challenging (for whatever reason) likely won’t all of sudden become proficient and successful readers because they are required to earn a certain number of points. Yes, for some kids, this will be an incentive, but for many others, the opposite is true.  

How do I manage mandated programs and building a love of reading?

This can be tricky, but as a general rule, if you are mandated to use a certain program, I’m not the one to tell you to buck the system.  Only you can decide exactly how programs like Book-It or AR are used in your classroom.  What I can tell you is that using leveled text should be like broccoli.  Sure, you might need it sometimes to make healthy choices, but it doesn’t mean that you can never have a chocolate chip cookie again.  Students should be allowed to read books that are of interest to them the majority of the time whether it is within their assigned level or not. 

Other factors to consider…

When deciding whether or not to use leveled readers there are other factors to consider.

  1. Is there an educational purpose for limiting the range of books offered? (essentially what you are doing if you are asking students to read only within a certain level) 
  2. If you are asking students to read a leveled book, are there enough options that they will also find one on a topic that interests them?
  3. If you are asking students to read a leveled book, are there enough options that they will also find one that reflects their funds of knowledge?

The surest way to get kids to hate reading is to answer no to any of these questions.

I believe that the only way students will love reading is if they have choice and control over what they read–at least the majority of the time.  Yes, we have determined that (like broccoli) there is a valid reason for using leveled readers.  It is when we OVERUSE them that we run into trouble. We must also be careful to not refer to students as a certain level.  Remember, we level BOOKS, not CHILDREN. This is another mistake I see teachers make all too often, and if I am being totally honest, have done myself.  Once I thought about what I was truly saying though, I realized how demoralizing that sounded and stopped immediately.  

I know this post might seem like a lot of doom and gloom, but the good news is, that while this is the sure-fire way to make students hate reading, there are many more ways to help them LOVE reading.  Be sure to check back here often as I share my favorite ways to encourage a lifelong love of reading for all. Until then, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you use leveled readers? What place do they have in your classroom? Until next time, happy teaching!