Guided Reading and the Leveled Library

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 11.40.32 AMMy principal wants me to level our school library. What’s the best way to do this?

I see this question way more often than I should. I want to share my views on why leveling isn’t the answer to any academic woe. Before I start, I do understand the reasons to level a library. I just don’t think they are any good. I understand how intense pressure from administrators can be for increased test scores and programs (like AR) in which they’ve invested a boatload of money. With that said, the rest is my thoughtful opinion on the why it’s not a good idea to level any library.

The number one argument I hear in support of leveled libraries (classroom and the main one) is that children become better readers when they read in a range close to their current reading levels. Why do we even have levels? For years, we had readers (at grade level) and trade books. While it’s true they were simpler for younger grades and more complex for older ones, they were not leveled.

Levels were developed as an analytical tool to help teachers in reading instruction. In addition, multiple leveling devices are available, and no two place books with exactly the same criteria. I’m not sure when or how the shift was made to leveling everything in which children come in contact. But Fountas and Pinnell have clearly stated that students and their parents should not even know what levels students are at, much less use that level as a guide for books outside of reading instruction. It was never intended as a guide for book arrangement. F&P state that libraries should be arranged by genre or topic, not by level. (See here  – leveling class libraries, and here – leveling libraries.) In addition, the American Association of Libraries has stated that the adding of leveled labels restricts access to the wealth of materials that should be available to everyone. This is basic intellectual freedom. It’s not anyone’s business what I choose to read or why I choose to read it. Of course parents should be involved in this process with elementary children, but I should never see a child saddened because the book he/she wants is not at the his/her level, much less hear teachers (and at times students) instructing children that a book is not appropriate for check out due to it’s difficulty or lack there of.

Fewer people read like they used to, so students aren’t seeing reading modeled the way it was in generations past. Why is this? The main culprit way too many things vie for our attention. I don’t read like I used to. Not only is there a full slate of channel choices on cable, but I also have Netflix, Amazon, and the internet. I read on my tablet a lot. If a text comes through. I see it, I hear it, I answer it. Before I know it, I’ve stopped reading, and I’ve moved on to something else. The answer to this problem is to limit the distractions themselves. We need to teach children how to do this.

But there is  also the leveling itself. IMHO, leveling everything has aided increasing numbers of students who can’t/don;t read. Instead of choosing something they’d like to read. They have to check that it’s on the correct level (or in a range of levels) first. Oh but, the book he wants is not at his level. Too bad! Read this one instead. Sorry it’s not what you want.

The school library concept should be built around choice. The place itself should be designed to help children find something they want to read. When I go to the library, I may well browse for a book that looks interesting. I may browse in a specific section because I have a hankering to read about the Romanovs or pre-colonial America or confirm or refute something I read on facebook. I may want to read about an animal and can’t decide which one, so I start meandering around in the animals and end up in the biomes, but the choice is mine.  Even when I’m writing a paper, I’m free to choose and discard resources as I see fit. If one is too difficult for me, and it’s what I want, then I struggle with it. If it’s too easy, well, I scan it quickly for pertinent information and move on.

In the elementary school there is a large range of reading skills. That means in the elementary library there are materials in a large range of reading levels – board books to some at the middle school level. How do students know which ones work for them? We learn skills to determine if a book is a good fit (like the five-finger rule), but there are other (and IMHO, more important) factors involved. Is the book about something that interests me? Do I have someone who can help me read it if it’s way too hard? Does the topic interest me enough that it’s worth the struggle even if I have help?

A 5th grader who wants to read a princess book. Most of those are picture books. Can a 5th grader check out a picture book? Of course! If a 2nd grader wants to read about wrestlers (Oh, Mrs. Griffin! Here’s one about John Cena!), and it’s written at at 4th grade level, what’s the child to do? Check it out and enjoy it!

School libraries exist to support the school curriculum. That’s a valuable function they serve. BUT they also exist so children can grow in a love of reading. That will only happen with choice – choice that is dictated by nothing more than interest.

This leads me to another reason children can’t/don’t read. They don’t like it. They don’t like it because it’s no fun. Reading is always work. It almost always comes with stipulations and barriers. There is little choice. There are unrealistic expectations (like it must have so many pages). They aren’t allowed time to read for pleasure and just set the book down and leave it. They aren’t allowed time to explore genres on their own or talk with their friends about what they are reading. Reading comes with a cost, and they don’t like the pressure. They are caught in a vicious cycle. I don’t like to read because it’s not enjoyable, I can’t read because I don’t read. I don’t like to read because I can’t read.

The good news is there is an easy fix to this – return leveling to it’s proper place as an instructional tool, and let children choose books they’d like to read!


Want to know more? Here are some good books on the subject (all available on Amazon):

  • No more reading for junk
  • The book whisperer
  • Reading in the wild
  • Readicide 

Fountas and Pinnell have a great website where they share a blog and a discussion group.

Read the AASL position statement on leveling.


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