The following is a guest post by Lisa Palmieri, who is a reading specialist at #Cantiague Elementary. Lisa's passion for reading instruction has permeated our school community and her knowledge makes her an incredible resource for our teachers. In this post she reflects on how leveling might be having a negative impact on our readers...
Reading Levels Hit Home...
My son Dean is a struggling reader. This is so hard for me, as you might imagine, as a reading specialist and a parent. So, when Dean and his friend, Brenden, were sitting in the 3rd row of my minivan talking about books, I turned down the radio and listened carefully. It was a crushing conversation. Dean proudly announced, “I moved up to H and I! What are you Brenden?” Brenden casually said, “Oh, I’m M and N.” Dean processed this and seemed to move on with the conversation. When we got out of the minivan, the boys played for all of 5 minutes before Dean was practically beating-up Brenden. Brenden went home. I apologized to his mom. On the car ride home, Dean was upset. After some time we spoke and of course, the root of the problem was the reading levels. Dean was upset that his friend was at a higher level. It’s that simple. And, I understood.
The conversation between Dean and Brenden is not uncommon. I wonder how his reading level was communicated to him, and it got me thinking about the message we are conveying to our students. His classroom teacher administered the F&P Benchmark Assessment. The only piece of the conversation Dean recalled about the testing session was his letter and that he went up. In Dean’s classroom the library only has leveled book bins. Each book is clearly labeled with the letter on the cover, and Dean’s independent book baggie is see-through. Everyone knows his level and he knows everybody else’s level.
Are Reading Levels Good? Bad?
I have a love-hate relationship with student reading levels. I love that I get a snap-shot of a student’s reading abilities and can plan accordingly. This is the heart and soul of my job. I love them and need them. The feelings of “hate” surface when students identify themselves by their letter. “I am ______.” (Fill in any letter of the alphabet.) I know this is a common feeling among many of us. I have spoken with educators and parents who feel the same way.
The A to Z guided reading level is a useful tool that teachers use to assess, instruct, and evaluate students. It provides important data for the teacher. It can be very useful when planning our teaching points and selecting books. But reading levels can easily be mishandled and misunderstood by our children, and even well-intentioned parents. Our children may use them as a way to identify and compare themselves. It can create a divide between students or a pecking order, and that can play out on the field, the classroom, back of a minivan or anywhere. It can be hurtful and damaging to their self-esteem.
Our goal as teachers is to teach students to read and hopefully to love reading or as Pernille Ripp said, “To hate it a little less.” A reading level derived from reading assessments is meant to help the teacher plan lessons. The level, despite its value, does not help a child develop a love for reading. The levels never did and never will. This has been an age-old struggle. I still remember being in the Blue Jay reading group when I was in elementary school, and I certainly knew who was a Red Robin!
Let's Focus On Books... Not Levels!
I wish I could talk to Dean’s teacher about his feelings, and the controversy and competition unintentionally created when schools identify students in this way. I would prefer if she talked to Dean about how to select a book that matches his abilities. What are the book characteristics that match him as a reader? How would he know if a book was too hard or too easy? So what if the book he selected did not have “his” letter labeled on it. If Dean knows the type of book that he can access yet focuses on his interest and purpose, doesn’t that trump the letter/level that it has been assigned? In the words of JoEllen McCarthy, “Wantability trumps readability.” If a child wants to read a book then (s)he will figure out a way to access it!
What Do We Do Now?
All of this has caused me to wonder: What are the conversations teachers are having with students? How are books organized and selected? Is privacy considered and protected? Can we modify our language and word choice to help foster a passion and purpose for reading rather than to foster competition and insecurity? All of this is just something for us to think about as educators and consider if in fact this practice is in the best interest of children.