Why I Don’t Believe in Leveling Readers

The standardized testing culture in the United States has led to an emphasis on leveled reading in schools.  Using systems such as the Lexile Framework, Accelerated Reader, or Fountas and Pinnel’s guided reading system, instructors routinely test students’ “reading level” and then provide them with lists of acceptable books they allowed to check out from the library and read.  Usually, a multiple-choice test follows to check for reading comprehension.  However, though the sophisticated algorithms associated with such systems seem to promise a superior education, leveling readers hurts them in the long run.

My initial reservations with these systems stems from the algorithms they use to determine the level of a text.  Typically, sentence length and word choice are examined by a computer to assign each text a number.  This means that books with mature content but short sentences can end up on reading lists for younger children, while picture books with sophisticated sentence structure can end up on lists for older children.  In these cases, second graders might be presented a list of “acceptable” books like Twilight while older readers, whose teachers may wish to challenge them with focusing on reading longer works, are being presented with very short texts.  In each case, the test is not adequately addressing the developmental needs of the readers.

Furthermore, the algorithms used by such programs sometimes have difficulty assigning numbers to texts with non-standard punctuation.  Plays and poetry may not be assigned numbers and therefore not presented as options to readers.  This limits the exposure of developing readers to certain forms of literature.  It may also discourage them from reading certain texts outside of school because those texts do not “count.”  When reading is transformed into an activity performed only to pass a test, it loses inherent value, and students may fail to learn to see reading as something that can give pleasure.

Indeed, the very premise of leveling readers takes choice away from the readers, dampening the joy of reading.  Imagine if adults were presented with lists of books they were “allowed” to read.  Would reading seem enjoyable if it were so tightly regulated?  Or would it seem like an absurdity, being limited in their autonomy as the result of a computerized test?  Young readers like to have autonomy, too, and it would be more valuable to them to help them self-select appropriate books, rather than to deny them books based on a number assigned to them by a test.  Quite simply, restricting access to books will never make students think reading a positive experience.

Turning students into numbers and denying them books they be interested in as a result of those numbers is, in fact, degrading and at times humiliating.  Leveling readers often becomes a way to make non-readers or developing readers feel worse about themselves while making the star readers full of themselves.  Readers’ levels are often fairly public because some school librarians are instructed to deny readers books based on their levels.  I still remember my own humiliating experience being refused a check out, in front of all my classmates, by a school librarian who believed I was too young to read the Little House books.  Only when I brought in my reading scores did she allow me to read the books I wanted–but I never really got over how small she made me feel by her assumptions about what I was and was not capable of. Experiences such as mine could easily make some readers hate reading for life.

Of course, leveling books make sense.  Instructors, librarians, and parents need a quick system to identify books that are written for a general age range–beginner readers for first and second graders, chapter books for third graders, and so on.  But leveling books is understood to be a mere starting point, with adjustments then made for the individual needs of each reader.  Can some first and second graders read chapter books!  Certainly!  Would some third graders find reading less frustrating they read beginner readers for awhile longer?  Yes!  But this system works because it is not the students being labelled with a number.  Rather, the numbers are being used as a tool to sort through books more efficiently.

I find Lexile scores and their equivalents frustrating because I see so many young readers defined by their numbers.  Developing or “struggling” readers are discouraged by their low (and semi-public) scores while students with high scores often show themselves as externally, rather than internally, motivated.  They are not enjoying reading so much as they are often trying to get a higher score, move on to a new level, prove to everyone how smart they are based on a number.  A mature understanding of what reading can offer is hard to acquire when students are being judged on their answers to multiple-choice tests and not challenged to read for pleasure or even to think critically about the text.  Plot comprehension is often the bare minimum asked.

Leveling readers will never make students readers for life.  It encourages them to see reading as something to be done simply to pass a test, rather than as something to be done for the inherent joy.  It denies them the chance to find and read books they are genuinely interested in.  And it affects their identities as readers negatively as they see themselves ranked against each other by reading ability.  It’s time for schools to stop leveling readers and to engage with students as readers, taking time to discover their interests, abilities, and potential.  Letting students roam the library while offering guided suggestions is a far more effective way to encourage reading than multiple-choice tests.

13 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Believe in Leveling Readers

  1. shri says:

    Great post! I completely agree that our current system doesn’t take into account the nuances in reading intelligence and the opportunities kids are presented with (or not) as a consequence. It’s really unfortunate because I get that some people don’t want children to feel bad if they’re unable to keep up with other classmates’ reading level and such by not being able to read the same books in school, but I definitely think standardized testing is not a viable solution as it encourages a culture of boxing kids into categories rather than having the system be more adaptable to kids’ learning styles.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think there needs to be guided reading where parents and teachers suggest appropriate books for each reader–books that will challenge, but not to the point of frustration. They don’t need to say, “This is technically a third grade book, Billy, and hopefully you’ll catch up to the rest of us eventually.” Just, “Hey, I think you would like this book.” If Billy is worried about how hard it is, there can be a discussion about how practicing will help him get better. If he knows he’s behind, there can be a discussion about how starting here will help him get to grade level. But it doesn’t need to be a big, public affair!

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  2. Fran Laniado- Author says:

    I’ve also seen parents and teachers not allow their kids to read what they want to read because the level isn’t right. That breaks my heart because above all else I want kids to love reading. If something is challenging but it grabs their interest and they want to push themselves, great. If something is a little easy, but they enjoy it, what’s the harm in letting them read it? As long as they’re challenged elsewhere there’s no problem with it IMO.

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    • Krysta says:

      I know there’s a sweet spot where you want children to be challenged, but not to the point of frustration. But I think parents and teachers need to guide children based on their knowledge of books. (This can be difficult as surveys show many teachers don’t read themselves!) The thing is, the level is a basic guideline, but not the whole story. Plus different systems assign different levels to books. Personally, I think it makes more sense to go with a publisher’s recommended age rang/grade level and not whatever levels these tests are suggesting. A publisher’s grade level usually means most kids at that grade level can read it AND it is developmentally appropriate. These big test companies don’t consider content when assigning levels and you end up with children being assigned YA, which may be written simply, but has mature content.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Charvi says:

    Oh my godI didn’t know such test measures are being used? That sounds absolutely horrible and I totally agree on all your points. You can’t just simply a sign a level based on the speed and type of sentences a child uses! These methods definitely need to be dropped.

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    • Krysta says:

      I’m not familiar with how all the tests are performed. The levels for books are based on sentence complexity and I assume vocabulary. I know at least one of the tests used to be a multiple-choice vocabulary test. But, obviously, harder words doesn’t alone determine the level of a book. YA books tend to be very simply written and could be assigned lower levels. That doesn’t mean they are developmentally appropriate for children to read!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I distinctly remember being in about second grade and taking a reading test that determined our “reading level” in the computer lab. It was basically a vocabulary test. There’d be a sentence with a word in it and then it would ask you what the definition was and give you about five options for the answer. I mean, sure, a higher reading level is likely related to a larger vocabulary, but I thought it was stupid even at the time, even though I was doing well on the tests and supposedly had a “high” reading level. Why would my ability to read certain texts be based on my knowledge of individual words? I can know what certain words mean individually and not, you know, really comprehend Shakespeare as a nine year old.

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  4. mgerardmingo says:

    I was perplexed when I first learned that some school libraries restrict access to books based on students’ reading levels. I realize that school libraries have different goals and responsibilities than do libraries that serve the greater community, but I still think treating all borrowers as equal is an important principle to uphold. One should hope to avoid the situation you mentioned about trying to check out Little House books or anything deemed “beyond” a student’s capabilities; it makes kids feel awful for no reason.

    Also: wow, hadn’t thought about Accelerated Reader tests in a long time. Looking back, the way “points” were assigned to books reminds me of how essays were graded on the SAT: largely a function of length rather than complexity. Not mention that, as you rightly bring up, placing incentives on reading—or any activity—fundamentally changes our relationship to it. Yeah, not a system I’m fond of.

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    • Krysta says:

      I hated my school library in general because, even before we started being leveled, we were only allowed to browse certain shelves, based on grade level. For years I was only allowed to check out beginner reader books even though I was reading chapter books and early middle grade at home. It was so frustrating to be told that I had to read books I wasn’t interested in and found too easy–because the librarian just assumed she knew better than I did what I ought to be reading.

      The age labels on books are supposed to be suggestions, not mandatory. Sure, I might start by pointing out the average second grader to beginner readers, but I would also try to determine if they’re reading those or if they’re onto something like Magic Tree House. I wouldn’t tell them they could ONLY check out Dr. Seuss books. That’s ridiculous! But that’s how my school library worked. I’m not even sure the librarian had any library background or degree, to be honest. Usually the schools I went to just found someone’s mother to run library because they didn’t value it. It was more like, “Oh, any old person can check out books to kids.”

      Ooh, good point. I’d forgotten AR has point values. It’s suggesting length equals complexity, which is not the case. But I definitely hear a lot of students who think longer is better. Who can blame them? That’s what they’re being taught!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, who is going to love reading when you’re assigned an embarrassing (and somewhat arbitrary) number and then have to take a bunch of multiple choice tests? I think actually talking about the books would be more interesting. That’s what people who read and love books do–they talk about books with each other!

      Liked by 1 person

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