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.