Don’t Throw Out Your Leveled Library Yet!

A MiddleWeb Blog

Recently the School Library Journal (SLJ) posted an article that warned against using leveled libraries. Quoting leaders in the field including Pernille Ripp, Donalyn Miller, and Fountas and Pinnell, the article gained a ton of buzz on Twitter, Facebook, and other education circles.

While the points offered in the article were nuanced and well-written and the educators quoted offer much to the profession, the whole of the post left me feeling frustrated. Why my frustration? Because leveled texts can be helpful to most students and teachers.

Leveled Texts Are Useful

When the Common Core State Standards first rolled out, there was a move to have all students read “grade level” text. I found this move and the accompanying strategy of “close reading” to be ridiculous. Human beings cannot be forced to fit an arbitrary timeline. This is even truer for English language learners and students with other special learning needs.

I railed against forcing students to read texts above their zones of proximal development in favor of allowing students to read books that are “just right” for their personal learning needs and interests.

My argument: If we recognize the two big goals of reading instruction in the middle grades as (1) helping students read to learn and (2) helping students love to read, we have to differentiate.

By the time readers enter middle school or junior high, they have a wide range of reading needs. It is a teacher’s responsibility to offer students texts that they can and want to read. We need to, as Richard Allington says, offer our learners “a steady diet of ‘easy’ texts – texts they can read accurately, fluently, and with strong comprehension.” To do that, we must both know students’ reading levels and offer them choices within them.

What Are Leveled Texts and How Does Text Complexity Fit In?

Let’s start with the Common Core State Standards. The English language arts standards state that in order to be proficient readers, student must be able to read texts with “appropriate grade-level complexity.” While I’ve already shared my distaste for the inflexible idea that all students must read at the same level at a given age, the concept of text complexity fits into any discussion on leveled libraries.

Text complexity can be defined as the interplay of three factors: quantitative measures, qualitative measures, and professional judgment. Below is a nutshell definition for each of the factors.

  • Quantitative factors are concerned with hard data about text level including Lexile, grade-equivalent, Fountas and Pinnell (F&P), Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), Degrees of Reading Power (DRP), and other leveling systems.
  • Qualitative factors include a less concrete set of measures including text-structures/features, genre, length, and sophistication of themes and ideas in the text.
  • Professional judgment refers to teacher knowledge about choosing the right text for a given reader or group of readers. Here factors such as interest, engagement, and relevance come into play.

The best teachers use all three of these factors to help students find good books. They are in close touch with students’ reading strengths, interests, and needs. They engage in regular and varied assessments of growth in both quantitative and qualitative areas.

Effective teachers frequently do formal and informal conferring with students. They are often found in the library helping students pick that “just-right” book. They make the experience of reading a reward and a celebration and continually model their own interactions with texts of various types and levels of complexity.

Skillful teachers know that guiding students to books using quantitative leveling is part of strategic system for helping children learn to read, read to learn, and come to love reading.

Given the plethora of great books and online texts at multiple levels, differentiated reading instruction and practice is more attainable now than ever. But, before I share resources, I want to speak to the concerns against using them.

The Concerns about Leveled Texts (and Why I’m Not Overly Concerned By Them)

The main concerns about leveled texts are valid, but they seem to suggest that teachers use leveled libraries mindlessly – letting the colored dots, Lexiles, or A,B,C levels make all of the decisions. In my experience, working with hundreds and hundreds of teachers over 22 years and in five states, that is not the norm. By far, the teachers I have worked with use levels as a flexible tool.

The arguments against using leveled reading describe ways in which the practice of leveling can short-circuit positive and productive reading instruction and practice. As teachers, it is our job to monitor our use of tools and to make sure that students’ needs and real learning come first. Leveled texts are a good tool. Use them and use them wisely.

The School Library Journal post and the flurry of comments arising from it sparked many teachers to think deeply, me included. Below is a chart with common concerns about leveled libraries and, for what it’s worth, my thoughts about each (click to enlarge; control-click to save).

Resources for Leveled (Differentiated) Texts

Below is a list of my favorite websites that offer differentiated reading materials. Also included are sources for finding high quality novels at various levels that appeal to middle grade readers.

Reading A to Z – Reading A to Z is a subscription service that costs about $100 per year. With a membership, teachers gain access to thousands of texts at a kindergarten through fifth grade reading level that can be downloaded, printed, and folded into books. There are many titles that have the same cover and information but are written at multiple levels so teachers can gear texts to students’ individual reading levels. The nonfiction texts are excellent for middle grade students. Caution: The fiction texts, however, have not proven to be interesting or useful to my middle grade students.

Epic! – This online reading platform continues to blow me away. It is free for educators and includes thousands of high-quality fiction and nonfiction books. Epic! works on iPads, Chromebooks, and the web. Most of the books are from first-rate publishers and are titles that I would love to be able to afford for my print library. There are also audiobooks and educational videos. Epic! is a one-stop shop for helping students become “binge readers” instead of binge watchers. Parents can subscribe for $4.99 per month and it is well worth it.

NewsELA – NewsELA is a free website where teachers can create an online classroom and assign informational articles to students. Each text can be modified by Lexile (reading level), ranging from fourth to twelfth grade, by clicking on a slider. Many of the articles offered contain a short test, which is aligned to the new Common Core State Standards-based tests. TweenTribune is similar.

ReadWorks – This website offers hundreds of free short texts and fiction stories. That just-right text can easily be found using the sorting tools at the top of the resource page. Teachers can select for grade, Lexile level, subject, genre, skill, or strategy. Each reading passage comes with a carefully crafted question set.

Hi/Lo Books – This is a list of my students’ favorite hi/lo books. Hi/lo means high interest, low reading level. These texts tend to appeal to readers who struggle with grade-level texts but still want topics targeted to their age (including English learners). The idea is that if we give students books they want to read and can read, they will read them. Once readers finish one book, their confidence grows, and increased confidence can lead to increased reading. As any teacher knows, the more kids read, the better they read.

First Book – Good leveled libraries must have lots and lots of books! Students should have the ability to choose books they want to read and that means quantity matters. First Book Marketplace is an online store that offers high quality, popular books at a fraction of the usual cost. You’ll find a wide variety of books including nonfiction, novels, and picture books. Scholastic Book Fairs/Clubs are also great. Hosting a fair gets you lots of “Scholastic Dollars” to spend on new books.

Thrift Stores – Again, with classroom and school libraries quality matters – but so does quantity. This can take a little effort. In a recent post I wrote for SLJ on the free book store in the back of my library, I confessed: “I can’t lie. I am a shopaholic when it comes to spending a quarter (or a dollar) here and there for used books at garage sales and thrift stores. I have a circuit that I shop every few weeks, and when I hit sales, I really stock up. I do spend my own money sometimes but not always. Our local education foundation and parent organization have been very generous.”

Good Teaching

Practical teachers who are deeply concerned with helping students move forward as readers know that allowing students access to texts at their approximate level is an important tool. Teachers, use that tool. Avoid “either-or” thinking. Don’t throw out your leveled libraries yet.

Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher and a self-proclaimed #edudork with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and writes for We Teach We Learn. Rita's first book,Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom (Routledge/MiddleWeb), was published in July 2019.

9 Responses

  1. Robert Ward says:

    “The best teachers use all three of these factors to help students find good books. They are in close touch with students’ reading strengths, interests, and needs. They engage in regular and varied assessments of growth in both quantitative and qualitative areas.” And there you have it: balance, commonsense, and multiple measures to ensure that all children learn and are engaged. Thank you for this reasoned article, Rita! You take a polarizing issue and explain how it shouldn’t be polarizing at all. Instead of arguing against something else, let’s take the best of both and come up with a viable solution. That’s what you do here, and that’s what good teachers have been doing all along.

  2. Rita Platt says:

    Thanks, Robert. Now I wish I had put this exact line: “a polarizing issue and explain how it shouldn’t be polarizing at all. Instead of arguing against something else, let’s take the best of both and come up with a viable solution.” Love you, brother!

  3. LT says:

    No, no, no! The idea of levels is severely damaging to students as they work their way through learning to read. Add to that the idea that levels don’t even really help that much (because kids can read incredibly advanced text in their field of interest), and you have something that both doesn’t work and publicly shames kids (and books! “Those ones are for dumb readers” is not something you want said about books in your room, and it will be said with leveled books). It also makes the task of teaching harder- it’s a LOT easier to organize books by genre. Why spend time either playing librarian yourself or training kids to find the right bin?

    I can see no up side to this method- it’s bad for the kids, bad for the teachers.

    The lower grades in my school level their books. You would feel ashamed to hear the relief that kids express when they get to my in-leveled library.

  4. Rita Platt says:

    Nope. Sorry. I was going to write a response that detailed the problems I have with your points. Then, I realized that the entire post was that response. Best wishes to you!

    • LT says:

      I say this in all seriousness: you’re damaging your kids by doing this. I beg you not to. The fact that you are promoting your idea in the face of expert ideas and the desires of your students is frankly reprehensible. Your article refutes none of the concerns- you just choose to ignore them. It also doesn’t address the concerns I brought up.

      You acknowledge that the book selection process is more complex than a letter, but you ignore that LEVEL is more than a letter, or even a range, and is extremely dependent on background knowledge. Interest and background knowledge are of PRIMARY importance, not secondary. By labeling (even with a range), or worse, sorting, or WORST, requiring a certain level (not that you do this), you’re putting an external factor as the most important factor. Organizing by genre puts interest/background knowledge as the primary, most important factor.

      The idea that teachers with leveled libraries don’t know their kids seems silly to me, too. We can agree on that. I student taught with a leveled library- she knew her kids.

      Levelled Texts limit student choice: You can think of it as a range, but if you tell kids levels (or worse, organize your collection by levels), then you’re telling kids what they’re capable of, AND you’re making sure that information is advertised to their classmates. Why should kids have to brave the social stigma of choosing an easier book once in a while? Why should they have it EVER implied to them that they can’t read something that’s more challenging than their norm? By simply telling them the letters, they WILL (and do) make these inferences.You can lecture to them about how it doesn’t mean they’re stupid all you want, but you’re sending a different message with your actions here (and kids WILL use that word, “stupid;” you know they will).

      The idea that they don’t learn how to choose books independently is silly, I can agree with that, but it adds a layer of inauthenticity to the process. Even a “range,” as you suggest, is a marker that adults never get. We are left to our own devices, and it’s not something that ever presents a problem to us, despite the fact that there are always *many* books in any library or bookstore that are beyond our comprehension.

      You acknowledge that when students are motivated, but brush that aside like it’s a secondary concern. The whole point, according to the experts, is that it’s the PRIMARY concern. If I push kids to “read a T book,” (or just imply that’s desirable by having levels clearly visible), it’s telling them that a reading experience at the Q level is less valid, less important, less worthwhile. If I tell them that they might like another book (that I privately know is more challenging), it sends a very different message- that I care about their interests and ALL of their reading experiences.

      I mentioned before that I’m not sure how leveled books make teacher’s jobs easier; I stand by that. Meticulously labeling books is hard enough when it’s just my name and genre. Having to divide books by level is more difficult.

      You dismiss the self-esteem thing like it’s a small issue. It’s everything. You level, and you restrict the “higher readers” from interacting with the “lower readers” because you’re directing them (either by words or just by label implications) that they’re different. In my unleveled library, kids share ideas all the time- they try things out that others liked. The fact that you have to frequently lecture kids about how their reading level doesn’t equal intelligence shows that you KNOW that they’re getting that message from written book levels.

      Do my kids “know their level?” sure- they’re aware that some kids read more than others, read faster than others. But they NEVER get the message that some books are restricted for “good” or “bad” readers- they know that sometimes it’s nice to pick up a graphic novel, no matter what level you are. They also don’t feel bad getting suggestions from each other, as long as they have similar taste in plots. They know strategies to make it through books that are challenging them in some ways (I have books on tape, suggest film versions, give them page goals when they’re struggling but want to finish). They push each other and form a community that levels may not prevent entirely, but slow down. Why would you want to put ANYTHING in the path of creating a cohesive classroom reading community?

      There is a place for levels- in your conference notebook, or in your records, or when trying to diagnose reading issues or picking an article or book for the whole class to read. They are not meant for student consumption.

      Finally, repeated from the last comment, the kids and parents thank me every year for not doing levels. Parents are overwhelmed and stop buying books when they feel like they need to buy a certain level (but don’t know how to find out that information). Students TELL me they felt restricted by levels. It’s an actual audible sigh of relief at the beginning of the year when I tell them I don’t do levels.

      • Rita Platt says:

        Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and concerns, LT. I assure you, the students I teach are happy and love to read. I’m not interested in having unproductive discussions or debates. I think that teachers should work hard to not be dogmatic or overly dramatic about their beliefs. I hope your students are happy in your classroom and would NEVER be bold enough to tell you how you HAVE to teach, organize your library, or speak to others.

  5. Penny M Kammerud says:

    Thank you Rita for the thought provoking response to why leveled libraries really work for all reading levels in a classroom and a school. I work in a school where ALL teachers have leveled libraries in their classrooms from K-4th grade, along with our library being leveled. When you have an entire school working with in the same reading system, the continuity from grade to grade and teacher to teacher is phenomenal!!! I have taught in my district for 28 years in grades 5,4,1 and now 4K, in all of these classrooms I have had leveled libraries. Was there a lot of work to set up? YES to set up, but then to maintain and to expand NO! I knew every book in my classroom, and this gave me the freedom to really get to know my students’ interests and to use quantitative and qualitative measures to understand each of my children’s reading levels. Once I had all of this information, I could help my students choose books that were just right for them.
    It is a teacher’s responsibility to look at each child and to give them the tools that they need to be successful and to grow in their abilities. In all of the years that I have been teaching I have had very little level “shaming.” If I did I dealt with it right away. The word YET is very powerful to a student that wants to ready a book that they are not quite ready for and gives them the motivation to read books that they are ready for and to gain strategies and confidence that they need to get to that book. When you have an entire school that works together to get students to that next reading level it is very powerful and rewarding, This may sound very ‘pie in the sky’ to some, but it has worked so well in our district that we have constantly had improvement on our state standardized tests year after year. Our school has been in the Greatly Exceeds State Benchmarks for several years. I really wholeheartedly attribute this to having an entire school on the same page with reading expectations and having libraries that are leveled for students with a huge range of books for children to read and to strive to become better readers.
    Our students are so motivated to read and to gain all of the skills and strategies to become the best readers that they can be. Is it easy for all students? NO, but that is where the teacher who really knows their students and what interests them helps them find the just right books that have hooked students to continue improving and wanting more. I don’t see this as damaging any child but motivating them to become the best reader that they can be!!!
    If you are ever in North Western Wisconsin and want to see this in action and see how great this works for us, please let me know and I will be glad to show you a school that is motivating and empowering children to love to read in a leveled library school.

    • Rita Platt says:

      Thanks, Penny! I haven’t seen damage either. Like you, I’ve taught for a long time in diverse settings. The key, I think, is to treat children with love and respect and to help them see themselves as capable of growing by focusing on that most important of words that you mention, YET.

  6. Janice says:

    As a teacher and a grandparent, I have had the opposite experience. In fact, I have not met a single one who hasn’t used leveled libraries poorly. I’m glad that this hasn’t been your experience. Frankly, if I had the experience you have had, I would be in total agreement with you. If teachers are being responsible and use common sense to guide their use of leveled reading, it really shouldn’t be a big deal at all.

    Unfortunately, I have seen teachers stop kids in the middle of a series they loved because they were no longer in that level. I’ve seen a kid whose eyes were lit with fascination be told “Oh no, honey, you’ll never get through that book before the next library day!” because the book was slightly over his reading level. I have also overheard a child in Kindergarten say “Eww. I wouldn’t be friends with her. She can only read level B books.”

    You are right that we cannot hide our poor readers. Children know early on whether they are good readers or poor readers. However, never before have we had young children divvied up by alphabetical demarcations of their supposed intellect to quite this extreme. In the past, kids knew children stumbled over words, yes. They never before had color coded fuel for their insults and teasing, however. Leveling children- and more importantly, announcing those levels and restricting kids to only those levels- has given kids a much more tangible way of judging one another.

    So, my response to your piece here is not to dismiss it. I agree that in the situations you’ve outlined, leveled libraries will simply be a useful tool for a hands-on teacher. However, I would caution you not to assume that your experience is everyone’s experience or to dismiss the very valid concerns those of us in different situations have asserted. We could easily say “Well, I haven’t seen that happen, so therefore it doesn’t happen and since it doesn’t happen, there’s no reason to change my mind.” Yet, we all know that’s not being truly open minded, is it? It’s much better to say “Here’s why I still use this system and it works well for me because I do these things.”

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