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.”
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.