Leveling The Library?

If you’ve been reading my recent posts you’ll know that I recently attended a conference with Lucy Calkins about her Units of Study in Reading, grades 3-5.  One thing that she said that really stuck in our heads is that 60% of our students are reading books that are too hard for them.  (She quoted Richard Allington’s research a lot.) Do you know what I thought when she said that?  That’s not true.  Not in MY room.  I teach them to pick “Just Right” books.

Then I went back to school and my colleagues and I started talking about this and really “looking” at the books our students were reading.   I think Lucy Calkins might just be right!  Despite all of the lessons we have taught on just right books and how to choose books, many students are consistently selecting books that are too hard for them.    (Which tells me that many of my developing readers still don’t have a good sense of what they can read.) Will more lessons on “just right” books do the job?  Is teaching students the three or five finger rule enough?

This brings me to the “gist” of my post, which is “Why haven’t I leveled my classroom library?”  When I first started teaching I was really turned off by the idea of leveling.  My instincts told me that telling a kid they were a “P” and could only read “P” books was just plain wrong and a really good way to kill their joy in reading.  Over time I found more evidence that supported my ideas.  The fact that many experts think that a student’s ability to comprehend at different levels is based on background knowledge and experience with text.  The competitive nature among 5th graders.  I could just picture them trying to read more challenging books to show off or teasing another student for their book level. I wanted them to fall in love with reading.

I have also seen discrepancy in the determining of levels among teachers and within my own assessments.  What if I decide a student is an S when they are really a V?  Or worse, the other way around?  I’ve also noticed that the guided reading levels are effected by content and maturity, whereas lexile levels seem to be strictly about decoding and readability.  Then there was something else Calkins said, which is she has noticed that there are actually “bands” of levels.  That students don’t increase step by step but that it’s more difficult to move out of certain levels because of the changes in text structure.  For example levels KLM are grouped together because they have a clear and basic story structure.  When a student moves up to the OPQ range the characters become more complicated, there are sub plots, and more figurative language.  At RST the setting now plays a more major role, characters become more complex, and there are numerous point of view switches.  (This is based on my notes from the conference.)

When I tweeted my question out @donalynnmiller (The Book Whisperer) said “You should know the levels of the books & children, but readers shouldn’t be limited by labels.”  Ok, I can get behind that, that makes sense.  This post by Larry Felazzo deals with the same topic and is worth a read, as are the comments that follow it. This post on the NCTE Middle Section blog also brings up some important points about taking levels with a grain of salt.  Here is a site that advocates for leveling the library and gives details and suggestions.  Or you can preview the professional text Beyond Leveled Books by Karen Szymusiak, Franki Sibberson, and Lisa Koch which attempts to put the whole leveling frenzy into perspective.  (I’m thinking I really need to read this one right now!)

So what do I do?  How do I ensure my readers are reading books that they can understand, while teaching them to become more independent in choosing the right books, and maintaining my positive community of readers?  Could it be that the three finger rule (or five fingers depending on how you teach it) just isn’t good enough anymore? Or should I just keep on keepin’ on with what I’m doing?  Here is what I know for sure.

  • I already have a community of readers.  They read all the time.  In class, at home, on the stairs, in the bathroom.  Based on my current perception almost all of my students consider themselves “readers.”
  • I do give them more structured book choices through book clubs.  Although we don’t to guided reading in 5th grade I offer a wide range of books that I do know the levels of for small group reading.  I also provide a great deal of differentiated non-fiction articles during strategy instruction.
  • Knowing what level students can comprehend is important, but pushing and challenging students in a supported manner is important as well.
  • Levels are only one piece in the puzzle of matching readers to texts.  Students need a well-read teacher who takes the time to get to know them and their reading interests, models a reading life, and supports them in becoming accomplished readers.
  • Positive classroom culture is essential in forming a community of readers.  Without this community it doesn’t matter what the books are leveled because most students won’t read them.

But, I’m left with the question  “Do I put levels on all of my books? Do I level my library?”  Do I discretely write it inside the cover?  Or slap it right on the front as Calkins suggests?  How would this benefit my students?  What could the possible negative effects be?  What additional information would it give me that I don’t already have?  Would it help my readers become more proficient?  Or would it limit them?

What do you do with your classroom library? How do you ensure that your students are comprehending what they are reading? Please share your ideas in the comments.


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3 Responses to Leveling The Library?

  1. Mary Lee says:

    Look back at your bullet points. You know the answer to your own question already: Don’t Do It!! Level your library by having books of all levels in your library, by building a strong community of readers who know their own strengths and weaknesses, and by conferring with (really LISTENING TO) your students one-on-one and in small groups. (is there a reason why you don’t do guided reading groups?)

    Are there levels on books in the public library? In Barnes and Noble? Do people use level as a search criteria on Amazon?

    You know the answer to your question…

  2. Tara says:

    I’m with Mary Lee. At last summer’s Reading Institute, Mary Ehrenworth talked about this topic in terms of presenting our kids with ladders of choice – here’s a good fit for now, then this and THEN you’ll be ready for the book you want. (The TC site has a list of these ladders). There’s something so rigid about a leveled classroom library – my daughter had four teachers in a row who did this and stuck to their guns about “reading only leveled books”, it drove her away from reading for years.

  3. Katie says:

    Yes, good points. The issue of the library and book store are one that we have been debating a great deal. While I would never limit a reader to a certain level I would be concerned that they would limit themselves.

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