Nerd Out: It’s Not All About Leveling

Oh standardized testing, how you have ruined us!  How you have forced us to do things that deep down we know are not the best for our little friends!  How you have been abused yourself – used to measure things that you were never designed to measure!

I think we all need one big support group.  I’ll meet you at the bar…

Anyhow, one fallout of testing, testing, testing and more testing is our obsession with data, accountability, measuring, and all things one can put on a graph.   One huge casualty besides you, me, our friends and collective sanity?  Our classroom libraries.

I don’t know about you, but I have always had a love/hate relationship with my classroom library.  I loved the neat, organized and colorful labels.  I hated that lurking pile of books that I didn’t know where to shelve.  I loved the bursting baskets, filled with books books, glorious books!  I hated when books were put back in the wrong place, carelessly and without thought.  I loved the rug, the pillows, the little lamp, the cozy feel of my classroom library.  I hated vacuuming and maintaining the space.

As you already know, I can make most things in life into a full fledged drama.

Getting back to my point…one trend I have seen in classrooms (and a trend that I do NOT believe is the fault of the teacher, don’t get me wrong) recently is making the classroom library into a wall of leveled baskets.  Whether you color code them, number them or Fountas and Pinnell them up, it is still a huge wall of leveled books.  And nothing else.  No genre, no topic, no author, no nothing.  Just levels as far as the eye can see.

I often wonder what this looks like from the perspective of the little friends in that classroom.  Do they imagine the books mocking them – all you-can-look-but-you-can’t-touch-me?  Do they push readers to work harder?  (My guess is no.)  Do they make readers feel bad about where they are and limit their choices? (My guess is yes.)

Levels are fabulous.  They are a great tool and have shaped my own teaching of reading.  HOWEVER, as the eloquent Donalynn Miller writes in chapter 4 (I know, chapter 4.  Could we be doing this book club thing any slower?!  I swear, you guys, I am totally not a slow reader.  Seriously.), “I never want my students to feel that they are roped into a book…I believe that students should be empowered to make as many book choices as possible…”

Is it really a choice if you are told to pick one book from the basket labeled “DRA 28”?

This chapter goes on to detail the ways in which Ms. Miller expands her students reading lives and helps them to form a reading identity.  Now, I love the smallest of small fries down in lower elementary and for these new readers, it is essential to have leveled books.  But leveled books and being labeled as a “level x” reader certainly isn’t the answer.

Can you imagine if someone yanked the People magazine out of my hands and told me it wasn’t my level?  It wouldn’t be a pretty day, that’s for sure.


If you want to chat more about our The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, check me and my fellow nerds out over on our book club’s Facey Face page.

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  • Have you seen/heard of the Daily 5 program and the way that they do their classroom library?

    There isn't any leveling of the books and they're organized by genre/theme etc. The students are taught how to choose books that are "good fit" books.

    This is my second year with using the program and it works great!

    November 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm
  • Leveled books work great for instruction…but children need to be able to take books out that interest them.

    Pardon my lack of couth, but that kind of restriction for "pleasure reading" is just nuts.

    Oh…wait. They do get to read for pleasure, don't they?

    December 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm
  • I like distinguishing between "just right" book and free choice book reading time. If a child is READING, I don't care what the level and sometimes kids will try harder to decode and enjoy a text that is above their current reading level if they're really into the topic. During free choice (on Friday's for me, because I like to say Free-Choice Friday) kids can pick whatever book they want. But for the rest of the week, during independent reading, i give them a book bin with books at their just-right level. Also, when we go to the library, kids pick whatever they want, but I send my guided reading books home for practice/homework. I think this builds the "reading is fun and you should read what you want" but also reinforces, "you'll improve if you practice with texts that are just right." The library is harder to manage this way though…and requires both leveled bin and libraries by genre, topic, etc

    December 1, 2012 at 4:01 pm
  • I agree with all being said. My rule of thumb has always been that roughly 30% of the library gets leveled. The remaining seventy percent is organized by a mix of genre, author/illustrator, topic and…my newest category…text type.

    December 1, 2012 at 4:03 pm
  • Mrs. Mimi:
    I love you. Everytime I see a new blog post in my inbox, my heart beats a little faster with excitement and I open your message FIRST. (Are you feeling the love yet?) Your wisdom is so practical, reasonable, logical, down-to-earth. I agree with you 100%. Thank you for being the voice of reason in this age of educational darkness and despair. I am so glad you are our voice. We need you.
    Ruby Slippers
    P. S. I use the leveling as a guide–but if a child really wants to read and take an AR test on a much higher than their level book, I will let them. If anyone questions me, I will tell them that the child's current level wasn't "rigorous" enough…or some other "academic" argument. The best way for students to excel in any area is for them to read and read and read for pleasure.

    December 3, 2012 at 1:34 am
  • I started a new school this year and it was shocking and heartbreaking for me to learn that we were expected to level our classroom library books. But my class (children with intellectual disabilities) wasn't given a library because they aren't on any reading level so they didn't qualify for any books. I can't even begin to describe the frustration with this system. It is a school-wide initiative for our children to all know their levels and for our libraries to be leveled. Thank you for your post!

    December 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm

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