Teachers become gatekeepers to books, a longstanding practice in many schools where the assigned reading level is treated as sacred.
Jess Hutchison’s daughter Sawyer, 8, is often bored by the books she gets assigned based on her reading level at school. And she’s not the only one.
“Many of them are dumb. They’re just nonsensical,” said the Bay Area mother of two. “So it’s terrible reading, and you’re not learning anything. There’s no knowledge being acquired.”
That’s why Hutchison takes pains to supplement her daughter’s literary diet with more intriguing fare at home. Right now, the third grader favors books about cats.
“She doesn’t want to read the leveled books,” said Hutchison. “I don’t want her to read the leveled books. So we’re going to read something else. She gets to read whatever she wants at home.”
A child’s simple decision to reach beyond her assessed reading level to pick a book she fancies has become a controversy in some quarters. That’s because it flies in the face of “leveled reading,” a practice often associated with balanced literacy classrooms, by far the most popular approach in California. Balanced literacy favors immersion in literature over teaching fundamentals like phonics, which is a pillar of structured literacy, an evidenced-based approach that builds on decades of exhaustive research. However, leveled reading is so ubiquitous that it has also been invoked under the banner of the science of reading.
“It helps to calibrate that content so that students can practice reading at a ‘just-right’ level of difficulty,” said Rebecca Buckley, director of Succeeding by Reading, an Oakland-based tutoring program. “Students who get rushed through these early stages often end up with skill gaps that trip them up as text complexity increases.”
Sticking to a level
Children are assessed periodically to determine their level, often designated by letters, A-Z, or numbers, and they are discouraged from straying from it, lest they grow frustrated. The goal is to make a perfect Goldilocks-style match between child and book, based on ability, proponents say.
That’s why generations of children have been pointed to books that are “just right” for their reading level and held back from books that might be too hard for them. The idea is that if the child only reads books in their sweet spot they will make the most progress. This practice has long been deeply entrenched in how reading is taught in many classrooms. The trouble is, there’s actually scant evidence that “leveled reading” is an effective strategy, experts say, and mounting concern that it may hurt the weakest readers in the long run.
In the wake of crippling pandemic learning loss, as reading test scores plummet, experts say, promoting reading acceleration among students, and not hindering it, may be more crucial than ever.
“Using complex texts seems to violate a sacred principle,” said Sue Pimental, one of the nation’s top K-12 literacy experts. “It rejects what they thought was well-researched.”
Hiding advanced books
Winnie Iturralde felt so stifled by her leveled books in first grade that she smuggled in more advanced books, tucking them away inside her official book. Hiding her books was easier than getting the teacher to budge on her reading level.
“They just say this is the level based on the assessment,” said her mother, Esti Iturralde. “It is treated as sacrosanct. On the online system, I used to post videos of her reading other books, but nothing could dislodge the assessment.”
These reading adventures illustrate the common practice of using a leveled reading system at school, such as Guided Reading Levels or Lexile Levels, programs that categorize books into levels of difficulty and track student achievement. The system has the ring of common sense to it, which may be why it’s used in so many schools, but it also discourages some early readers.
Winnie had been assessed at level F-G at school, so she wasn’t supposed to be able to read “Dory Fantasmagory,” a level O book, but she did read it, and she loved it. Indeed, many of the children in her class longed for the more fascinating fare in their classroom but were denied access to it.
“The classroom bins are labeled by letter, and kids who reach into the wrong bin are told they have to put the book back,” said Iturralde. “Winnie and other kids have told their parents about forbidden books they are pining to read in a higher bin.”
Students must wait patiently to be reassessed in a hectic classroom and then accept that they may only be allowed to move up one level at a time. Teachers become gatekeepers to books, a longstanding practice in many schools where the assigned reading level is treated as a sacred cow.
An unproven theory
“Teachers have been trained since the 1940s to teach kids at their levels — without any real research support,” said Timothy Shanahan, a renowned literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It makes sense to go slow and low to allow kids an opportunity to master the earliest decoding abilities. However, from Grade 2 on, I think we have made some bad choices — and more and more, the research is showing that kids learn more from working with more challenging texts.”
Amid the deepening literacy crisis, many are beginning to question the wisdom of pigeonholing young readers. Critics say it’s high time the school system began rethinking leveled reading. What if leveled reading doesn’t boost learning after all? What if it just holds children back?
“Basically we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. The model of learning underlying that theory is too simplistic,” said Shanahan. “As we get more research on it, it is clear that students do better if there is more that they don’t know in a text, more opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, it is deeply ingrained in the system of education to teach kids to read from texts they can already read reasonably well — which holds kids back.”
It’s important to note that many experts agree with the concept of assessing children, to see where they need help, but not using that information to take certain books off the table, especially if those books pique their interest. Instead, teachers and caregivers should try to follow the child’s curiosity and then help fill in the blanks as they read.
The key to effective reading instruction, experts say, is to gradually deepen the student’s understanding. Give them a hand as the path gets steeper but don’t keep them on the flat terrain forever.
“You don’t just dump students in hard text with the idea that they’ll struggle. You provide support to encourage them to connect the text to their background knowledge, you guide them to identify unknown words,” said Shanahan, who helped lead the influential National Reading Panel. “There are clear learning benefits that come from working with frustration-level text.”
Weaker readers may fare best when tackling books above their grade level, research suggests, as long as other, stronger readers help them. Children gain confidence even as they work with a teacher, tutor or peer. That boost may carry over into their own silent reading sessions.
Any frustration the child experiences may pay off in lasting skill and self-esteem, experts say, which are invaluable as academic texts grow ever more rich, complex and dense. Few people sail through Dickens or Shakespeare the first time around, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get our feet wet. One of the hallmarks of skilled readers, experts say, is learning how to navigate complexity with patience.
“If weaker readers are working with less complex syntax,” said Pimental, “they do not learn how to understand the ideas housed in intricate sentences made of a wide variety of structures.”
One key criticism of leveling is that reading assessments are often faulty and poorly implemented, experts say. Teachers may put a lot of faith in a somewhat arbitrary measure, as if the benchmarks are written in stone. A student may score at 7th grade level in one assessment and 9th in another.
“The truth is we can’t even pinpoint a student’s reading level precisely,” said Pimental. “No student has just one reading level; every student has many levels depending on the topic and their knowledge.”
Another flaw inherent in leveled reading systems, some say, is that they narrow the scope of opportunity, reducing exposure to captivating stories that might motivate students to dig into books with greater zeal. Many children don’t turn into bookworms until they encounter a book that beguiles them. Think “Harry Potter.”
“In real life, no one picks books because letter F is their level. We pick books based on topics we are interested in,” said Jessica Sliwerski, a former teacher and CEO of Ignite Reading, a Zoom-based tutoring program. “Even if kids can’t read a book, there is something exciting about being able to choose and that creates motivation to read, which is important.”
Even literacy experts who champion leveled reading systems emphasize the need for flexibility and nuance. Cultivating a desire to read may be central to sparking literacy.
“Like any tool, book leveling can be overused,” said Buckley. “When it was first introduced, some folks wanted to level all the books in school libraries, and only permit kids to check books out at their current reading level. The librarians were beside themselves with horror.”
Buckley’s tutoring program, which targets students who are at least two years below grade level in Oakland Unified, seems to work miracles. Prior to the pandemic, children who had just 24 sessions with their tutor typically advanced two grade levels.
Some experts also worry that leveling can bog kids down at a low reading level for so long that they become demoralized. Children feel stigmatized by getting stuck on easy readers while their peers peruse chapter books. That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for both ends of the spectrum, widening the achievement gap.
One Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research study, which followed 12,000 students in K-3 over time, looking at reading group placement, found that students placed in the lowest groups in kindergarten never caught up to those in the highest group.
Leveling remains so pervasive, experts say, because the flaws in the methodology are often unseen. Struggling readers are expected to continue to struggle. No one is surprised when they live down to expectations.
“Leveled reading tracks kids in low-level books,” said Megan Potente, a veteran teacher and literacy coach. “All teachers have seen this. Ten-year-olds who are forced to spend huge amounts of time on level E books during independent reading. Teachers don’t know what to do with them. It’s tragic.”
Teachers have so many students at so many reading levels that it may seem more efficient to let each child read to themselves instead of working through the book with guidance. That ease comes at a cost, experts say.
Fewer demands on teachers
“Leveled reading places fewer demands on the teacher than the alternative,” said Pimentel. “With complex text, the teacher, not the text, must be the scaffold.”
While some children, like Sawyer, will get exposure to the pleasure of literature at home, others may develop a distaste for reading. The number of American children who say they regularly read for fun is at its lowest level since the 1980s, according to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress survey.
Some see this as a clear-cut issue of equity that hurts the most vulnerable children the most. Poor reading skills can close doors of achievement for children who are consistently relegated to below-grade books.
“Leveled texts lead to leveled lives,” said Alfred Tatum, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I have witnessed too many young people surrender their life chances before they get to know their life choices because of low levels of literacy. Futures are foreclosed for many because of low levels of literacy. Adults carry the pain of low levels of reading to their graves.”
To make matters worse, the weakest readers not only miss out on honing their reading comprehension skills. They also miss out on the background knowledge and vocabulary that can be gleaned from more content-rich material.
Educators often call this the Matthew effect, the idea that good readers read more, making them not only better readers but more knowledgeable overall. Conversely, poor readers shy away from reading, slowing their cognitive growth.
A fifth-grader relegated to reading Dr. Suess, for example, may well never catch up to one reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in terms of building a thorough understanding of American history.
That’s why children should be nurtured to read widely, many experts say, and push themselves periodically. Shanahan advises a varied diet of literature from easy reads to “things that kick their butts.”
Children should train to become readers the way runners train for a race, experts say, mixing up their workouts to make the muscles stronger. That’s the opposite of a leveled reading ladder that too many children struggle to climb.
“Students know when we are respecting their brains and have confidence in their ability to meet the challenge,” said Pimentel. “Students rise to the challenge with the right support and encouragement. And doing so allows all students to be thinking at grade level even if reading is harder for some.”