Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Leveling of Books

Being librarians and book lovers, Malissa and I have often talked about the leveling of books. The good, the bad, the ugly. I realize that there are good things to be said, but as a public librarian/avid reader, it pains me to hear a child say "I can't read that book. It's not on my level." They are put in this box and told they can't go outside of it. They can read a book that's not on their level... if it's lower it'll just be an easy read. If it's higher it'll just be more challenging. But they can't test on it. Therein lies the problem for me. I feel pretty strongly about letting kids read what they want - they're reading, so why fight it? And if you look up the AR reading level of Jodi Picoult, most of them come at roughly a 5th grade reading level. Yes, you read that right. Someone who writes about some of the most controversial topics is "suitable" for a fifth grader in this sense. Really? But boy are they worth the points. And Harry Potter? Harry Potter is roughly a 6th grade reading level. How does this make sense? They take into account words used, sentence structure, and the like, but what about content? What about the themes that are presented? I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be okay with my future fifth grader reading Picoult's The Tenth Circle.

I would say a lot more but Malissa lives in a different state than I do, and she sends me this, saying what I would say and more:

So I need to vent. As will happen at times. And what better place than your best friend's book blog?
So here's the thing. Our state has introduced new educational standards this year (no, I don't have kids in school yet, but I know these things because I'm a public librarian). Stuff to do with common core and other things I'm not terribly well versed in. A part of this is a move toward using Lexile scores to guide a student's reading. So today I got an email from our state library listserv with an attached article about Lexile measure so that we librarians can be informed when panicked parents come in and don't know what it means that their kid needs a book from 750L - 900L. So I read it in the interest of being up to date and informed even though I'm already familiar with Lexile levels in general. And it says how great a tool this is to help your kids improve their reading and how you can use your school provided scores (Now a part of state standardized testing. Yay!) to provide your kids with books from 100L below their score to 50L above and track their progress and have a grand time etc. All very sunny and glowing stuff. I almost bought it. OK not really, but it did sound pretty decent. Then I decided to check a couple of books for my own amusement and enlightenment (I've done this before, but maybe it changed somehow ...). So I looked up Bad Kitty Meets the Baby by Nick Bruel.) It's part of a juvenile chapter book series that my 5 year old kindergarten nephew LOVES. They're short and heavy on pictures and short on text. A bit like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. BUT they use big words intentionally and in fun ways and then list them in the back with definitions. My nephew went around last year after I gave him his first Bad Kitty book and said "masticate" on a regular basis. Used it correctly. (+snicker snicker+ because how great of an aunt does that make me?). Pretty cool way to get kids to learn vocab if you ask me, but does it make the book 720L and roughly equivalent in difficulty to The Boxcar Children mysteries and Hank the Cowdog (as an aside, Hank the Cowdog ranks about a 4.8 reading level and 3ish point for AR and Bad Kitty is 3.5 and 1 point)? I don't think so, but who am I to say. So then I decided to try's find a book feature and told it I was a 12th grader who found assigned reading easy. I gave it categories of books I like and hit search. It suggests that as a high school senior and advanced reader that I read J.K. Rowlings Tales of Beedle the Bard, apparently a 1290L. Yes, I read that as an adult, but not to challenge myself. 1290L? Really? OR I could read Orwell's Animal Farm at 1170L. Because Beedle the Bard is clearly more complex and challenging than Animal Farm ... And this is where one of my big problems lies. The scores only seem to take into account things like sentence structure or vocab or word length. They do nothing for the subtle complexities of the text. They don't consider the themes of the stories. Yet they're presented to parents and educators as the be all and end all of what kids SHOULD be reading. And sure, kids need to be challenged and assigned reading in school that they wouldn't usually pick up, but none of this existed (or at least was used) when I was a kid (and, no, I'm not that old). We did Book It! and got pizza coupons for reading books of our own choosing. And I read books. And more books. And then some more books because I loved them. And today I read lots and lots of books and am a librarian with a master's degree who shares books with others and is fairly literate and quite decent with the English language by my own estimation. Now I know I'm hardly a case study unto myself, but why can't we have more of encouraging kids to read what they love for pleasure and reward rather than forcing them into neat little boxes labeled with numbers that advertise their "abilities" (or perceived lack thereof) to the world? Is there any better way to tell a kid that reading is WORK? That it's supposed to be hard and challenging and no fun? Woohoo educational system. Way to go. Guess I'll just have to work extra hard to combat that with reading fun at home with my (nearly done "cooking") kid. Or maybe I could just reward him for completing "assigned" reading with video games and TV .... 
What are your thoughts on book leveling?


  1. AGHHHHH!!! I am always made so angry by AR/Lexile/et al discussions, and this is no different. I spent all four years I was teaching fighting the stupid AR system in my classroom (mostly successfully). And guess what? MY TEST SCORES WERE GREAT. Give kids stories that inspire them and make them want to read more, and the rest will take care of itself.

    My own daughter is 9, a 4th grader, and homeschooled. She still checks out picture books from the library. She's also reading The Hobbit. I'm okay with both those things, because she is a READER.

    Sorry to rant all over your post. :) Thanks for putting it out there. Tons of them have been written and people need to keep doing it until the message is heard.

    1. Don't apologize... I love rants! :) I so wish more people (especially in the school systems) felt the same way. Isn't making readers out of children more important than how well they can test over a specific level of book they read? How does forcing them to read certain books inspire a love of reading? My children are four and 1 1/2 and I'm already dreading the future when it comes to AR/Lexile. Their teachers may come to dread me as well. Which I'm perfectly okay with. :)

    2. I totally agree that we need to keep ranting and am glad others still approve of it! I feel like I do it (on facebook, twitter, wherever) every time this comes up and don't want to be a broken record. It just continues to frustrate me to no end.

  2. Brandy, you nailed it when you said how absolutely disheartening it is to have a kid say they "can't" read a book because it's the wrong level. It's just sooo sad and frustrating. Or those situations where a frustrated and confused parent comes in needing a certain level of book for a student that both meets their requirements AND the parent's comfort with subject matter. The student doesn't even come because they know they can't get what they like, the parent is stuck in the middle wanting to help and not knowing how, and all we can do is send them home with yet another stack of Jane Austen type "classics" and hope they might not hate them all ... Fortunately my boss supports me spending gobs of time hunting actual current YA books at a higher AR/Lexile/etc level for those kids/parents who ask for help. But then there are still the ones who don't :/


Thank you so much for taking your time to share your thoughts! I try to respond to everyone. :)