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Readers Seek Their Own Level


It takes some of my students longer than others to fall in love with books, so it cheered me last week to see Bobby checking out all six books in Gordon Korman’s action-packed On the Run series. Bobby, a developing reader, has had a bit of trouble finding books that he enjoys. Sidling up to him, I said, “Wow, it seems like you are really making some reading plans. What interests you in reading On the Run? I know that a lot of kids in the class love it.”

Looking guilty, Bobby asked, “May I check out all of them? I know we are supposed to only check out three books at a time. I need to check out all of them before you change your mind.”

“Bobby, why would I change my mind?”

“Well, last year, at my old school, I read Chasing the Falconers (the first book), but my teacher would not let me read the next book because it had a red sticker and I was only supposed to read books with yellow stickers. I used my five fingers like you taught us and I think they are all ‘just right books’ for me. Please can I read them? Do you think I am a red sticker now?”

With tears in my eyes, I helped Bobby list all six of those books on his library card and carry them back to his desk. How sad that he defined himself by a reading level sticker instead of seeing himself as a reader with interests and the freedom and skill to choose his own books.

Determining the reading level of books is a valuable tool for teachers. By knowing the levels of the books in my class library and the reading ability of my students I can:

• determine a starting point for guided reading instruction

• make recommendations for independent reading

• develop text sets for thematic studies that include a gradient of difficulty

• compare books with the same author, topic, or genre

Slavish devotion to a reading level system has some innate problems for young readers, however:

• the same book can have different readability scores depending on the passage you choose to analyze or the method of leveling used

• the content of a book may not be age appropriate even when the reading level is

• text structure, unusual vocabulary, punctuation, or an unfamiliar topic can make a book harder to read

• reading books below reading level can still increase a reader’s background knowledge, reading rate, and fluency

• newer books may not appear on leveling lists for up to a year after publication

• student motivation is always a factor. Some students will read a more challenging book because they are interested in it. It follows that students, who are not motivated to read a book, won’t, even when the book is on their level.

While book leveling systems are a good idea in theory, the single-minded use of such systems at the expense of other assessments (or just common sense about books and kids) has the potential to prevent students from reading the books they want to read.

Teach students how to pick for themselves and allow them the opportunity to abandon a book that does not work. Ultimately, branding kids with a reading level label does not prepare them to choose books for themselves in the real world of bookstores and public libraries. Isn’t reading independence for all students our goal?

Bobby is now happily reading The Fugitive Factor, the same book he was barred from reading last year. Bottom line—knowing the predetermined level of a text does not replace knowing books or readers.


Hi Donalyn,
You know the greatest problem I have with my struggling readers? A few of my 5th graders don't want to appear "babyish" (they are boys)if they select an easier to read text. I haven't really had this problem before. How do I keep their interest without them feeling embarrassed about choice of reading?



I would argue that the biggest caveat is the inclusion of saying "at the expense of other common sense assessments" - our jobs are two-fold in this case - helping each reader learn to self select from a variety of books, but also making those systems as convenient and as accessible as possible for the vast majority of our patronage.

The upside of levelling is that it makes finding books on a student's level and that might be interesting easier to find especially in the youngest grades - but in the upper grades it becomes a barrier when that section develops a certain stigma as the baby section which can drive students away from it.

One of our jobs that a bookstore and sometimes even public libraries aren't charged with is developing independent readers and as much as we try to teach students good searching skills, I see nothing wrong with developing systems that makes finding appealing books easier - but at the extreme I do not advocate making those systems define our students either.

We create genre sections for adults and/or provide stickers for genres - is this to say an adult couldn't find an interesting book without them?

Stickers should be a tool to help make suggestions since we can't know every book in our library but they shouldn't be used to the extreme of limiting students especially those who should be learning self-selection.

Oh I love you for posting this!


I think that my first question for you would be, "How do your boys know? How do they know that the books they are reading are a lower reading level than grade level?"

I would make recommendations based on your students' interest--discreetly guiding them to books that are more accessible.

This is where your knowledge of a book's reading level and the capability of your students takes on a behind-the-scenes quality.

This is the very reason I didn't label my books with reading level. I was teaching in a grade 8 classroom with reading levels varying from grade 2 to adult-level. Since many fiction books have a reading level of below grade eight, and content is the biggest factor to determine appropriateness, it didn't make sense to level the books in my library. My kids read books above and below their grade levels, based on interest. It worked for us!

I believe reading levels are great in theory but do have tremendous flaws. I think it is great that your student chose to read the book even though he had been told that it was too hard for him. I think children need to challenge themselves, that is how they will become better readers. If the interest is there students will try a lot harder to decipher more difficult text. Teachers should stress finding something that you are interested in as a reader and not limiting yourself to something that is on your reading level.

I think the biggest problem a lot of middle school readers face is that it's "not cool to read." Teachers need to be passionate about reading and implement it constantly throughout the curriculum.
A teacher once told me she had to lure boys into books with magazines. She then had boys reading outdoor books such as Hatchet, and then found tons of related books to provide for the boys. She said that the library couldn't keep them checked in for more than a day. I think that by promoting a passion for reading, students will begin to model and find ways to see reading books as fun. The key problem is finding books that interest children. If a teacher can reach the child's interst, they will be sold. Reading level should not interfere with this. If a book is too hard, perhaps they should try it on tape?

I think that this is an awesome post.

Donalyn, I loved reading your comments about Bobby. I had a similar situation years ago when I taught fourth grade. I had one boy who had been in all the different reading programs and he simply would not read. As I taught writing using picture books, he began to look at these books, as all the students did. I noticed he kept reading one by Joan Lowery Nixon over and over. I asked if he would like me to help him find some more books by her, he was so excited. When I showed him a few of her chapter books, he frowned and said, "Don't you know I can't read chapter books?" We sat together and he read. He was amazed that he could, he had never tried because he was always told he wasn't ready. The rest of the year, he read chapter books and came to school each morning telling me all about what was happening in each one.

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Recent Comments

  • Ragina: Donalyn, I loved reading your comments about Bobby. I had read more
  • Hunter: I think that this is an awesome post. read more
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  • Julie: I believe reading levels are great in theory but do read more
  • Sharon: This is the very reason I didn't label my books read more



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