Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Leveled reading systems=pigeon-holed students? #amreading

Let me preface this by saying that I'm not a parent, and I haven't frequented schools where reading systems were prevalent in over twenty years.

So let me tell you a story.

I was recently chatting with a friend who does have elementary-school-aged children, and we got to talking about the books we enjoyed when we were in school, required reading or otherwise. Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, etc. She--I'm not feeling creative today, so I'll call her Polly Parent--is active in volunteering in her kids' classrooms and around the school as well.

I mention remembering the little numbers on the backs of children's books--not the ISBNs, but the reading level. Polly tells me that reading levels still exist, but they're broader now; more...encompassing. Restricting, even. I ask he what she means, and she says that, in her kids' school, they use a leveled reading system. I don't know whether it's this one from Scholastic, but there are a bunch out there. Anyway, I don't remember if she said they use letters or numbers to signify levels, so I'll go by the numerical method to keep things simple.

From what Polly tells me, each student is assessed for their reading level. Well, okay, that seems standard--I can remember having to do that when I was in elementary school, and so did Polly. But after they're assessed, the school is stricter about allowing the students to branch out from their "assigned" level; at least that's Polly's impression. She says she's seen kids who won't even go near a book designated with a higher level than they were assessed at, even if it was on a topic they might find interesting. Example: If a kid is assessed at a level 4, they'll avoid a level 5 book like the plague. She's not sure if it's just the kids, or something they're being told (i.e. "Don't read a book at a higher level until you're assessed at that level"), but either way, it's disconcerting. They're being pigeon-holed; even if it's not explicitly stated, the restriction is communicated in some way.

Here's where it really gets depressing--Polly said that she'd heard that a class of students had gone to the school library, and when the teacher went to gather her class to take them back to the classroom, she noticed that a student had checked out a book at a higher level. "You can't read that!" the teacher told the student. Whether the teacher took the book from the student or the student was "allowed" to keep the book wasn't discussed.

At that point, I saw red. How was this happening?

Books are for everyone. Reading, like most things, takes practice--doing things that are more difficult is how we get better at it. I can remember taking books out of my school library, or my town library, or grabbing them from my family's shelves, that I'd have difficulty with. Guess what? I either read them with someone, or bumbled through it on my own with occasional help from someone else. I'd poke through old National Geographic magazines (I can't be the only one whose families stockpiled these like they'd make great burning material for the coming apocalypse), which are obviously written for adults. But I'd use my "context clues"--the words I did know, and the amazing pictures--and infer what the articles were about.

How do we expect kids to get better at reading--and learning--if their access to the materials they want to read is so carefully guarded and controlled? "Teaching for the test" and "common core" are already screwing us over; why is reading going the same way? If their natural curiosity is being stifled in such a way, do we really expect students to be passionate and interested in things as they get older? People already complain that our younger generations are too tightly monitored and don't develop coping tools or adequate levels of independence; could this be because--gasp--they aren't allowed to learn (in some ways) as they want to? To explore and experiment and find their interests? Reading is a vital part of development and communication, and we're taking that away and making it more regimented? Telling students they "can't" read something? How is that supposed to help educate and impart knowledge?

I say, kids should be able to read whatever they'd like if it's developmentally appropriate and they have access to it. If you're a parent, make it clear to your school (and the board of education, if necessary) that you want your child to be able to read to challenge themselves, check out whatever books they want from the library, and that, even though the students are assessed for reading level (as they should be), that that shouldn't define what they can do.

Your thoughts on this?

xoxo Sarah


  1. We have experienced this as a family last year with my daughter bringing home the word a page books that took her 60s to read and then she was bored. She hated them and it was school policy that they read them EVERY NIGHT and then log it. Other books were not alllowed to be sent home until she mastered these (which she long since had).

    My kids are luckier than most as they live with the crazy book lady and there is never a shortage of reading material or people will to read with you. My worry was always what about the kids who don't have that? Whose parents don't take them to the library and let them take out whatever they want?

    When my my son was my daughter's age he was reading through math books, my daughter loves reading girly chapter books. Are they above her reading level probably, does she know all the words - of course not but she is always excited to ask so that she can do it herself.

    Reading levels just aggravate me, kids learn to read faster when reading something they are interested in.

    1. This makes me so sad! Your kids are very lucky to have a "crazy book lady" in the house. My mother was the same way when I was little. She's still a crazy book lady now, lol! Thank you for reading and commenting.