Friday, July 14, 2017

Librarians Take Reading Level Stand

One of the weird little sideshows of modern ed reform has been an unhealthy preoccupation with reading levels. What lots of folks heard Common Core say was that we had to lock students in to their lexile reading score level (whether the Core said exactly that or not is another debate, That in turn has triggered a resurgence in programs like Renaissance Learning's dreadful Accelerated Reader incentive program. Read more books! Answer more quizzes! Learn more points! And always-- always-- pick books based on the reading level and not based on, say, whether or not you find it interesting.

Yes, please

There's a lot to argue about when it comes to reading levels. These generally based on mechanics, in keeping with the whole philosophy of reading and writing as a set of context-free "skills"-- it assumes that how well you read something has nothing at all to do with the content of what you're reading. Lexile scores, the type of analysis favored by the Core fans, works basically from vocabulary and sentence length. That has the advantage of being analysis that a machine can do. It has the disadvantage of providing ridiculous results. Ernest Hemmingway's novel The Sun Also Rises is at about the same lexile score as the classic Curious George Gets a Medal-- third gtrade-ish. Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V may have PG-13 language and situations, but it also has a fourth grade-ish lexile score. And none of those works rank as high as Mr. Popper's Penguins.

So there's a great deal to dislike about the whole business of assessing reading levels, but the American Association of School Librarians (a subgroup of the American Library Association) has noted other undesirable trends related to leveling, and they have issued a statement about them.

Here's some bad news they note:

One of the realities some school librarians face in their jobs is pressure by administrators and classroom teachers to label and arrange library collections according to reading levels.

Yikes. As the AASL notes, this feeds into the practice of students scanning for slim books at the "correct" reading level so they can snatch up more of those reading program points. If you don't recognize how troubling that is, AASL would like to remind everyone what the point of the library is supposed to be:

School library collections are not merely extensions of classroom book collections or classroom teaching methods, but rather places where children can explore interests safely and without restrictions. A minor’s right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

AASL also notes that spine-marking reading levels means that every child's reading level is on display to everyone else the moment she picks up a book. Arranging books this way also means that students are not learning how to locate materials in a "real" library out in the world, adding one more obstacle to their progress as college students and adults.

And AASL quietly (as librarians will) calls these sorts of leveled reading programs out for what they are-- not an attempt to build reading skills or open up the world for students, but actually to restrict their reading options. And that's not what America's librarians signed up for:

It is the responsibility of school librarians to promote free access for students and not to aid in restricting their library materials. School librarians should resist labeling and advocate for development of district policies regarding leveled reading programs that rely on library staff compliance with library book labeling and non-standard shelving requirements. These policies should address the concerns of privacy, student First Amendment Rights, behavior modification in both browsing and motivational reading attitudes, and related issues.

Nobody, least of all a librarian, should be saying, "Yes, Pat, I know you love dinosaurs, and this looks like a great book about dinosaurs, but it has a blue sticker and you're only allowed to get out red sticker books, so here, read this nice book about doilies."

Kudos to the librarians for remembering what their mission is supposed to be and not allowing themselves to be sidetracked by a bad idea.


  1. Librarians might save us all. They ROCK!

  2. In this reading level system, vintage books are not acknowledged and end up getting ignored by students because they don't have an AR level attached to them so they don't "count" for the points.

  3. School librarians?....what are they? They cut back at the ES level and then they got rid of them at the MS level (or maybe it became a part time position). Not sure what our HS's have?

    1. Differs by state. Our district has certified school librarians in every school at every age level. Every student deserves a certified school librarian! Research shows that they increase learning in schools across a wide variety of markers.

  4. Wonderful article. I am a proponent of Free Voluntary Reading. My school does not have AR (thankfully) and I would never think of labelling books by Lexile or F&P

  5. Way to go, librarians, for standing up for the enjoyment of reading! I completely agree!

  6. I require every one of my ninth grade earth science students to read a book in the 3rd marking period. Fiction or non-fiction, as long as it's related to earth science they can read it (with my approval). I also work with our reading teachers and the ELA teachers to guide our shared students towards books appropriate to their reading levels.


    I don't know how many times I've had kids who have low Lexile numbers find a book at a higher level that they are REALLY interested in, say "Jurassic Park", or "Contact" and then their reading/ELA teacher discourages them. Look, I have my kids do this simply because I love to read and if by some chance a student gets turned on to reading because of a book about dinosaurs...YAY! It irritates me no end to have that same kid come back up to me and tell me they were told to pick another book.

    I'm with you and the librarians Peter. Reading ability is shaped by what we are reading and our level of interest. That girl who finished "Jurassic Park" ignored her ELA teacher and worked through that book. It was a challenge, but because of her interest she pushed through and was so proud she'd finished "the longest book of her life!"

    A few weeks later I saw she was reading Crighton's "The Lost World". She'd picked it up on her own.

    I'll bet she's a better reader now than she was before reading a pulpy thriller about dinosaurs. I hope so at least.

  7. If schools ran AR correctly, you wouldn't have kids worried about the level of book they were reading. Better training would help with that.

  8. If the Accelerated Reader program was run like it was supposed to and supported like it's supposed to be, you shouldn't have these selection issues. Since this argument seems to come up again and again, AR should provide better training and retraining.

  9. AR should not have better training. It should be recognized for what it is--a money making program that does all the things Peter and other readers commented on as well as provide tests that show nothing beyond recall, and even those can be gamed. When students no longer are required to do AR only the kids who read without prompting continue to read. The others have to be reengaged to read.

  10. Way to go Rockhound! All the research I've recently been reading for my grad classes supports the idea that children SHOULD be encouraged to read above their reading level. Just as you saw for your Jurassic Park reader, it works them to be better readers, just like an athlete that puts in a harder workout!