Saturday, December 26, 2009

reading level riot

before i start my rant let me tell you that i do in fact know some teachers personally, and they are not retarded. i assume these "non-retarded" teachers are not the minority, but evidence has proven the contrary.

so it has come to my attention that someone at the local school is dissatisfied with the library. they work with parents and say that a lot of parents have been complaining that they are unable to find the books that are on their child's "level." complaining to the school, because it is the school that gives the assignments, not us.

now, these reading levels are made up of letters which determine what books the child "can" read. we do not use levels here. when a kid comes up and says "what book would be good for me?" we ask the kid a series of questions and then pick out books for that child. OR , another way to put it is that instead of just pigeonholing a child into a meaningless system, we give each child individual attention and help them find a book which is appropriate and interesting to them. this is how it has been in public libraries since the dawn of children's literature. if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

so this person from the school was complaining that the public library should be organized not by dewey decimal system, or by genre, or author ... oh no! instead the library which serves the ENTIRE community, should be organized by the local school's reading level system. of course! let's cater to just you, local school! forget the community as a whole!

it was even suggested that the school would send help so that we could re-arrange our collection of tens of thousands of books to their liking. then i helpfully suggested that if they want a library that caters to them, maybe they should work on their own school library. surely, it would make sense if the school wants a library that caters to the school's reading level system, why not do this at the school library. see where i'm going here? but alas, the school library doesn't have all the books that ours does. so instead of them working to improve their collection, they figure it will be easier and cheaper to just mess with us. thanks!

you might be asking yourself, "self, what's so bad about reading levels?" well i'll tell you. reading levels are not inherently evil. but here at the library it isn't our job to teach kids how to read or to give them boring reading assignments. our job is to foster a love of reading. so if a kid picks up a book that interests them, we encourage them to read it. maybe it's a graphic novel, maybe it's a magazine, maybe it's a book that's a little too easy for them but they'd enjoy reading it. we don't care! we just want people to read something that they like reading. then later, if they want to read something more difficult, they can read that too.

imagine if adults had reading levels ... i would love to go up to someone and say, "oh i'm sorry sir, you can't read that new dan brown book. the lost symbol is totally below your reading level. here's a copy of the canterbury tales instead." or maybe next time i see a nice old lady picking up a danielle steele novel i should rip it out of her hands and give her madame bovary instead. you catch my drift?

and a few times i have actually encountered kids who wanted to read a more advanced book, but were afraid to since it wasn't on their level. can you imagine? some kid picks up harry potter and then finds out that it's a level above him so he puts it back and picks out something that is less interesting to him. great! what a way to encourage reading!

now, just to further complicate things ... many non-teachers believe that reading levels are a bit of a scam created by the publishing companies. for instance, they sell these "leveled" books in bulk to the schools, and many of the titles are not available for separate purchase by libraries or other individuals. also, many of the titles which are on these reading level lists are actually out of print, and therefore can no longer be purchased.

in the end, i was told i should "meet up" with this school person and "work it out." but i am a bit unclear about what there is to "work out." i think in the meantime, i will just stick to recommending quality age appropriate books to the children. like i'm a librarian or something.


Rutila said...

Thank you for saying that reading levels are inherently ridiculous. Instead of getting parents involved in reading levels, why don't they talk to their children about books in general and encourage independent thought?

Miss Dewey Decimal said...

ah independent thought, i wish. but how would we evaluate and grade independent thoughts?

spudsmama said...

I found you through Sheryl's blog and loved your name! I work in an elementary school library, and my principal knows the one way to drive me absolutely bonkers is to mention she's thinking of buying Accelerated Reader. We did start using the dreaded Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (referred to fondly by teachers as "effing P") but I do not participate, and will not label my library in such a way.

Reading levels are the very best way to suck all the joy out of the serendipity of discovering books in the library.

Keep up the fight!


Miss Dewey Decimal said...

thanks, mary! i appreciate your support! and i'm heartened to know that there are anti-reading level teachers out there!

SkitzoLeezra said...

I remember our branch librarian asking my mom's approval for my brother to check out an Ian Fleming book; he was 12 years old or so. "He can read anything he wants, today or any day." My brother seemed to enjoy the vote of confidence and I was proud that our mom advocated our choices.

Miss Dewey Decimal said...

the other day a girl asked me for Sherlock Holmes, she's like 10 years old and although she's very clever i know she won't be able to get through this book. but she obviously liked the sherlock holmes movie and wanted to see the book. so i *gasp* showed it to her! and then i said, it may be a little advanced for you, but give it a try.

Mark Pennington said...

Let’s take this subject of reading levels a bit deeper re: independent reading.

Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)? Fleish-Kincaid? Lexiles? Accelerated Reader ATOS? Reading Recovery Levels? Fry’s Readability? John’s Basic Reading Inventory? Standardized test data? Each of these measures quantifies student reading levels and purports to offer guidance regarding how to match reader to text.

But, as an MA reading specialist, I have been trained in how these tests are constructed and how they help determine reading levels for students. I also know how some of the publishers of these tests level reading materials to match the results of their tests (and make a ton of money doing so). Although very scientific, there are eight problems with each of these approaches:

1. They are cumbersome and time-consuming to administer.

2. They tend to be costly.

3. They are teacher-dependent (students and parents can’t pick books at their challenge levels without guidance).

4. They do not factor in reader motivation.

5. They do not factor in reading content, in terms of maturity of themes (Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has a 4.7 ATOS readability level).

6. When compared, the various formulae each vary in grade level equivalencies (one rates Tom Sawyer at 4.2, another at 6.9, and still another at 7.3).

7. They tend to force librarians into arbitrary book coding systems to conform to the tests.

8. They limit student and parent choice of reading materials.

Given these issues, isn’t there a better solution that will help inform selection of independent reading books? Yes. Motivation and word recognition.

Motivation has to factor into reading selection. My own son grew a full year in reading comprehension by reading the fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire over the summer a few years back. The book was certainly above his grade level for a fifth grader, but he was motivated and carefully read and re-read with dictionary and Dad at his side for help. Similarly, thank God for the current “Twilight” series. Many of my below grade level readers (I teach seventh graders) have significantly increased their reading levels by getting hooked on this latest literary phenomenon.

Secondly, word recognition remains the best indicator for self-selection of appropriate reading level books. It is book and reader-specific and thus cannot be tested by the above readability formulae. With guidance, parents and students can use either the five-finger technique (for younger kids) or the five-percent technique (for older students) to determine whether a book is at the appropriate challenge level for an individual student. Simply put, matching text to reader means picking a book that does not have too few or too many "hard" words for the reader. The right match will best challenge, yet not frustrate the reader. The right match will also produce the optimal reading comprehension and vocabulary growth.

My advice? Only assess what will inform your instruction. Motivation and word recognition best match reader with text. Ditch the rest! For more on the word recognition formulae, see How to Determine Reading Levels.

sarah said...

I'm printing out this article to take into work!
I work at a small town library, and our biggest headache is AR (accelerated reading). I personally was home schooled and my parents never fooled with any "reading levels" (my dad was reading me Tolstoy at age 7), and I'm none the worse for it!

Senorita Dewey Decimal said...

hey sarah, so glad to hear that you enjoyed this blog post! good luck!