Stop & Think! A Cautionary Tale About Sharing Reading Levels

Stop & Think! A Cautionary Tale About Sharing Reading Levels

This post is one of reflection as an elementary team leader and as an elementary teacher. It is also a cautionary tale against leveling students. I suppose you could say it is also a cautionary tale warning the dangers of not providing enough professional development to staff when introducing new methods. 

Even the Experts Disagree

Before we step too far into this hot topic. Let’s just reflect upon the experts and what they say. There are many more experts on this topic. I have just chosen Irene Fountas, Gay Su Pinnell, and Lucy Calkins for simplifying the arguments.

Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are firmly against children knowing their reading level and reading levels being anything other than a teacher tool. Fountas and Pinnell hosted a webinar quite recently to express their thoughts on reading levels. If you follow Fountas and Pinnell on Twitter, you will frequently see this belief tweeted out. Reading levels are for teachers. Reading levels guide instruction but they are not the be all end all of reading instruction. Kids should not know their reading level. Reading levels should not be shared with parents. Classroom libraries should be organized by series, characters, topic, author, genre, or interest. I admit that I subscribe to the beliefs of F&P- especially after this year.

Lucy Calkins does not agree with Fountas and Pinnell. She believes that children should know their reading levels. It should also be clearly laid out for them what they will need to achieve as readers to move up to the next level. Calkins believes that 70% of the classroom library should be organized by level and the remaining 30% should be series, topic, author or genre. 

I’ve taught in schools where kids and parents were not told levels. In fact, when they did start to release levels to parents, the parents had to attend a class to learn about levels before they could learn their child’s level. I have taught in schools where levels were known by kids and parents and where levels were used as a motivator to push kids along as readers. I’ve worked at schools with no distinct policies and the choice is left up to teachers. While each school may work differently I’ve noticed one method with better success. 

What Our School Used to DO

At my current school teachers were given choice about reading levels. Some shared with kids and parents, some shared with parents, some shared with kids, some didn’t share at all. The reason reading levels were shared was to help quantify a child’s learning. If I tell a parent that this child started the year at a level B and is ending the year at a level H, the parent can see growth. Parents also liked it because they felt they could see how good a teacher was by how many levels a child moved up. I am aware that this is not how things go… but I’m just sharing what we did. 

Teachers were not provided much professional development at all in regards to reading levels. In fact, I was never even trained in the D.R.A. I had given F&P B.A.S. before and my principal said good enough, they were the same thing. The teacher education around reading levels and even best teaching practice from the last 10 years was almost nonexistent. We also switched to the workshop model with a 15 minute presentation from a colleague and me. There was no parent education on our new reading and writing curriculum because not all teachers were following it. As you can see, this was a recipe for disaster.

This inconsistency created a huge problem. There wasn’t flow from grade 0 through grade 5. Parents were confused by different expectations at each grade level. Some teachers shared DRA levels which are numbers and some converted our DRA scores to letter levels. Some classroom libraries were organized by level. Some classroom libraries were organized by topic or genre. There was a large outcry that we needed more consistency. This year we’re working to educate our staff and provide more consistency 0-5.

The Crisis We Created

Sharing reading levels with students can seem harmless. It is one way a teacher can help a teacher find a just right book. If a child knows they are a K then they can find a book that is a K. The problem is that readers began to identify with their level more than they should. Readers were quickly able to tell who were the best readers in the class and who were the worst based on level. It reminds me of the reading groups the existed when I was a child. The groups were clearly labeled by ability. Some kids were the birds and some kids were the worms. A reader’s identity is built up of so many things. Their interests and life experiences play a huge role. Their race and gender orientation and religion and so many of the important things that make that child unique play a role in their reading identity. It appears as though when a level is introduced the level begins to take precedence. 

The entire point of creating levels is to move up levels. Parents understand that decoding is essential to moving up. If you can read harder words then you can read harder books. When you and I were kids comprehension wasn’t stressed much. I had to do simple retells but the deep underlying comprehension was never part of my reading education. The comprehension you get to by inferring or reflecting on author’s craft was never required and many of our parents don’t even consider that when thinking about if a book is just right. Parents wanted their child to move through the levels and become better and better readers. Children wanted to move through the levels and become better and better readers. Teachers wanted the same thing and with little background or training on the levels began pushing kids through. Once a child could decode the story and do a retell, maybe a few other simple comprehension tasks they were moved on. The system seemed to work… until it didn’t. 

This year we switched from D.R.A. to Fountas and Pinnell B.A.S. I trained our teachers this August and we set out to assess our kids. I knew that scores would drop slightly because of the types of comprehension questions that would be asked. I knew that we weren’t teaching for comprehension and rich understanding but I had no idea what was in store. I converted the scores from the DRA to BAS and was shocked. Some 4th graders were listed at an 8th grade level. Most grade 3 students were supposedly reading at a 5th or 6th grade level. While we do have very intelligent children at our school, we do not have whole classes years ahead of where they should be. 

Teachers began to assess and the cracks started to show. As teachers worked to assess and assess the students were moved down and down. Even in my grade 1 class most students are currently reading at a beginning of grade 0 reading level. Where did we go wrong and how did we go so far off the tracks? The answer is simple. We didn’t train teachers in reading levels or our new reading curriculum. Without this knowledge teachers were doing their best to apply prior knowledge to an entirely new system. It clearly wasn’t work. Unfortunately the fix will not be an easy or simple one. 

Where do We go Next?

In the midst of our testing crisis we had a CPT meeting (Curriculum Planning Team). This team includes all elementary teachers and teaching assistants. We meet once a week to discuss a wide variety of things. We started to discuss classroom libraries and how we should organize them. A strong case was made for organizing them by level. It was easiest. Kids got it and their parents got it too. A few teachers were arguing against this. The whole reason we were in this testing mess was partially due to levels. At the end of the meeting tempers were rising and the debate was getting heated. As the leader, I pressed pause and said we would have to return to the topic another time. I suggested we look into educational research to guide us further, the teachers seemed to support this decision and I hoped it would lead us in a positive direction.

That night I went home and searched and searched for research. I was stunned to learn that I couldn’t find much research supporting leveled libraries. I did however read some interesting research explaining that reading levels are a sham. I always love to hear from opinions opposite my own to have my beliefs challenged and put into perspective. The next week I challenged our staff to form an opinion and find research to support their opinion. We would then continue the conversation with advice from the experts. 

The day of the meeting I was so nervous. It was a completely open decision. Our principal said that whatever was decided would be tested out for the year and we would reflect at the end of the year. I expected everyone to bring research that supported unleveled libraries but argue that we should still level ours. That didn’t happen at all. At the end of the meeting we decided that we did not want our libraries leveled. We instead wanted our libraries organized by genre and topic. We wanted kids to be able to quickly find stories they wanted to read based on interest, not level. Our classroom libraries are currently being unleveled. We are working to teach our students about choosing a book based on interest, not level. This has been a HUGE struggle for me. I will have to write another post just about this soon. We are hosting a parent education night to explain our program to our parents and we are slowly moving forward. This will be an uphill journey but we are beginning and that is what matters.

What I Hope You Can Learn From Us

When telling students and parents levels we hadn’t thought of the ramifications. I believe that if parents are to learn levels then there needs to be some sort of parent education tied to learning the levels. Levels are complex. So, so complex. This is the exact reason why Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are so adamant about reading levels being used for anything other than a teacher’s tool. Kids need to build a reading identity and so often when they are given a level it becomes the only source of their reading identity. I can assure you that a large majority of the reading I do is far too easy for me. I like it though. I can tell you that I am the type of reader who loves nonfiction and young adult literature. I love reading blog posts and articles written in list format. I don’t know my reading level and even if I did I wouldn’t always follow it. Readers are complex and reducing them to a level takes away the complexity. 


I know this post is a bit jumbled as I continue try to wrap my head around our current situation and determine next steps moving forward. What are your thoughts on sharing reading levels? How does your school do it? Do you have any advice for our school moving forward from this? I would love to hear what you have to say!


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