Note: This is the third in a series of reflective posts that form part of a university course that I am taking. I hope that you will find something valuable in my reflections as well. You can find the first post here and the second post here.
A young boy walks into the library. Usually an enthusiastic reader of all sorts of science books, he steers clear of those today and heads for a bin of early readers. Each book in this bin has a matching coloured sticker on the front; the books in the bins on either side also have coloured stickers, albeit different colours. The boy flips half-heartedly through the books, clearly not enamoured with any of the choices. He glances longingly over at the display of books about space on top of the bookshelf, then turns his attention back to the bin. Eventually he chooses a couple of books and slowly makes his way to the circulation desk to sign them out, pausing to peek back at the space books once more before sighing and placing his books in front of the teacher-librarian. Curious, the TL asks about today's choices.
"My mom wants me to improve my reading so she only wants me to sign books out at my level." he replies, tracing circles on the desk with his finger. He pushes the books toward the TL, as if to say "well, get on with it then."
This is a scenario that is happening throughout schools in North America (perhaps even worldwide). Students reluctantly choosing books because they're "at the right level". In the interests of making sure that kids can read, reading is being reduced to a clinical task, devoid of the joy and enthusiasm that reading should entail. Kids are tested, leveled and then assigned books that match their level. Once they show that they can read those books, they move up to the next level; if they can't, well, they sit at that level until they can. Practice makes perfect and all that.
All this in the name of developing good readers. A valuable goal, and an undeniably important foundation of the school system. But if readers don't want to read, how are they to become good readers? If the only books they ever see at a young age are written not to inspire but to meet a prescribed lexile level or reinforce a particular phonetic pattern, how will these kids ever know that there are books out there that open doors to new worlds, that can teach them things they never knew, that can transport them on adventures beyond their wildest imaginations?
Interestingly, the developers of one of North America's largest text levelling systems, Fountas and Pinnell, have publicly stated (see the blog post) that reading levels are "a valuable tool for teachers" but should not be used to label kids. They continue by saying "When children select books from a classroom library, they should be guided by interest and enjoyment, not by level." They acknowledge that students will encounter a wide variety of texts throughout the day and state that teachers should use their knowledge of the student's reading level to help "guide and support" that child's choices.
So how, then, did we get to the point where entire libraries have been overhauled and arranged by reading level? Where classrooms contain little reading material beyond leveled texts and parents know little about their child's reading identity beyond a number or letter? In a word, research. In more words, a lack of understanding of the research. Of what the levels actually tell us about text and what role they serve in developing children as readers. An alarmingly narrow interpretation of research showing that reading comprehension improves when children read texts at, or slightly above, their current reading level has led educators and parents to believe (erroneously) that children should be reading text at their level every moment of every day.
Unfortunately, this interpretation fails to take in to consideration all of the other factors at play when it comes to a child's reading identity - their interests, their prior knowledge, their motivation. Children can be vastly different readers, even of text at the same level, when they are interested in reading it. We all can, really. But sometimes we forget that. Sometimes we are so concerned with ensuring that a child can read that we forget to be concerned with ensuring that they want to read.
Developing a positive reading identity - a belief that you are a reader and that reading is enjoyable - should be our main focus for our learners. I work with students every day who don't see themselves as readers, often because their early experiences were negative ones. Imagine being the kid stuck on level 6 while everyone else moves on to level 8 or 10 or 12; looking at a stack of books and being told you can only choose from that stack, even when the book you most want to read is sitting on the stack right next to it. By limiting our readers in this way, we are limiting their opportunities to choose text that is interesting, text that is challenging, text that may open the floodgates to a world of reading.
Developing a positive reading identity should be our main focus for our learners.
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about living life with my family, teaching and learning something new all the time. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!