Education Beat Podcast — A home that smooths the college path for former prisoners — Listen Now!

California's Reading Dilemma

EdSource Special Report

‘Just-right’ books: Does leveled reading hurt the weakest readers?

Above: Jess Hutchison, right, with her daughter Sawyer, left. Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource
By

Jess Hutchison’s daughter Sawyer, 8, is often bored by the books she gets assigned based on her reading level at school. And she’s not the only one.

“Many of them are dumb. They’re just nonsensical,” said the Bay Area mother of two. “So it’s terrible reading, and you’re not learning anything. There’s no knowledge being acquired.”

That’s why Hutchison takes pains to supplement her daughter’s literary diet with more intriguing fare at home. Right now, the third grader favors books about cats.

“She doesn’t want to read the leveled books,” said Hutchison. “I don’t want her to read the leveled books. So we’re going to read something else. She gets to read whatever she wants at home.”

A child’s simple decision to reach beyond her assessed reading level to pick a book she fancies has become a controversy in some quarters. That’s because it flies in the face of “leveled reading,” a practice often associated with balanced literacy classrooms, by far the most popular approach in California. Balanced literacy favors immersion in literature over teaching fundamentals like phonics, which is a pillar of structured literacy, an evidenced-based approach that builds on decades of exhaustive research. However, leveled reading is so ubiquitous that it has also been invoked under the banner of the science of reading.

“It helps to calibrate that content so that students can practice reading at a ‘just-right’ level of difficulty,” said Rebecca Buckley, director of Succeeding by Reading, an Oakland-based tutoring program. “Students who get rushed through these early stages often end up with skill gaps that trip them up as text complexity increases.”

Sticking to a level

Children are assessed periodically to determine their level, often designated by letters, A-Z, or numbers, and they are discouraged from straying from it, lest they grow frustrated. The goal is to make a perfect Goldilocks-style match between child and book, based on ability, proponents say.

That’s why generations of children have been pointed to books that are “just right” for their reading level and held back from books that might be too hard for them. The idea is that if the child only reads books in their sweet spot they will make the most progress. This practice has long been deeply entrenched in how reading is taught in many classrooms. The trouble is, there’s actually scant evidence that “leveled reading” is an effective strategy, experts say, and mounting concern that it may hurt the weakest readers in the long run.

In the wake of crippling pandemic learning loss, as reading test scores plummet, experts say, promoting reading acceleration among students, and not hindering it, may be more crucial than ever.

“Using complex texts seems to violate a sacred principle,” said Sue Pimentel, one of the nation’s top K-12 literacy experts. “It rejects what they thought was well-researched.”

Hiding advanced books

Winnie Iturralde felt so stifled by her leveled books in first grade that she smuggled in more advanced books, tucking them away inside her official book. Hiding her books was easier than getting the teacher to budge on her reading level.

“They just say this is the level based on the assessment,” said her mother, Esti Iturralde. “It is treated as sacrosanct. On the online system, I used to post videos of her reading other books, but nothing could dislodge the assessment.”

These reading adventures illustrate the common practice of using a leveled reading system at school, such as Guided Reading Levels or Lexile Levels, programs that categorize books into levels of difficulty and track student achievement. The system has the ring of common sense to it, which may be why it’s used in so many schools, but it also discourages some early readers.

Winnie had been assessed at level F-G at school, so she wasn’t supposed to be able to read “Dory Fantasmagory,” a level O book, but she did read it, and she loved it. Indeed, many of the children in her class longed for the more fascinating fare in their classroom but were denied access to it.

“The classroom bins are labeled by letter, and kids who reach into the wrong bin are told they have to put the book back,” said Iturralde. “Winnie and other kids have told their parents about forbidden books they are pining to read in a higher bin.”

Students must wait patiently to be reassessed in a hectic classroom and then accept that they may only be allowed to move up one level at a time. Teachers become gatekeepers to books, a longstanding practice in many schools where the assigned reading level is treated as a sacred cow.

An unproven theory

“Teachers have been trained since the 1940s to teach kids at their levels — without any real research support,” said Timothy Shanahan, a renowned literacy expert and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chi­cago. “It makes sense to go slow and low to allow kids an opportunity to master the earliest decoding abilities. However, from Grade 2 on, I think we have made some bad choices — and more and more, the research is showing that kids learn more from working with more challenging texts.”

Amid the deepening literacy crisis, many are beginning to question the wisdom of pigeonholing young readers. Critics say it’s high time the school system began rethinking leveled reading. What if leveled reading doesn’t boost learning after all? What if it just holds children back?

“Basically we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory. The model of learning underlying that theory is too simplistic,” said Shanahan. “As we get more research on it, it is clear that students do better if there is more that they don’t know in a text, more opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, it is deeply ingrained in the system of education to teach kids to read from texts they can already read reasonably well — which holds kids back.”

It’s important to note that many experts agree with the concept of assessing children, to see where they need help, but not using that information to take certain books off the table, especially if those books pique their interest. Instead, teachers and caregivers should try to follow the child’s curiosity and then help fill in the blanks as they read.

The key to effective reading instruction, experts say, is to gradually deepen the student’s understanding. Give them a hand as the path gets steeper but don’t keep them on the flat terrain forever.

“You don’t just dump students in hard text with the idea that they’ll struggle. You provide support to encourage them to connect the text to their background knowledge, you guide them to identify unknown words,” said Shanahan, who helped lead the influential National Reading Panel. “There are clear learning benefits that come from working with frustration-level text.”

Gaining confidence

Weaker readers may fare best when tackling books above their grade level, research suggests, as long as other, stronger readers help them. Children gain confidence even as they work with a teacher, tutor or peer. That boost may carry over into their own silent reading sessions.

Any frustration the child experiences may pay off in lasting skill and self-esteem, experts say, which are invaluable as academic texts grow ever more rich, complex and dense. Few people sail through Dickens or Shakespeare the first time around, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get our feet wet. One of the hallmarks of skilled readers, experts say, is learning how to navigate complexity with patience.

“If weaker readers are working with less complex syntax,” said Pimentel, “they do not learn how to understand the ideas housed in intricate sentences made of a wide variety of structures.”

One key criticism of leveling is that reading assessments are often faulty and poorly implemented, experts say. Teachers may put a lot of faith in a somewhat arbitrary measure, as if the benchmarks are written in stone. A student may score at 7th grade level in one assessment and 9th in another.

“The truth is we can’t even pinpoint a student’s reading level precisely,” said Pimentel. “No student has just one reading level; every student has many levels depending on the topic and their knowledge.”

Another flaw inherent in leveled reading systems, some say, is that they narrow the scope of opportunity, reducing exposure to captivating stories that might motivate students to dig into books with greater zeal. Many children don’t turn into bookworms until they encounter a book that beguiles them. Think “Harry Potter.”

“In real life, no one picks books because letter F is their level. We pick books based on topics we are interested in,” said Jessica Sliwerski, a former teacher and CEO of Ignite Reading, a Zoom-based tutoring program. “Even if kids can’t read a book, there is something exciting about being able to choose and that creates motivation to read, which is important.”

Even literacy experts who champion leveled reading systems emphasize the need for flexibility and nuance. Cultivating a desire to read may be central to sparking literacy.

“Like any tool, book leveling can be overused,” said Buckley. “When it was first introduced, some folks wanted to level all the books in school libraries, and only permit kids to check books out at their current reading level. The librarians were beside themselves with horror.”

Buckley’s tutoring program, which targets students who are at least two years below grade level in Oakland Unified, seems to work miracles. Prior to the pandemic, children who had just 24 sessions with their tutor typically advanced two grade levels.

Some experts also worry that leveling can bog kids down at a low reading level for so long that they become demoralized. Children feel stigmatized by getting stuck on easy readers while their peers peruse chapter books. That can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for both ends of the spectrum, widening the achievement gap.

One Northwestern University Institute for Policy Research study, which followed 12,000 students in K-3 over time, looking at reading group placement, found that students placed in the lowest groups in kindergarten never caught up to those in the highest group.

Leveling remains so pervasive, experts say, because the flaws in the methodology are often unseen. Struggling readers are expected to continue to struggle. No one is surprised when they live down to expectations.

“Leveled reading tracks kids in low-level books,” said Megan Potente, a veteran teacher and literacy coach. “All teachers have seen this. Ten-year-olds who are forced to spend huge amounts of time on level E books during independent reading. Teachers don’t know what to do with them. It’s tragic.”

Teachers have so many students at so many reading levels that it may seem more efficient to let each child read to themselves instead of working through the book with guidance. That ease comes at a cost, experts say.

Fewer demands on teachers

“Leveled reading places fewer demands on the teacher than the alternative,” said Pimentel. “With complex text, the teacher, not the text, must be the scaffold.”

While some children, like Sawyer, will get exposure to the pleasure of literature at home, others may develop a distaste for reading. The number of American children who say they regularly read for fun is at its lowest level since the 1980s, according to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress survey.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Sawyer, right, reads her favorite book, “The Midnight Children,” out loud to her mother, Jess Hutchison.

Some see this as a clear-cut issue of equity that hurts the most vulnerable children the most. Poor reading skills can close doors of achievement for children who are consistently relegated to below-grade books.

“Leveled texts lead to leveled lives,” said Alfred Tatum, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I have witnessed too many young people surrender their life chances before they get to know their life choices because of low levels of literacy. Futures are foreclosed for many because of low levels of literacy. Adults carry the pain of low levels of reading to their graves.”

To make matters worse, the weakest readers not only miss out on honing their reading comprehension skills. They also miss out on the background knowledge and vocabulary that can be gleaned from more content-rich material.

Educators often call this the Matthew effect, the idea that good readers read more, making them not only better readers but more knowledgeable overall. Conversely, poor readers shy away from reading, slowing their cognitive growth.

A fifth-grader relegated to reading Dr. Suess, for example, may well never catch up to one reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” in terms of building a thorough understanding of American history.

That’s why children should be nurtured to read widely, many experts say, and push themselves periodically. Shanahan advises a varied diet of literature from easy reads to “things that kick their butts.”

Children should train to become readers the way runners train for a race, experts say, mixing up their workouts to make the muscles stronger. That’s the opposite of a leveled reading ladder that too many children struggle to climb.

“Students know when we are respecting their brains and have confidence in their ability to meet the challenge,” said Pimentel. “Students rise to the challenge with the right support and encouragement. And doing so allows all students to be thinking at grade level even if reading is harder for some.”

Do you count on EdSource’s reporting daily? Make your donation today to our year end fundraising campaign by Dec. 31st to keep us going without a paywall or ads.

Share Article

Comments (6)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Sherron 1 week ago1 week ago

    This is so wrong to me…I’ve been a teacher in 3 different states for many years….you met individual students where they are and move them up according to their ability….unless you do that, the student will get bored and start to disengage…..not the way to teach!!!

  2. MM Goff 1 week ago1 week ago

    This is why we have public libraries. This is why children need parents to invest time and effort in their child’s personal development. If folks are ignorant about these matters, they can learn about them, courtesy of the carefully selected, worthwhile materials available through their public libraries, too.

  3. Efrain Tovar 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    As a California educator, I think it is great that EdSource is doing this series of articles on the challenges of helping our state’s students develop strong literacy skills. It is critical that we all look at the strategies and tools available to help our students be successful across the curriculum, in their careers and in life – as well as develop a love of reading. Last year, I applied (and was selected) to be … Read More

    As a California educator, I think it is great that EdSource is doing this series of articles on the challenges of helping our state’s students develop strong literacy skills. It is critical that we all look at the strategies and tools available to help our students be successful across the curriculum, in their careers and in life – as well as develop a love of reading.

    Last year, I applied (and was selected) to be an Educator Ambassador for MetaMetrics (creator of Lexiles) because their framework is such a great guide for helping students find books. My students are motivated to read more because the books they selected were engaging and also challenging.

    While Lexile measures assign a difficulty level to a book, they are not a “leveled reading program.” They are a tool to help students and teachers select books that are challenging enough to grow their reading abilities as well as are engaging and align with their interests. The Lexile Find a Book tool, which has thousands of books with Lexile measures, is designed to do just that.

    In fact, Lexile measures should never be used to discourage a child from reading a book that they are interested in. As educators, we should never sacrifice a book a student wants to read for readability level. In fact, I don’t believe in assigning a child a “level” or any kind of label.

    Reading is not just an important skill, it is a joyful part of life. As educators and parents, we need to look at the big picture of ways to support kids in building reading skills that will provide a foundation for a successful and happy life.

    Sincerely,

    Efraín Tovar

    Certified Google for Education Innovator and Trainer
    Lexile & Quantile Educator Ambassador
    Founder of the California Newcomer Network
    Middle School Teacher

  4. el 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    The idea that kids may benefit from a bin of books that is targeted to their level makes sense - as a starting point. But no kid should be blocked from taking any book they want to read, whether above or below their level. Let them read what is interesting and compelling and exciting for them. Maybe the topic is the thing - I read every single horse book in the county library system when … Read More

    The idea that kids may benefit from a bin of books that is targeted to their level makes sense – as a starting point. But no kid should be blocked from taking any book they want to read, whether above or below their level. Let them read what is interesting and compelling and exciting for them. Maybe the topic is the thing – I read every single horse book in the county library system when I was a kid, at every reading level, fiction and non-fiction. Maybe they just love the illustrations. I enjoyed reading Dr Seuss as an adult with kids, and playing with the language. If your friends are reading Harry Potter or Jinx, you should be able to read them too, if you want.

    And then to hear that kids are being denied books because no one has time to reassess them? UGGGGHH!

    If a kid takes out a book that is “too easy,” maybe they’ll read extra books and maybe there’s still content to learn. If a kid takes out a book that is hard for them, but exciting, maybe they’ll make extra effort to decode the text using friends and internet and dictionaries and parents to work it out.

    Fundamentally: we learn by making mistakes, and learning to recover. Creating an environment where mistakes are to be avoided at all costs is incredibly stifling. I cannot imagine a less consequential mistake than picking the “wrong” book based on reading level.

  5. Dr. Bill Conrad 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Thank you for this informative article. Leveled readers are just one more failed artifact of the now discredited Balanced Reading system that even its developers like Lucy Calkins admit. The Balanced Reading Approach uses a failed theory of action that students can learn reading the same way that they learn oral language through exposure to increasingly complex text. Chomsky’s research showed us that the ability to speak is hard-wired into the brain. Thus it only takes a … Read More

    Thank you for this informative article.

    Leveled readers are just one more failed artifact of the now discredited Balanced Reading system that even its developers like Lucy Calkins admit.

    The Balanced Reading Approach uses a failed theory of action that students can learn reading the same way that they learn oral language through exposure to increasingly complex text.

    Chomsky’s research showed us that the ability to speak is hard-wired into the brain. Thus it only takes a few exposures to words and syntax to learn ioral language. This is not true for reading. Reading must be taught through systematic approaches to phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. It takes work. However, it is much easier to expose students to “leveled readers” and hope that the exposure will do the trick.

    Lave has also shown that readers will read well above their levels when there is a need such as a job or an avid interest!

    Let’s get about the teaching of reading in a systematic and scientific manner. Let the children pick their reading materials based on interest and need and then help them with strategies and tactics that will help them decode and comprehend!

    As Christopher Stewart says, the revolution will be literate! We have our work cut out for us! No?

  6. Kathleen Courts 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    70+years ago, I was assigned Dick and Jane books in first grade. Luckily my mom was an elementary school teacher who read to us every night and encouraged us to take turns reading the eclectic story books she checked out of the library. By third grade, I accompanied her and chose my own reading books every week from the Children's Room. It's 1980, and my first son is in fourth grade. He's struggling with dyslexia, so … Read More

    70+years ago, I was assigned Dick and Jane books in first grade. Luckily my mom was an elementary school teacher who read to us every night and encouraged us to take turns reading the eclectic story books she checked out of the library. By third grade, I accompanied her and chose my own reading books every week from the Children’s Room.

    It’s 1980, and my first son is in fourth grade. He’s struggling with dyslexia, so discouraging to a kid who loves learning detailed science facts and listening to Tolkien. That year, the children’s room of the Oakland Main Library was his after-school babysitter. When I picked him up at 5 pm, I always asked what he had read. The answer: the picture books displayed on top of the low shelves for the youngest readers. At first I’d ask whether he wouldn’t prefer something more age-appropriate. But no, easy books were recreational instead of required reading. And by the end of that school year he was reading “Huckleberry Finn”.

    Skip ahead to 1990. Younger son was an early adopter of the bumper-sticker suggestion: Question Authority. He was a REFUSNIK reader until sometime in first grade, when he discovered Calvin and Hobbes, the long-running comic strip by Bill Watterson. His reading instruction took place, amid much chuckling, among the pages of “The Essential Calvin and Hobbes”. Thanks, Bill Watterson! Thanks, my mom, for encouraging me to choose my own reading material.