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How to Use Leveled Reading the Right Way

Richard Clayton Oct 7, 2019
Reading is fundamental to education, meaning students need to be able to read with competency before they can begin diving deep into other subjects, like science or history. Unfortunately, when it comes to teaching literacy, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy.

Reading is a skill that some kids already have familiarity with before they enter the classroom, so most students start at different levels and continue to progress at different rates.

Additionally, different students tend to have different levels of interest in reading, largely influenced by their parents and mentors, which can affect how quickly they pick up the skill.

That’s why most teachers employ some kind of leveled reading system: to ensure that each kid is being challenged appropriately by their reading materials. However, there is a marked difference between making leveled reading resources available and applying them properly in the classroom. Here’s a primer on reading levels and using them the right way.

How Leveled Reading Works

Leveled reading systems first emerged in the 1950s and 1960s with SRA cards, which attempted to give students a straight-and-narrow path to literacy. SRA cards worked simply: Students would advance through a deck of cards with a fixed reading curriculum; each card included a reading passage as well as a short comprehension quiz.

Unfortunately, this early leveled reading option failed in many ways to engage young readers or even adequately meet individual reading abilities, abandoning many kids in lower levels without hope of progress — but it did set the stage for more advanced leveled reading systems to come.

In the 1990s, a revolution in leveled reading occurred largely thanks to computers, which could use quantitative data to rank and score essentially any text, as well as human calculations based on text length, complexity, levels of meaning and other factors.

Programs like the Lexile Framework and the Text Level Gradient allow teachers to choose leveled books that appeal to their students and provide appropriate reading challenges, ensuring structured improvement.

How Leveled Reading Can Go Wrong

Unfortunately, leveled reading isn’t as straightforward as giving a struggling child a low-level book and hoping for the best. In fact, teachers continue to make significant mistakes with leveled reading systems — mistakes that could cripple a child’s reading ability or interest for their lifetime.

Here are a few common and critical problems typical of leveled reading practices:

Using book levels to label students: 
A child should never be identified with a number or color; doing so creates unproductive competition and shame, which prevent many students from gaining sufficient literacy skill.

Too often, schools utilize these kind of student levels for the sake of rankings and evaluations, and doing so pushes teachers to force students up the reading system before they are truly ready.

Using only one reading assessment:
It cannot be stressed enough that reading is complex, requiring a number of skills. Unfortunately, many teachers determine which level of books a student should have access to after administering only one assessment, usually a brief, computer-generated, multiple-choice test.

Unfortunately, a single exam, especially a short one, typically isn’t enough to accurately identify strengths and weaknesses.

Strictly restricting book access:
Assuming an assessment points a student toward the right reading level, teachers typically only allow students to choose books from one section. 

Ostensibly, this means that students will benefit by practicing the skills they need to advance — but the truth is this inflexibility can dishearten eager students and make them feel trapped, when reading should do the exact opposite.

How Leveled Reading Should Be

Reading can be as fun as it is important, and teachers should give students a bit more freedom to choose what texts and books they want to engage with. It’s a good idea to use leveled books, but teachers should shelve reading materials by subject rather than level; otherwise, students could feel constrained and lose interest in developing their skill.
Levels are guides, not prescriptions or labels, and they should be used to help teachers target weak skills rather than compel students to advance or prevent students from experimenting with books and passages.

Leveled books are tools to help teachers and students improve in literacy — and that’s it. Teachers who use leveled books to categorize their classrooms are being too strict with a system designed to facilitate, not force. By remaining flexible and sympathetic, teachers and students can get the most from their leveled books.