Level With Me


I know these past few posts have been less than literature inspired, but that's just where we are right now, struggling with the fact that reading is something that should be (pardon me for this following) wild and free, but also happens to be this essential part of the educational process and so is subject to the most horrible of the socializing, institutional homogenizing bla-de-bla-de-bla.

The thing is that Chestnut, who has struggled manfully (girl-fully?) with reading, has made great strides this summer and is often to be found happily curled up with a book in various areas of the house, absorbed and calm, reading Magic Treehouse books, or Adopted Jane, or picture books that she's always loved that the rest of us have gotten tired of reading to her, but now she can read them to herself.

This is, of course, completely excellent, and we've all been enjoying it. And then, in comes school.

Now, I must say up front that I love our school. I love the principal, the teachers; I feel like everyone is so smart and caring and doing their best in an extremely challenging educational system (NYC Board of Education, how much I hate the testing I can't hope to express adequately here). But there they are: the reading levels. Are you an M or an L? Ooh, only a J? And while Chestnut does manage to use them, at least sometimes, to underscore her sense of accomplishment, they are  a double-edged sword, and another child with a higher reading level is always close by, ready to make Chestnut feel…less.

Her teachers have made a special point to parents: they want the levels de-emphasized. We should try to avoid talking about them, we should focus on other aspects of reading instead, and we do try. But there they are, hovering off-stage, waiting for Chestnut, who does care about what the world thinks of her, to look to them to tell her about herself. I wish I could make them vanish. I wish no one would say word one about her and her reading, couldn't get in there at all to touch her. And yes, I do know that learning things means subjecting yourself to the gaze and judgment of others. It's just that sometimes I can't stand it.

8 thoughts on “Level With Me

  1. As a former teacher (grades 3-6) and curriculum developer (grades 2-7), I can tell you without a doubt that leveling is crap. Regardless of the system, it takes some random passage of the book and counts the syllables in words, number of words, and some other factors I have since excised from my brain and plugs it into a mathematical formula, which magically pops out a number/letter level.
    I’m guessing that your school uses the Fountas and Pinnell levels, as they are currently all the rage?
    Some food for thought with the FS system…all the Harry Potters are rated “Q”, which is a 4/5th grade level (assuming students are supposed to be at Z by end of grade 6). Yet the first few HP books are much lighter than the end ones…so where’s the rating modification based on content?
    The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe was a “T” book, which made it a 6th grade book, although in my experience, it has its largest popularity with 3rd and 4th graders.
    Misty of Chincoteague was an “M” book because of simple language.
    It’s all basically a crock.
    I had a 5th grader who read on an “M” level. He wanted nothing more than to read the new HP book (#5 at the time, I believe) and so I gave it to him (along with a dictionary and the suggestion to come to me if he got stuck). I was lectured for this “error” by our reading specialist. That was one of the nails in my teaching career coffin. She said I should have said it was too hard and taken it away from him.
    I say WRONG
    I won’t kill a child’s love of reading.


  2. I love all of the great discussions that happen on this blog. It is thought provoking and brings all of the excitement of new books to another format and forms such a great community. It is challenging me in new ways.
    I am also a teacher. I read the post about the “reading log” and now this one and I am not quite sure how to reply. Everything you say is exactly how I feel as well. Reading should be a passion and it’s own reward. When I read, I don’t have to read my book every single day, and I don’t have to log how many pages I read either. And the leveling is a source of sadness for children who are not at the “level” that they want to be. Worse, as “c” commented above books are not given to some kids because it is “not at their level” and deemed too hard. I cringe at the thought.
    That being said, I was a Reading Recovery Teacher, and I have the utmost respect for Pinnell and Fountas. The research and publications that they have been involved in are outstanding. They make the abstract reading process concrete for many teachers, and give them guidance in how to teach each child their very own next step in learning how to read.
    In this day and age, with accountability being the number one sought after requirement for teachers, it is difficult to rely only on passion for reading when teaching children how to read. As with many other aspects in teaching, many times the standards are what drives teaching instead of the children’s needs. When teachers have to account for every minute of their day, and prove that they are expecting the highest standards, sometimes common sense takes a back seat. (And I mean the common sense of those who place the demands on teachers to require children to only read books at their so called level and require fluent readers to log in every detail of what they read at night….)
    There are no easy answers. I wish as a culture we had more respect for teachers and we trusted teacher’s judgment a whole lot more. I did require my students to fill out a reading log. It was an accountability piece. Part of their homework was to read for 20 minutes five days a week. I didn’t need more than a title and the minutes and an initial from the parent. I didn’t expect them to log every minute they read, just that they did the 20 that they were required. I also did guided reading and leveled my students. I did my best not to let the children know their level and the reading groups were flexible and always changing based on what the children needed at the time. The kids often knew the levels of course. They are smarter than I am in that regard.
    So, I still am trying to work out a happy medium, but obviously I haven’t. I hope there are more comments that can delve into this topic in a thoughtful way.


  3. Megsie (and all): what a thoughtful reasoned response. It’s so hard—I know
    that there is so much institutional pressure, and I know, too, that my kids
    are not the ones at risk for real troubles with reading, which means, I
    think, that a lot of my complaints don’t matter on some level. But at the
    same time, I think that it is my job to protect them from the curse of
    institutional stupidity and conformity, from just going along with the way
    things are when it goes against something you believe. Argh.
    On Tue, Sep 29, 2009 at 9:01 PM, wrote:


  4. I’m struggling with the same thing. But my son, eight years old and in the third grade, is reading still below grade level. It seems astonishing to me, mainly because his older brother is a reading whiz and let’s face it, so was I. I feel so conflicted — should I worry and push him, get a tutor so that he can “catch up?” Or should I shrug my shoulders, knowing that he’s smart and that he will figure it out? Even though this post isn’t about literature, I’m glad that you took the time to write it.


  5. As someone who is not a parent but loves children’s and young adult literature, I find these other kinds of posts equally fascinating, as much for your thoughts, as for the kind and interesting comments that follow. I think this falls very nicely into the “And so on.” part of your subtitle.


  6. note to Elizabeth: yes, get a tutor, get extra support from your son’s school, get him reading on level. It gets harder and harder to catch up as children get older. In most schools reading instruction stops at 2nd and content reading is the focus in 3rd
    I enjoyed the comments here. I rely on leveled books in my work as a reading teacher. I see them as guides, fluid ones, but important tools.


  7. What an interesting topic. I had never heard of these “levels” until last year and am still trying to get the gist of them. My oldest is in first grade and brought home his first book bag today. In it, he explained to me, he had a few books that were at his level, and we are supposed to read them together over the weekend (well, he reads, and I help him sound out words when he needs it). And I couldn’t help it; I have no context for this letter at all. I mean, I can see where it is in the alphabet, but I don’t know how close it is to his peers or anything. Myself, I’m amazed at his reading progress, since this time last year he was barely able to read two sounds in a row and make the leap that they made a word. I asked him if he knows what level the other kids are at, and he explained that no, that’s secret. Which made perfect sense as soon as he said it–kids don’t need another thing to feel anxiety about. But at the same time, I feel like I have information with no context, no associated message of “here’s how he’s doing as compared to his peers, here are reading goals and ways to help him get there.” We have our first conference next week, and I’m hoping to get more insight then. Being the parent of a school kid sure is complicated; it must be terribly hard for the teachers!


  8. Meggie
    I taught at one of the schools F&P used when doing their research (although I did not lap them)…it’s a very wealthy public school that consistently rates in the top 5 in Massachusetts (in Newton). Which is great, except they’re also trying apply F&P in Boston, where my students didn’t have the economic or educational advantages that my wealthy students did in Newton.
    Personally I hate their approaches. I think the workshop model is stupidity incarnate when children are emergent readers, and I also hate that phonics, spelling and grammar have been discarded. F&P have some great ideas, but I have found them to be largely impractical to implement in the urban schools I’ve taught in, as well as the younger grades, period.
    I agree that it’s a convenient way to create “accountability” but its that very drive to make people accountable instead of putting the emphasis on love of learning and reading that made me leave teaching.
    I have an 11 month old daughter who already loves books. One of the first phrases of which she demonstrated understanding was “turn the page” because we have read to her from embryohood onwards. I am focusing on teaching her that books are a source of excitement, and as she edges up on 1, am starting to put the alphabet in view in multiple ways. Not making a big deal out of, or anything formal at this age, but we’ll be focusing on phonics and reading readiness. I hope that someday she too can say (as I can) that she doesn’t remember the process of learning to read.
    I’m also considering homeschooling because of the nonsense we wasted time on in public school. Workshop model instruction for children not developmentally capable of working together, ridiculous math programs like TERC and Chicago/Everyday Math which are supplemental programs rather than actual instruction…but it’s the current fad.


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