I Don’t Want to Know Your Child’s Reading Level


I want to make clear, first, that I don't mean that oh-so-provocative headline in the context of We Recommend. I mean it more in the parent-to-parent conversations that make up the lion's share of my social interactions.

I like those conversations, I do. Being a parent can be a lonely business, and there is always (at least for me) that eerie sense that you're doing it all wrong and you'll never find out, and talking to other parents can help assuage these worries (Oh, says the other parent, my child weeps over homework all the time! Perfectly normal!).

But where these conversations touch on reading levels, I get uncomfortable. It's just such a weird piece of information: whether the child is unbelievably advanced ("They just don't give him anything to challenge him!") or the child is struggling ("I swear I think she'll never learn to sound things out. And everyone else is on chapter books!") it gives me the willies. It's as though they want something from me, and I'm not able to give it. 

It's not just the competitive thing either. It's more that I feel

1) that they're putting their child out there for me to judge, somehow, which seems an unforgivable intimacy

2) they're asking me to toss my child into the ring to compete with their child, and it feels entirely against every sort of feeling about reading I have

3) they're asking me to participate in a system of leveling that, the more I experience it, the less I feel peace with it.

Here are the problems: I don't want to act like we can accurately assess kids and their abilities. I don't think we can.

I don't want to rank kids by their reading proficiency. They all know we're doing it, and it feels either irrelevant if you're a great reader at the moment, or like crap if you're not.

I don't want to group books by 'level,' as if that were what mattered about them.

It is all sticking in my craw right now. It devalues reading in some essential difficult-to-define way, it makes it a tool to judge kids by. As if the leveling thing weren't crappy enough, having the parents participate in it, and then all of a sudden I'm talking that language—it BOTHERS me, is all.

And that's enough complaining for now. On a more positive note, have any of you with sad 10- or 11-year-old girls ever given them Lynda Barry? It's delightful, especially Down the Street.

9 thoughts on “I Don’t Want to Know Your Child’s Reading Level

  1. Great point. My son, who knew his phonics but couldn’t sound out words at the beginning of kindergarten, is now in first grade and doing, in all modesty, spectacularly. : ) I’m so proud of him and love that he loves to read so much. He’s probably near the top of his class (though he informed me, the first time, I asked, that “reading levels are private, Mommy”), but he happened to mention that there is one boy who is way ahead of everyone else. I know this boy, and I know his mom. Both lovely people. But I immediately wonder, are they doing something I’m not doing? What’s so great about this kid that he’s so far out ahead of everyone?
    And it’s just awful. It’s me falling into the worst kinds of parenting comparisons. Finally I remembered all the really, really smart friends I had in high school and college. Objectively, many of them were smarter than me, and I was no slouch. But they knew I brought things to the table, that I had skills or traits that made me special, and they never made me feel like I wasn’t as smart as they were.
    I’m proud of my son for learning as much as he has, for working so hard and for enjoying it. I hope it continues. But I also hope that he sees (in himself and everyone else) all the other things that make people special: kindness, work ethic, living your values. He has a dear friend, his first school friend, and his mom and I are sort of becoming friends, in a “we’re not used to this but it seems nice” kind of way. And I’m glad that comparisons like this haven’t come up. I’d much rather talk about how neither of them can seem to keep track of their mittens.


  2. I completely agree. One morning, while I was volunteering at school and chatting with the mom of my (first grade at the time) son’s good friend, she asked me how she could get her son in my son’s reading group. I had never brought up my son’s reading abilities, because I just don’t like to do that, so I was pretty taken aback by this. Apparently, her son had been upset because he wasn’t included in the reading group the teacher put my son in, and wanted his mom to fix this for him. I was really unsure about how to respond. I suggested that she talk to the teacher and changed the subject to their soccer game, but I just felt like it was all so inappropriate! My son is a voracious reader and it’s because he loves to read and learn. I don’t want anybody messing with that! It’s somehow sacred to me, maybe because I remember being the same way. No matter how much we like to share books and the insights we get from reading, there is something very private about it all and I guess I was feeling like this other mom was stepping all over this intimate part of my boy. Like Kendra, I would much rather stick to how they can’t keep track of things, or something less personal.


  3. It’s such a crapshoot too because from my observation a kid with some reading skills can and will read anything she WANTS to read. Anything she doesn’t want to read is likely to be too hard on principle. That’s why hypsilophodon is not a hard word but triangle probably is.
    And don’t get me started on levelled texts because I will become apoplectic.


  4. So a reader was unable to comment (is that being true for anyone else?) and emailed their comment, as follows:
    I tried to post a comment to your post, but I got a message saying DITW wouldn’t accept my data. I will not take it personally, but thought you might want to know. Maybe typepad doesn’t like things sent from jury room wifi…
    And, FWIW, here is my comment:
    I don’t have quite the visceral reaction you do, but… I was at a birthday party once (K or 1st grade, fuzzy now) where the kids were mostly from some other school and all the parents were saying things like, “The whole class is at least at L. It’s so great!” I had no idea what an “L” book was (that leveling system is not emphasized at our school). As it turned out, no parent present could adequately describe to me what made a book worthy of an “L”. This makes me suspect that the conversation was therefore just about social competition…and not about reading at all. I realize that your post was not specifically about this very literal “leveling” of books. But it is what sticks in my craw. Oh, and I don’t like the notion of grades either, but I guess that is TOTALLY off topic.


  5. Quite simply…THANK YOU. I feel precisely as exhausted with the whole blasted trip as you sound. I just want them to love reading, for readings sake. And they won’t if they ever sense my ambivalence toward the whole competition thing.
    It’s hard to let it go entirely. So I try to hide it. Really, really well.
    Like at the bottom of the wastebasket in the closet of the guest bedroom. 🙂


  6. Quite frankly, reading levels are bullshit.
    I say this as a teacher who has given countless ones. I’ve had plenty of kids score low because they forgot breakfast or were fighting with their mom but who are genuinely strong readers, and vice versa.
    I also particularly hate how they’re used in some schools (such as my old one) to discourage kids from trying books that are “too hard”. And don’t even get me started on the idiocy behind the calculations of what makes a book what level.
    They are, generally speaking, meaningless. Yes, it can help identify the outlier kids, but any teacher worth their salt would already know who THOSE kids are.
    I find the whole thing obnoxious and wish that we were spending the time on phonics instead, which for some bizarre reason has been phased out by the trendier reading programs.
    There are so many reasons I left the classroom…and so many, like this, that make me want to homeschool Elanor when the time comes.


  7. gosh, I would never call an educational tool “bullshit”. I agree with diamond that using them as parental “bragging rights” is obnoxious, but they leveling books is not inherently evil. Teachers need to find the highest instructional level a student can read on in order to place him or her in the appropriate text. How else to do this without leveled books? Putting in a child in a book above his/her instructional level is not good reading practice. Reading on a frustration level, is, frustrating! And that discourages reading.


  8. Feeling very sad about reading levels right now and I find this post. Thankyou. Trying to get a sense of perspective. Mantra: “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter! As long as my daughter is learning”.
    The thing is, my daughter was away from school last term. She spent 4 months working really hard on her reading and is now reading at 26+. She gets back to school where they say “oh you were level 7, now you’re 8” because they don’t have time to consider what she might have learnt away from school.
    But it doesn’t matter, I tell myself, because I am teaching her to read and she’s doing brilliantly. But! In her school, levels aren’t private. So why don’t they get an indelible marker and put a big “L” on her forehead?


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