Having been an English teacher in a past life, I can attest to the importance of being able to measure student progress.

Knowing what academic areas a student thrives in and knowing where they’re deficient allows you to craft lessons based on the needs of your students. It’s a sure-fire way to ensure that you’re teaching what needs to be taught and not wasting class time on redundancy.

One of these measures is the use of reading levels to track how well students are reading. Students are assessed based on comprehension, fluency, ability to use context clues, self-correction while reading, and a host of other traits (depending on which reading program their school has purchased). Once tested, students are assigned a level; some companies use letters, some use numbers, and others colors. This link will show you a rough listing of reading levels assigned by the biggest names in the industry.

A comparison of popular reading-level programs. Image via biblionasium.com

A comparison of popular reading-level programs. Image via biblionasium.com.

Once students know their levels, they are strongly encouraged, and sometimes required, to seek out books that are on their level.

Classrooms have shelves and baskets labeled with leveled books. Kids are indoctrinated not to stray far from their level, and parents are instructed to encourage their kids to read “on level.” There are even smart phone apps like Level It Books  which will allow you to enter a title or ISBN and see where the book falls on the reading level spectrum.

Leveling the School Library

As the school librarian, I receive questions all the time about books, and when I can’t answer on my own I reach out to other librarians through the NYCSLIST and enlist the help of other NYC school librarians. One day a parent wrote me a note asking if there was a list I could provide of books on the appropriate level for her child; knowing that I teach in a technology desert, I wasn’t about to tell the parent about apps and websites. I sent out a message on the NYCSLIST ListServ and awaited the responses.

A screenshot from the Level It Books interface.

A screenshot from the Level It Books interface.

A handful of people messaged me privately, off the ListServ, and offered assistance; but the thread on the ListServ grew into a long list of people reprimanding me and telling me that I better not think about leveling my school library.

Bear in mind that my ListServ post had said nothing about leveling my library. I had obviously struck a nerve somewhere. Being one to not simply listen to what’s said and follow orders, I did a little research and looked into the idea of leveling a school library.

Here’s where I stand.

I’ve decided that for the needs of my students (high E.S.L. and A.S.D. population in my school), it’s better for me to affix level stickers to some of my books. Despite some flaws in how books are rated, having a level is a way to ensure that a student is understanding what they’re reading. Providing levels keeps the continuity of the building and makes things uniform across the school, which is particularly important for the A.S.D. population; routines are key to their success. And although it shouldn’t be a reason, it does look good in the eyes of administrators to take part in what’s going on in the rest of the school.

However, I will not be leveling the entire library. Students do need to learn how to find books without mindlessly searching for their level; they should be allowed to search by interest. Plus, public libraries aren’t leveled, and there’s no guarantee that if a student changes schools they’re going to use the same level program. Finally, some of the reading programs don’t account for content; Of Mice and Men by James Steinbeck is Lexile Leveled at 630, which means that it’s on a 3rd grade reading level.

What’s your opinion of reading levels? Should they become a part of the school library? Share your thoughts below.