A few weeks ago the California Department of Education and members of the Recommended Literature Committee scheduled a phone conference to discuss the issue of reading levels and age appropriateness. We were concerned that younger students with high Lexile/AR levels were reading books on the Recommended Literature List that were too mature for them.
The librarians involved have served on this committee for multiple terms and certainly know a thing or two about children and young adult books. We agreed that all too often school librarians, library staff, and teachers use reading levels as the main criteria when assigning or suggesting reading materials. Unfortunately, relying only on reading levels can sometimes be suspect. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has a relatively low Lexile (790), and the text could easily be read by 5th graders. However, the book has mature themes… in other words it has simple text but complex themes and is not a suitable choice for an eleven-year-old. We need to remember that Lexile levels only measure readability and not content.
Lately on library list serves, I have read multiple posts asking for recommendations for young readers with high reading levels. These posts make me wonder if current literature choices are merely based on text complexity. In an October 12, 2017, School Library Journal article, Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell wrote “…levels have no place in classroom libraries, in school libraries, in public libraries, or on report cards.” They went on to say, “…choice is a really important part of going to the library and using the library… it builds your sense of yourself as a reader and your self-efficacy as a reader. That’s where confidence really begins.”
Have we forgotten children’s literature is brimming with figurative language and literary devices? Susan Hall writes in the introduction to her classic Using Picture Books to Teach Literary Devices, “Strong stunning memorable writing can appear in the spare text of a picture story book.” School librarians and staff should provide books that will expose students to the richness of hyperbole, simile, metaphor, narrative, style, characters, plot, and inferences. Yes, these titles may be a picture book or below the student’s reading level, but they are still an important part of every literacy journey.
At the risk of sounding old-fashioned (a rarity for me), I still believe there are literary building blocks of children’s literature that prepare students for more advanced reading. Luckily Hollywood has saved many of these classic and award-winning titles from the weeding pile by turning them into movies and boosting popularity. In the meantime, librarians and library staff can increase the circulations of these oldie-but-goodies by promoting them through classic book clubs, Newbery and Caldecott clubs, read-aloud or audio books, and even that movie tie-in.
So many factors go into choosing a book that will resonate with the reader. All too often we neglect to include interest level, historical perspective, and cultural literacy into the “reading recipe.” I think it may very well be time to reevaluate our book selections and readers/teachers advisory.
Author: Kate MacMillan
18 years as Coordinator of Library Services for Napa Valley USD and Napa Valley School Library Consortium; 2010-current CDE Recommended Literature Committee member; 8 years as an outside library consultant for Follett Library Resources; 6 years as a Napa County Library Commissioner; Current member of California Dept of Education’s Literature Committee; Napa TV Public Access board member; ALA, AASL, CLA (Californiia Library Association), CSLA (California School Library Association) and CUE (Computer Using Educators). Conference presentations include: United We Stand; School and Public Libraries Working Together (CLA 2016, CSLA 2017), It’s Not Your Mother’s Library 2012 and 2013 (CUE); Enhancing Online Resources through Library Partnerships (CUE 2010); Implementing School Library Consortium (CSLA 2008); Athletes as Readers and Leaders (2008 Association of American Publishers & CSLA Project). Contributor to School Libraries: What’s Now, What’s Next, What’s Yet to Come!