Readability or Content?

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!

Categories: Collection Development, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

3 replies

  1. Reading “levels” are just so discouraging. They stop kids from reading based on interest, excitement, and engagement; and they encourage a system-wide teacher acceptance of reading as merely a skill to be graded. Add to that the parent emotional response to “where” their child is within the “levels” and you have students caught in the middle of adult expectation that has nothing to do really helping them become literate and lifelong readers.

    Thank you for this article- I especially love the quote from Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Pair that one up with Stephen Krashen’s quote: ““There is massive evidence that self-selected reading, or reading what you want to read, is responsible for most of our literacy development.” and one can easily see that it is time for school systems to stop telling kids WHAT to read and to support what they DO read. Krashen’s push to invest in libraries and librarians supports this all the way.

    Unless that 5th grader is studying American history alongside his/her reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the context, subtleties and grace of that book can easily be missed.

    I’m so glad that the Committee is including this as a topic for conversation. Let’s hope that they find a way to create a state-wide list that does just what it should do: list great reading!

  2. Kate, your article is excellent. The majority of lifelong readers selected their own books when they were young. I remember reading a whole bookcase full of “horse” books when I was ten. Then I read everything by British writer Enid Blyton, went on to go through all the Newbery Award titles, and then back again to adventure/ mystery authors.

    There has been no end as I discover and uncover eye-opening topics, unique writing styles, old and new authors, and even ‘soap-opera-ish’ series to read. This has been going on for decades … all because I got to go to the library by myself and with no supervision beginning at the age of seven!

    BTW, I continue, even in my retirement years, to look for current and past Newbery, Sibert, Printz, and Coretta Scott King Award books as I find high-quality literature usually leads to high-interest books. I’m thrilled that Sibert winner Sy Montgomery will be speaking in March at the Charlotte Huck Children’s Literature Festival. Count me in!

  3. I have been heartened by the literacy experts like Fountas and Pinnell who have come out publicly and strongly against the idea of leveling as a method of helping students choose what to read “Levels are a teachers tool, not a child’s label” – I think this is a critical conversation in our current environment of scripted reading programs which have a place in the teaching of reading but not is the selection of free voluntary reading during which students practice the skills and strategies they have been taught. Once the skills have been taught, the more they read the better they read and the better they read the better they write. It is really a simple formula that has been shown time and again to work. #AASLKQ

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