We Shouldn’t Let Reading Levels Define Our Students

A child is not an N or a K.

When it comes to reading levels and reading instruction, there’s no one-size-fits-all method. After all, our students are unique individuals coming from various backgrounds, with different strengths and weaknesses. So how do we ensure they receive the support they need to grow as readers? 

By understanding where students are in their skills, we can give them better, more personalized instruction. And this is why reading levels can be great … as a place to start.

Without a doubt, reading levels are an important part of a comprehensive reading assessment.

A reading-level assessment is one way to measure where a student is in terms of decoding and comprehension. Factors like word count, number of different words and high-frequency words, word repetitions, sentence length, and complexity give us valuable information about students’ strengths. It also gives us insight into what they need to grow as readers. 

Knowing students’ reading levels helps us put the right books in their hands at the right time. Optimally, students should spend 25 minutes or more each day in the “just right” zone. This is a great article that explains all the different types of reading levels out there. It explains that a “just right” book is one that stretches the reader just beyond their comfort zone—not so much that they’re discouraged, but challenging enough for them to grow as a reader. 

Reading assessments also provide valuable data for informing instruction. According to Sara Benson, a literacy specialist with Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, ongoing assessment is an invaluable tool for informing guided reading instruction. “The key to growth,” she says, “is working on specific goals and challeng[ing] areas where strategic behaviors are lacking. A child can be reading at a high reading level but have gaps, which could compromise them at higher levels. They may have developed skills that help them compensate, but at some point, without direct intervention, it’s going to trip them up.”

However, we must be careful that we don’t use reading levels to define or restrict students in any way. 

The trouble begins when the emphasis becomes more about the label than the experience. We don’t want to squelch a child’s passion by discouraging them from reading books that are outside of their level. There’s nothing wrong with occasionally picking up an old favorite that is too easy or a book that’s way too hard because the child is interested and wants to explore. 

These researchers explain how important it is to let kids explore their interests, not just their levels. Additionally, when too much focus is placed on levels, kids can feel pressure to perform. When that happens, it’s easy to view reading simply as a means to an end. And if they develop the attitude that the only purpose for reading is to accomplish a task (increasing their reading level), we’re not helping them become lifelong readers. 

Most importantly, we don’t want reading to become a competition. We want students to focus on their own progress and growth, and not worry about how they compare to others in the class. “Readers need to define success for themselves,” says Benson, “and take ownership over their own growth. They need to know themselves as readers, their strengths and challenges, and know they are capable of setting and meeting goals in order to become stronger readers.” 

After all, the rewards of reading go much further than levels. 

Reading provides a bounty of intangible rewards. And a big part of this success can tie back to the classroom. When a child loves to read, they love to learn. And in most teacher’s opinions, that’s 90 percent of the battle.

When students read, they learn to make connections—to themselves and the world around them—and build human assets like understanding, empathy, and compassion. Reading inspires kids to dream big and imagine life beyond their current reality. They bond with characters and learn new ways of looking at things. Finally, reading cultivates a sense of curiosity and sets the foundation for the desire to always keep learning.  

And reading levels are only one piece of the puzzle. 

Fostering literacy growth in our students involves many factors beyond assessment. In order to become powerful readers, students need these key things: 

Authentic reading experiences

Readers should be exposed to rich texts and real literature featuring people from all walks of life, engaging in real-world situations (i.e., not just reading passages with questions at the end).

Access

Readers should be able to choose from a wide variety of great books across topics and genres. 

Choice

Readers should be able to create a personalized selection of texts that challenges and excites them. 

Variety

Instruction should be varied in order to give students multiple ways to show what they know. 

Guidance

Students need strategic instruction designed to address their individual needs, including thought-provoking questions that allow them to go deeper and stopping points as places to think and reflect.

Assessment

Ongoing, authentic assessment is crucial. And it’s not checking off reading levels , but having authentic progress monitoring embedded into students’ daily practice in a natural way.

If you’re looking for an adaptive reading experience to grow and support your classroom readers, then check out Rosen-LightSail from Rosen Publishing. It has assessment tools built in and a robust digital library for students to choose from. 

Posted by Elizabeth Mulvahill

Elizabeth Mulvahill is a passionate teacher, writer and mom who loves learning new things, traveling the globe and everything Zen.

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