I opened up my Choice Literacy email newsletter on Friday afternoon, and the subject heading caught my eye, “The Tyranny of Levels.” Exactly what I had experienced that day. For my post title, I did a thesaurus search for a not-quite-so-volatile word and found injustice. My students have been suffering the injustice of reading levels.
Last year one of my gifted students lost her mother. This is a difficult loss for anyone to endure, but Emily was nine. Now she is ten, and the wound is still very fresh. She doesn’t talk or write about her mother. Last year she wouldn’t read any book that was sad. She is not an avid reader anyway and to find books for her has been difficult.
This summer I read A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord. I worked with an online book club, so I did writing work with this book. I knew the book. I have connected with Cynthia Lord on Facebook. She even tweeted to us during our Twitter book chat. Needless to say, Cynthia, A Handful of Stars, and Emily are all close to my heart.
I never once thought to check the reading level. Emily read Rules and wanted another Cynthia Lord book. I did not tell her that the character in A Handful of Stars lost her mother. The book centers around a developing friendship. But Lily’s loss is always there, in the back of her mind, and especially when her new friend Salma’s mother does something motherly. Emily was struggling to finish the book, so I called her over and we read a few chapters together. We both teared up at the line, “It was a mom thing.”
The next day she came in triumphant, “I finished the book!”
I asked, “Did you take the AR test?”
AR is Accelerated Reader. It’s a program designed to test students on their independent reading. I’ve never been a real proponent of the program because the questions are all low-level comprehension questions, but the students receive points and the school has incentives for these points. Since my students read independent books, and it is something they can receive rewards for, I try to encourage my kids to take the tests.
Emily’s eyes looked down. “No, I can’t. My reading level is 4.6 and the book is 4.4.”
I understand the purpose of finding out a student’s reading level, but I do not understand limiting a child’s reading choices by requiring they read within their level range. The school (not the district) bought a testing program that sets the levels and blocks tests that are not within the level.
I believe… I know that reading is not about levels or tests or points. Reading is so much more. I will continue to find books to meet my students’ needs and interests. I have sticker charts up for each child to track the number of books they read. We have a pyramid poster with a whole class goal of 175 books this year, and we are well on our way to meeting that goal. I will not let reading levels limit my students’ choices.
From Choice Literacy, in the words of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (with hats off to Kate DiCamillo), “Moral of the story: Holy bagumba, don’t let reading levels flush away common sense.”