The very first “Common Belief” in the AASL Standards for the 21st-Century Learner is “Reading is a window to the world” noting that it’s a “foundational skill in learning, personal growth, and enjoyment.” I want to focus primarily on the last word—enjoyment. As school librarians we are committed to guiding our students to become lifelong readers. We recognize the habit only develops when they find reading is a pleasurable experience.
Over the past years a few developments in education are making it difficult for us to carry out this critical role. Most recently, Lexiles and leveling have invaded the library and students are being steered away from what they want to read and are being directed toward what they “ought” to read. Elementary librarians are being told to “level” their libraries in the misguided belief it will improve student scores on tests and make them more college ready.
What many don’t realize, is this is a giant step backwards. In the mid-20th century, library shelves were labeled by grade level and students were required to only select books from the appropriate shelf. It didn’t work. Some students read above or below their grade level and others wanted different books. And libraries changed.
Now we are heading back to those times. Granted teachers determine individual levels for students so students are expected to read at their current Lexile level, but tit overlooks the core reason the old system didn’t work. Restrictions on reading, interferes with enjoyment.
I have no problem with teachers using Lexiles for instructional purposes in the classroom. I recognize the underlying reason Common Core assigned Lexile ranges for each grade level. Students do need to be challenged and encouraged to stretch. That is what learning is about.
What is being overlooked is enjoyment. Reading for pleasure should not be work. It’s about relaxing, choosing what is of interest to you, and learning without being aware it is happening. I have never liked the “5 finger rule” for choosing a book. If I had difficulty reading five words on every page, I would read the book. Reading should be fun (an alien concept in schools today).
When having freedom to choose, students for the most part select a book below their instructional level. This makes perfect sense. There are students who also want a book far above their instructional level. If they love a sport, for example, they don’t care how hard the book is. They will struggle through it to get what they want. They may not finish it. There is no requirement to finish something chosen for fun. How many young people read Harry Potter books even when it was “too hard” for them?
Forcing students to always be “stretching” when reading for pleasure, is a sure way to turn them off reading. It is especially true for those who aren’t fond of reading in the first place. I can remember the books that enticed my own children to become readers. Both of them developed the reading habit because they read the one book that “spoke” to them. For my daughter it was Judy Blume. For my son, it was Ice Magic by Matt Christopher, which was at least one year below his instructional level.
Accelerated Reader and similar programs, while not as damaging to developing lifelong readers, also interfere with pleasurable reading. Students seeking to earn as many points as they can, will pass over a book that interests them if its point value isn’t high enough. They will ignore books they might like if it doesn’t have an assigned point value. Reading for points is not the way to make reading a habit. The purpose from the student’s perspective is not pleasure it is competition.
When parents read to their children, the association of reading and good times is built. When librarians make story time a pleasurable experience the connection is reinforced. When a librarian helps a student find the perfect book, the habit of a lifetime begins.
What can you as a librarian do if you are told to level your library? Be the leader you need to be. Don’t accept the directive without explaining why it isn’t in the best interest of students. Show administrators Keith Curry Lance’s studies on reading. Share this blog also. If they still insist, see if you can get them to agree to leveling shelves for teachers who can direct students to them and keeping other shelves open. This way students can take one leveled book and at least one of their own choosing.
We are all about creating lifelong readers. Is your library leveled?