What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

We all know how important it is to reflect and set goals for ourselves and our students, and to help students develop those same metacognitive capacities, I’m increasingly seeing student-written goals displayed in classrooms. “I need to infer more,” I spotted on an index card taped to a child’s desk. “My goal is to read Level Z books,” I spied on a bulletin board.

One the one hand, these student-generated goals speak to a student’s academic aspirations, which is certainly a good thing. But as a reader, I have to pause and wonder. Is that what constitutes success as a reader? To master the skill of inferring? To read a Level Z book? Are we somehow conveying, intentionally or not, that we read in order to climb the level ladder or infer a character trait, to fill out a worksheet on the main idea or make text-to-self connections?

For better or worse, levels, strategies and skills are frequently what’s most visible in our classrooms. Libraries are filled with bins of leveled books. Worksheets abound on identifying traits, the main idea and story mountain steps. Strategy charts hang on our walls and from clothes lines that stretch across our rooms. What tends to be far less visible, though, is why we really do all those things: why we take such pains to find a just right book, consider what kind of person a character is, make inferences and predictions. And in that vacuum, it’s perhaps no wonder that children come away thinking that what we value are the things they do see, which I think are actually the means to the end, not the end itself.

But what is the end and how do we make it visible? As I suggested in an earlier post, I think we could make our rooms and our students’ understanding of reading richer and deeper if we brought in the words of writers who read. Here, for example, is a blurb for Michael Ondaatje’s new book The Cat’s Table, by the writer Abraham Verghese that speaks to the deeper purposes of reading:

“When it was over, I had the sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life.”

And here are a few lines from Joyce Sutphen‘s poem, “Bookmobile,” that captures some of the real reasons that we read:

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

Of course we need to do more than hang these quotes on our classroom walls. We need to show children how a reader engages with a book in a way that allows them to come away with not just an understanding of a character but who they are themselves. We need to let them see how books can inform lives, giving us a wider, expanded vision of who we are, who we might become and how we might engage with the world.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I share ways of reframing reading workshop around these deeper purposes, with skills and strategies all firmly tied to more meaningful ends and time carved out to consider what a book might have to say to a student before they return it back to its bin and take another one out.

But there’s a simple step we all can take to make sure our students don’t think that all we value is their level or our worksheets: We can ask them if they love what they’re reading. We can ask if they’ve ever found a character who’s just like a best friend, if they’ve ever heard an echo of their own thoughts and feelings in the pages of a book, if they’ve ever come away understanding someone better than they had before. And we can share what we’ve gotten from books that’s allowed us to go forth into the world with more understanding and awareness of both ourselves and others.

For this, I believe, is what reading can give us. Not a letter on an level assessment or a score on a test, but a deeper understanding of the human condition and all the fallible, convoluted ways we try to make something of our lives. But most of our students will only see this if we offer them something more meaningful and visible to reach for than this when they pick up a book:

46 thoughts on “What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

  1. Oh Vicki, you are SO on the mark! It breaks my heart to go into a kindergarten class and see baskets of leveled books on the shelves, especially at the start of the year.

    I think that what happens during the read aloud is so important in terms of helping children to become totally engrossed in a book. The discussions that evolve from this interaction with wonderful literature set the tone for what the life of a reader is all about. Here is the perfect oppportunity for a teacher to interact with children just the way she/he might interact with a friend when thinking and talking about a book.

  2. It breaks my heart, too, Renee–especially in middle school where you see kids so turned off to reading because they feel labelled by their level. And, yes, read aloud is the key. Real books with real conversation about things that really matter.


  3. Excellent article, but does anyone remember those SRA cards we had to read, take quizzes on, etc. just to go up levels? To me those had nothing to do with reading and were just a game activity to complete. Real reading were the chapter books that I could sink myself into.

    • Funny you should mention those SRA cards, Diane. I agree that they seemed to have nothing to do with my real reading life, which happened at home, often under the covers with a flashlight that wasn’t supposed to be on. But when I was in 5th or 6th grade I read one of those SRA cards about the American Youth Hostels, which planted a desire to cycle from place to place that I only this year–over 40 years later–fulfilled, riding from Tuscany to Umbria (where most of the banner pictures come from). So, strangely enough, even SRA shaped my life, which is the wonder of reading. Vicki

      • I have been reading a biography of Raymond Carver. At one time, to make ends meet, he worked for SRA. His job was to find stories, pare them down, condense, etc. for the young reader. He made an effort to find works from the “greats” that would make an impact on these young readers.

      • Thanks so much for sharing that, Wendy! “Cathedral” is one of my favorite short stories, and Carver’s life was so inspiring–though far too short. I would have loved to see how his work grew and developed over time. But I’ll content myself now with imagining him poring over stories for those old SRA kits.

  4. I am a voracious reader. And was so as a child. In one of my classrooms I remember shelves upon shelves of books. They were labeled by ‘grade’. I remember recogizing that year that I could read & comprehend & very much enjoy books that were about 3-4 grade levels above the grade I was in. I enjoyed reading those books. They challenged me. I was often bored with the books available for my grade level. For instance, though I read Nancy Drew, I much preferred Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Sherlock Holmes. I devoured the science fiction available to me, Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, at an age long before my grade level(s) approached such books. It helped that I was raised in a household were books were prominent. Both my parents read. My paternal grandmother was an English teacher & my father grew up surrounded by books in his home as a boy.
    So yes, though I agree on some level that “reading levels” may give the wrong idea to students, I also see them as a bonus. If presented in the right manner.

    • I didn’t really mean to suggest that levels weren’t useful. I do believe they are, but I think they’re the means to an end, not the end itself, as it seems your own experience demonstrates. The end is finding books that you love, as you were lucky enough to do. As for me, I was a Nancy Drew fan, much to the chagrin of my mother, who thought I was better off reading Heidi. But like you, I vividly remember my first experiences reading books that were actually meant for older readers–The Collector, by John Fowles was one–and the way they made the world suddenly seem larger, more complicated, but also more exciting. Vicki

      • I’m a fifth grade teacher, and I have taught kindergarten, second and fourth grade as well. I personally have neverl labeled books by level, but instead by the type of books they are or category they fall into like “Nancy Drew,” “non-fiction text,” “Dr. Seuss books,” or “Chapter books.” I find that my students take more interest when I put them in these types of categories versus what level they would be reading at. In fact, even students who aren’t quite ready to read a higher level text, will keep those higher level texts with the hopes of reading them in the future. It gives them something to strive towards as they become better readers. I also agree with the overuse of worksheets to show what students know. I wish those in the decision making positions would remember where they came from, and realize that what they are expecting us to do isn’t working.

      • It does my heart so good to get comments like this! I think one of the reasons we read and write is to know that we’re not alone, and it’s been wonderful to begin a new year feeling that first-hand. As for your library, I’ll pass on the work of a wonderful teacher and coach I know, Stacey Fell. She involves the students in organizing the classroom library where they come up with their own categories, like “Swords & Broomsticks” for fantasy books, “Life is Hard” for books about kids who struggle, and “For All You Animal Lovers Out There,” for books about animals. It really lets the kids own the library, it plus gives them a great sense of what books it contains. And it gets them involve with categorizing in an authentic way, which is something every student needs practice with.

      • When I taught in the regular classroom, I also broke my books up by categories rather than levels. Then, I made sure my students could identify the differences between easy, just right, and hard books so they could pick what type of book they wanted/needed. As a reading teacher, I level my books because I want my students to read just right books (books with few miscues that they can comprehend) while they’re with me. However, I still have misgivings about doing this. I don’t want my students who struggle to think that reading is only about moving through levels. When I conference with my students, I try to discuss with them the smart things they do as readers and what I’d like for them work on. I’ve also explained to them that when they’re with me, I want them to choose books that are just right because those will help them the most.

      • I love that you let your students really get a sense of how it feels to be in an easy, a just right and a hard book and gave them the chance to choose depending on their purpose and needs. For better or worse, though, the Standards are pushing us to help kids access more challenging texts and some of the teachers I’ve been working with have been experimenting with small groups in which a group of students choose a book they really want to read that’s above their level. And we focus almost exclusively on meaning, not on fluency, decoding or miscues (unless those impact meaning). Frequently their engagement and desire helps them push through the challenges—and when that happens they could away feeling great.

  5. ps. Every chance I get, I give children books & spend time reading with them. My best friend’s youngest son (my “nephew” if you will) knows I’m not going to give him more Legos or DVD’s & such.Though on occasion, he will get a book -about- Legos. He knows to expect books. And I usually don’t give him books geared towards children. He often gets books far above his reading level. Books that he will appreciate as a young man, young adult & adult. Books that are timeless. He is not the only child that receive books as gifts from me. There are many.

  6. I stumbled onto your blog through the posting on School LIbrary Journal’s Facebook page. I’m so glad I found you! I feel I’ve found a kindred soul. As a middle school librarian, nothing drives me crazy like a teacher who brings a class in and wants to “approve” their book choice before “allowing” the student to check it out. (Mine is not nor ever will be a library with “bins of leveled books.”) Thank you for your blog. And now I’m off to Amazon.com to buy your book! 🙂

    • I level books but use colors instead of letters. This allows kids to have a good variety at a level they understand yet no one is sure if they are at a higher level than another student. I don’t agree with the ‘bin bashing’ since not everyone uses them the same way. I would have loved to choose some of what I read in school instead of the boring anthologies. I also feel for you, as a librarian, to have kids need approved books. I think free read, simply for the joy of reading, is just as important as what goes on in the reading classroom.

      • I advocate colors instead of letters, too, which seem more discrete and less hierarchical. And I suggest having other bins organized by genre–or even better by categories the children come up with (such as “Best Books for Boys” and “Animal Lovers Unite”). And, yes, we need to remember joy. It’s the only thing that will keep kids reading after they leave our rooms. Vicki

      • In terms of leveling by color, I did that with my first graders. It didn’t take them long to realize the hierarchy of colors and it ended up being similar to letter levels. If my memory serves me correctly, the original idea was to level 30-40% of the classroom library so that children would begin understanding how to pick books that were right for them on their own. Now, when I go into classrooms, just about every book is leveled. Who is responsible for that?

      • For what it’s worth, Renee, here’s my take: I think what we’re seeing is a direct result of the culture we live in that seems to value data collection and assessment more than meaningful instruction and lasting learning. That culture, I think, has also created a climate of fear and anxiety in many schools, as people scramble to find ways to meet the demands around data and assessment that have been placed on them. It’s horrible, yes, but if the kind of articles I’m beginning to see posted on facebook are any indication–along with the response to this post, which went viral this week with over 1000 views–I think that people are starting to push back or at least question the status quo, which, as you and I have discussed online, may only be benefitting corporations, not children. So . . . Occupy Classrooms, anyone?

      • Sara, that’s a great idea of using colors instead of letters! I might try that.

  7. I completely agree with you! I hate all of these leveling programs and don’t believe that they do anything to encourage kids to become readers. Kids don’t fit into neat little boxes, why should their books?

    • Thanks, Rachel. I don’t think levels were originally intended to pigeon-hole kids, but unfortunately in our data-obessessed age, that’s what they’re too often turned into. But to counter that, I’m attaching a link to a wonderful essay by Julius Lester that I just recommended to another reader. It’s called “The Place of Books in Our Lives” at http://acommonplacejblolio.blogspot.com/. And now I’m going to read your blog! Vicki

  8. I am so thrilled to have found your blog through Jules’ Facebook post. How true your words feel to me. I have always been such a strong supporter of the reading workshop model and leveled books but I’ve had a few experiences lately that have been worrisome. Even my own daughter is in a tizzy because she hasn’t moved up a level lately. She is a passionate reader who keeps me busy searching for new titles as she pours through many, many books each week. I deeply believe she should be very happy with who she is as a reader yet she is constantly searching for the elusive ‘next level.’

    • Thanks, Stacey. Sounds like your daughter is the inadvertent victim of the ways levels can sometime influence–and jeopardize–a reader’s sense of identity. My own daughter struggled with reading and felt stigmatized by the many remedial groups she was put in. But I read to her virtually every night until she was almost 13 and scoured bookstores and libraries, just as you’re doing now, to help her find books she could both love and read. And now, at almost 21, she’s never without a book. So let your daughter know it’s the experience we have with what we read that’s important–and meaningful experiences will ultimately allow her to grow in both measurable and deeper ways. Vicki

  9. Pingback: ‘Invented Adolescents’ & Classroom Activities « developing writers

  10. Love this post! It echoes a recent conversation I’ve been involved in with other educators online. We need to get back to our purpose in reading in the first place. Every year I tell my students that my hope and goal for them is to learn to love to read, to find books, authors, and series they can connect with and then they’re off. They will be living the life of a reader.

    • Shelley Harwayne, the amazing educator and writer, once said that a child who doesn’t love reading is a child who has yet to find the right book–and she didn’t mean a ‘just right’ leveled book, but a book to fall in love with. I cannot tell you how heartened it makes me to know how many teachers are out there doing their best to help kids find books to fall in love with. Thanks!

  11. Great post! Now if only we can convince our reading specialists, curriculum supervisors, principals, superintendents and Governor (of NJ, no less!), of the importance of this, we will have raised a generation of children who truly love to read! Thanks, and best wishes for a great new year!

  12. I stopped leveling books in my classroom. I spend a lot of time throughout the year taking with kids about what is an appropriate book for them. They might be a slow reader that understands every nuance in a book, or a great reader that does like books. Regardless of what DRA says i want them to be readers.
    Thanks for your great post.

  13. This was a great blog to read. I’m so glad there is someone out there who truly understands how children learn to read, and they come to love learning to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us. You truly inspired me once again, and reaffirmed that what I do is for my students is right. Thank you Vicki!

  14. Books have shaped who I am, my imagination, my perspectives. As a kids yoga instructor my love of reading has inspired me to create Yoga for Literacy where children are encouraged to become the book through yoga poses and activities. This involvement stimulates greater brain activity thanks to the connection between movement & learning and engages children body and mind. Yoga for Literacy takes story time to the next level and the kids LOVE it!

    You can learn more at Yoga for Literacy
    or see a 3 Part series of Yoga for Literacy training webinars http://yogainmyschool.com/store/webinars/

    • What a fabulous idea! As a child, my daughter always had to ‘become’ the character of the books she loved (which meant that at one point she wore a pair of glittery red shoes that she thought were ruby-red slippers for days on end, even to bed). And inspired by my daughter and my own reading life, I wrote a whole novel about a boy who wanted to be The Jungle Books’ Mowgli. But little did I know that these connections had neurological implications as well! Thanks for sharing!

  15. I’m just a Mom, (& Grandma, now) but I’d like to tell about a little problem we had with one of our kids, starting in Kindergarten 31 years ago. I didn’t even realize it but they had devided the class into two groups. (This was in a very small school, in a very small town, where everyone knew everyone else.) Our child kept insisting that she could not read things that I was sure she could, because she said there were different kinds of words. She finaly told me that she wasn’t allowed to read that kind of words because they were for the other group. (must have been a LEVEL way back then?!) She continued to think she couldn’t read even after 2nd grade, so I had the school test her to see if she had a learning challenge, or just why she kept insisting she couldn’t read. She tested out way above her grade level, there was NO PROBLEM with her! I finaly had the school go over the testing with her, because she wouldn’t believe me, and she really took off after that. It turned out that her best friend was in the other “group”, and she just assumed the world had more than one kind of words to learn! In Kindergarten she wasn’t old enough to know about “levels”, but she caught the drift anyway, and it carried with her, keeping her from progressing as fast as she could have, until we had her tested, and convinced her she was O.K.! They may have really only devided the class into two groups alphabeticaly, but it mae her think she wasn’t as smart as the kids in the other group. So…..please be very careful with how you present “levels” or even groups because there are probably kids whose parents won’t pick up on this, and it will stay with them the rest of their lives. I say a great big “THANK YOU” to all of you teachers for all you do!!! You know that to teach, is to touch a life! A group of my friends and classmates from 56 years ago had a very special teacher, and we get together and celebrate her birthday with her every year! We have a blast, and it sure is fun to act like 2nd graders again for a day! =)

    • And thank you in return for sharing another story that reminds us of how careful we need to be of children’s identities as readers. We hold so much power to, as you say, touch our students lives. And a life is so much more important than a level!

  16. This year, through our collaborative teacher-driven professional development model, a group of teachers at our school decided to read Steven Layne’s book “Igniting A Passion For Reading”. Since their read in the summer, I have been truly inspired byt all the conversations and spin-offs that have occurred around developing a culture of reading in our school… one that gets kids fired up for reading… one that is not prescriptive but is based on the interests of the child.

    With our current system (and budgets), I see some value in leveled reading programs but that does not mean this needs to be the focus. We are seeing the power that teachers can have to inspire kids and model a passion for reading.

    • You’re absolutely right, Chris. Passion and assessment aren’t mutually exclusive. Assessments can support passion for reading, but only if we set passionate engagement and curious minds as our highest goals. And thanks for mentioned Steven Layne’s book. I confess it’s been sitting on my book shelf for a few years and I’m going to pull it out right now!

  17. Pingback: ‘Invented Adolescents’ & Classroom Activities « developing writers

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