Teachers for Teachers | Slice of Life: Text Levels – Opening Doors to Literacy or Restricting Access?
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Slice of Life: Text Levels – Opening Doors to Literacy or Restricting Access?

The conversation around matching texts to readers is a continuous struggle for us. On the one hand, we continually see how important it is for students to have lots of opportunities to read texts that are easy for them. When students read at an independent level they can comprehend deeply and share their thinking with other readers. We meet students who sit in front of frustrational level text all day every day. These students are not developing into strategic, engaged readers. Levels help us match the right type of text with a student, but levels are only a tool. Levels are not a perfect science.

Shelley Harwayne said, “… books may be leveled in the teacher’s mind, but the children are not. This distinction is an important one.” Lifetime Guarantees.  We find this distinction is why levels are not a perfect science. The reader is a critical component in making the match and each reader is different. The motivation, interest, attention, and schema of a reader are all critical to think about when we are matching texts to readers. Assessments that help us find a student’s level are often short and administered with a teacher present. It is difficult to transfer the performance on this type of an assessment to all texts.   Some readers can comprehend deeply on complex, short text but cannot sustain this type of thinking in a long text. Other readers are more focused during an assessment when the teacher’s physical presence is a scaffold for attending to the task. Sometimes a reader can tackle a more complex text if they are interested in or have a lot of schema on the topic.

We need to make sure that we provide opportunities for our readers to try lots of different types of texts and not just view reading as moving up a trajectory of difficulty. We need access to a wide variety of texts – and not just from what we purchase from our own pockets or from what we can find at yard sales. We advocate for bookrooms that provide a variety of leveled texts, mentor texts, series, and theme/genre/author text sets. Our standards call for students to, “read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging texts.” This means that students may shift between levels of complexity. Students do not need to read and respond critically and interpretively to everything they encounter. Nor do they need to only read texts that get more and more difficult. What we ask a student to do with a text can impact how complex the text will be for her. Teachers need to have a wide range of materials readily available to support students reading independently and in small groups for a variety of purposes.

As coaches, we worry that in our pursuit of supporting teachers in assessing students so they can provide them with texts they can read easily, we run the risk of leveling students. We are thinking quite a bit about how we support the understanding of text level in our staff development sessions without sending the message that level trumps all.  Readers are intentional when they choose a text. We want to model for our readers that we choose texts for a variety of reasons and to know that we employ different strategies depending on our reason. We want our readers to be intentional about their text selection and to be open to trying new structures, genres and topics. There are times we are up for a challenge and times when we want to a text that grabs us right from the start. There are times when we want to try or learn something new and times when we want the comfort of familiarity. There are times when we want to read something to be part of a group and times when we want to read on our own. Readers need to have a broad range of experiences with texts.

We have seen levels be the key to opening a world of literacy in some settings and we have also seen levels be prescriptive and restrictive. Levels are a tool and are only as effective and powerful as the teachers who use this tool.  We agree – the distinction is an important one and one that matters in bringing children and books together.  We know many teachers are in the process of administering fall assessments – we hope these tools provide information to open the doors of literacy for all readers!


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    Patricia Palmer
    Posted at 21:40h, 18 September Reply

    Ah – a breath of fresh air! This is so true: “levels are only a tool. Levels are not a perfect science.” It is comforting to read that you are finding lots of variables that factor into performance on reading leveled texts. While comprehension and text complexity are at the forefront, it is interesting to note factors like the help of teachers to keep students focused, the actual content of the passage – is it of interest to the student, and the size of the passage transferring to a longer novel, etc. I look forward to building a community of readers in my classroom this year and am excited to begin the journey together!

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    Mandy Robek
    Posted at 02:32h, 19 September Reply

    So many valid points to consider here as we enter assessing season. Thank you.

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    Melanie Meehan
    Posted at 10:49h, 19 September Reply

    I really appreciate so much in this post–Other readers are more focused during an assessment when the teacher’s physical presence is a scaffold for attending to the task–what a great point! I don’t know that many teachers recognize the idea that THEY are a scaffold just by being in the room! Maybe we need to think of levels as part of a repertoire for how we match books to readers.

    Hope all is good, and I’ll see you soon, one way or another.

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