Could There Be More Than Levelled Texts?

I remember reading levelled texts — or what would have been the equivalent of “levelled texts” — when I was in school. I can definitely see some benefits to these texts.

  • They align with a child’s reading level.
  • They are good for reviewing sight words and possibly different word family words.
  • They allow children to apply the decoding and comprehension strategies that they’ve learned in class, using a text that often has the ideal number of words on a page and images to match the text.

While I’ve used levelled texts for years and will likely still continue to use them to some degree, I’m also starting to question their use … at least in the younger grades.

I worry when adults or children become too consumed with the level. The truth is that younger students are often reading very beginning, pattern books. Some might question if they’re really reading the words or just following the pattern. Is this what beginning reading looks like, or is this what we’ve made beginning reading into? Sometimes I sit back and wonder what children are getting from these texts.

  • They’re matching words with picture cues.
  • They’re starting to match some words with initial sounds.
  • They’re learning many conventions of print (i.e., that print is written and read from left to right, sentences begin with capital letters, etc.).

I wonder if students could get just as much from more challenging texts that also allow them to develop their comprehension skills and increase their vocabulary. I watch our students in class every morning when they come into read. While we have levelled books in the room, we don’t have them in the Book Nook area where many of children choose to read. Near the beginning of the school year, I captured this reading experience with one of our students.

While she knew the song, and I was singing along with her, having her discuss the words in the song helped me see how she was decoding them. I’m sure that I could have found a levelled text that contained similar words, and maybe there would be value in doing so, but I can’t help but wonder if students feel like more competent readers when we give them opportunities to read beyond levelled texts.

I remember many years ago when we were having a walk through at our school, and we were asked to make sure that all students knew their reading levels. I gave all children their levels at this time. I told them that “they’re just numbers, and that each child is doing the very best job that he/she can.” And while many children in the class were at similar levels, I still remember when the children found out about that one child that was at a much higher level. There was an audible gasp. All students looked up to this “great reader.” Many strived to get to the same level as her. 

I think that having high expectations for ourselves is a great thing. Pushing ourselves to constantly improve is also good. While this child was a wonderful reader, she was also far surpassing the benchmark for that grade, and all of the children that started to question their own reading abilities, were actually meeting the benchmark. These children were also good readers, and readers that were exactly where they needed to be. 

For Senior Kindergarten, the reading benchmark for our Board is a Level 4 DRA. Some schools is our Board use Dibels, and if you compare the reading behaviours for Dibels with DRA, the benchmark would actually probably be closer to a 3. These texts are still fairly pattern like with only one or two simple sentences on a page. It’s as the students move from Kindergarten to Grade 1 that the texts tend to become more complicated, and then you can really see how they would lead to further reading comprehension discussions as well as meeting decoding needs. I wonder though, if the bulk of our independent reading time is consumed by levelled texts, are we just making students feel like “strong” versus “weak” readers, and what impact might this have on their willingness to continue to read?

I’m very cognizant of what “comparing” can do to a child. As a child with a learning disability that grew up with a sister that was gifted, I constantly compared myself to her. I wonder if our teachers did as well. But when I moved on to high school and university, and spent more time separate from my sister and able to pursue my own interests and realize my own strengths, my marks improved. I know that levelled texts are not going to disappear — and maybe they shouldn’t — but I wish that our focus could veer from them. Do all texts really need to be levelled?

I think there’s value in realizing our limits, knowing when we need additional support, and getting the support that we need to succeed. Maybe levelled texts help with this. But I think about our Kindergarten Program Document, and the importance of developing oral language skills in these early childhood years. When our focus is on levelled texts and guided reading, do we lose sight of this? What long-term impact might this have on kids? I really wonder if our youngest learners need to know their reading level, and if they do, how do we reduce the stress that comes from comparing levels? What do you think?


8 thoughts on “Could There Be More Than Levelled Texts?

  1. Thanks for this post, Aviva. I agree with you that there is a place for leveled books and there is a place to abandon them. I’m glad your classroom has the Book Nook. There’s also the school library. We discuss book selection strategies as part of my library program in September and we mention different tools beyond the “5 Finger” one (where you open a random page, start to read and if you raise 5 fingers, it is probably too hard for the individual to read … if they are choosing to read it by themselves). The focus for library book choice is enjoyment (or supposed to be) and interest. Long term impact of a focus on reading skill instruction, according to People for Education, is that although reading scores go up in EQAO, fewer children report that they like to read. (I’ll find the link to this later.)

    • Thanks for your comment, Diana! I’m so glad that you mentioned the school library. This is another great place where students can find books for enjoyment, and not just reading level. Usually our librarian puts the books that students select in a large, white bin to bring back to the classroom. While he gives us a list of titles to correspond to student names, it’s amazing how all of our students remember what book they chose (e.g., the hockey one, the Franklin one, the one about dinosaurs). Even students that can’t “read,” use the picture cues and their prior knowledge to “read” titles and discuss books. This is also so important. I would love to see that statistic about “enjoyment” when you find it. In the long run, I wonder if it’s a love of reading, and not a reading level, that may matter most. And the more they read, the more likely they are to improve in reading … right?


  2. When I was a student teacher, several years ago now, I was teaching historical fiction to the class. I introduced a number of books available from the classroom library that students could choose to read during independent reading time if they were enjoying the genre and wanted to read some similar type books. There was one boy whose reading level was a couple of grade levels below what would be required for these books who wanted to read one of them. I started to hand him the book, when I was overruled by the teacher who didn’t trust him with the book, knew he couldn’t fully read and comprehend it, and wanted to give it to somebody else. While I fully understood her reasoning, I wondered what this did for his curiosity, quest for knowledge, and enjoyment of both school and reading. Even if he couldn’t get as much from it as another student, maybe this book would inspire and motivate him to want to learn to read better so that he could get more from it? Maybe this book would allow him to connect with others as he tried to make sense of reading it? Maybe he wouldn’t get a lot from it then, but would enjoy what he did get enough to want to read it again in a couple of years when he was ready? I couldn’t help but feel some loss as I considered what might be possible for this little boy. He hadn’t shown a lot of interest in school or reading before this moment. He was excited to try it. Why not let him?

    I know there is a place for levelled books. They are great for purposeful practice and the development of reading skills. But sometimes, we need to push ourselves beyond what we currently can do in order to see what’s possible and have a reason to try to get better.

    • Thanks for your comment, Melanie, and for sharing this lovely story. Your story reminds me of one of my favourite examples in Debbie Miller’s READING WITH MEANING, where she shows the impact that interest can have on “reading level.” A child could read beyond her interest because of her background knowledge of the topic and her desire to read a book on a subject she loved. She pushed herself harder. I look at our Kindergarten students. There’s a large group of them that love dinosaurs and have a TON of background knowledge on this topic. The other day, they were “reading” dinosaur books that were far above their reading level. They were correctly identifying key words in the text though because they could link their prior knowledge with the information in these books and find the key points that mattered to them. They were also more willing to sound out words and blend the sounds together to read them, as they really wanted to know what the books said. Interest matters too!

      Your comment also makes me think of our new Kindergarten Document, and the view of the child as “competent and capable of complex thinking.” When we restrict books to just a “reading level,” do we also communicate a different message to children? This doesn’t mean that we never use levelled texts, but maybe we need to consider why, how, and when we use them and who really needs to know the reading level. Thanks for giving me more to think about!


  3. I have always struggled with levelled texts because they are often boring for kids and the adults who read with kids. Knowing that reading level number is valuable to educators because it allows us to measure progress and gives us a common understanding of what reading looks like at various levels. However, I think of the children who arrive in our classrooms with less experience with books and reading at home. These children are more likely to spend time in the classroom reading the most basics of levelled texts – and therefore some of their first experiences with books will be the most boring reading experience we can possibly give them. How can we foster a love of reading in children whose first exposure is a book that doesn’t even have a story?

    Levelled texts are a valuable teacher tool for figuring out where kids are and if they are progressing in a specific area. But that doesn’t, in my opinion, mean they should make up the bulk of the books children have opportunity to read.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sharon! I’m so glad that you made this point. Yes, there is a time and a place for levelled texts, and they do help us measure progress, but when they restrict access to books, I have a problem with them. I’m also concerned when a “level” becomes such a focal point that they make students and parents doubt growth and individual success. Yesterday, an educator, Jennifer Brown tweeted me this Fountas and Pinnell blog post that I think sums up my thoughts on levelled texts and is worth reading and thinking about:

      Your point about beginning readers and rich texts is an important one. It’s through these other books that we can also develop vocabulary and oral language skills that help with reading. There’s not a lot to talk about in a beginning pattern book with words like, “I see the sun.” Maybe this levelled versus non-levelled text discussion is another one where balance matters. Have we swung the pendulum too far to one side?


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