How to use leveled readers

Recently, I visited Savannah, Georgia, and hopped on a tour bus to learn about the city’s history. Located on Chippewa Square is a replica of the iconic Forrest Gump bench. You might recall the famous scene from the 1990s film where Forrest, seated on the bench, admires a large box of chocolates in his lap and tells a stranger, “My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

That got me thinking about classroom libraries. Elementary teachers are accustomed to collecting, leveling, and labeling their boxes of books, which contain everything from basic milk chocolate varieties to my favorite, dark chocolate with caramel. Students don’t know exactly what they’ll get in each one, but they do know which boxes are off limits and those that house their just-right books.

What would it look like if kids consistently got access to the books deemed too difficult for them? Forrest Gump spent his life being underestimated. If the kids in your class only get to read books at their reading level, you’re underestimating them, too.

My boxes of books didn’t help enough students

In the early 2000s, when I was a classroom teacher, I, too, amassed a room full of boxes. With great care, I sorted them by reading levels into color-coded boxes. I also had a kit of leveled readers. I strategically assigned boxes to specific students.

These leveled books were designed to match students’ independent, instructional, and frustrational reading levels. I had 27 first-graders reading on, above, and below grade level, and these boxes were one of my strategies for offering each kid the personalized instruction they needed. With the exception of our reading anthology, students reading below grade level spent much of their time in guided reading groups eating plain chocolates while fluent readers were treated to more delectable varieties.

If the kids in your class only get to read books at their reading level, you’re underestimating them.

Using this approach, I thought I had established equitable reading practices. Research suggests otherwise, however. According to the 2019 NAEP report card in reading, only 34% of fourth-graders and 32% of eighth-graders are reading at or above the NAEP reading proficiency cut-off. If my practices worked, those numbers would be much higher.

The trouble with keeping kids below grade level

Too many of my students spent time in guided reading groups reading texts that were below grade level. I assumed they weren’t ready for more mature options. My goal was to give them things they could read without so much struggle that I would turn them off reading altogether.

What I didn’t know is why those leveled readers were actually preventing my students from successfully reading at grade level. I wasn’t alone. Timothy Shanahan, world-renowned literacy expert, explains having a similar experience in “Should we teach students at their reading levels?”: “When I taught elementary school, I dutifully tested each of my students to find their […] levels—dividing them into groups built around instructional-level texts. It was a lot of work, but I believed it helped me to teach […], a belief shared by tens of thousands of teachers.”

What Shanahan discovered—and has helped many of us see—is that kids benefit from being challenged. “[T]o teach students at ‘their levels,’” he explains, “is to guarantee a lack of adequate reading proficiency by graduation.”

After digging into the research on instructional-level teaching, he was shocked to find it doesn’t actually support the practice. “[T]here is no credible evidence supporting learning benefits from teaching kids at their levels,” he says. Or, if I can editorialize here, teaching them only at their levels. Studies show that exposing kids to on-grade texts that are hard for them helps them learn and grow as readers. Restricting access to grade-level text becomes an issue of equity.

Rethink leveled readers

To be fair, leveled readers weren’t the culprit of less-than-ideal reading outcomes in my classroom. With time, it became clear to me that I needed to rethink how I used them in my classroom.

Guided reading practice is an excellent time to make grade-level readers accessible to students who are a little behind.

I assumed students would magically score proficient on the state summative assessment because they spent so much time reading, albeit texts below grade level. (Funny how this statement now seems so contradictory. Hooray for a growth mindset!) What they needed in addition to lots of exposure to accessible texts was time with rich, grade-level texts, ones that would help them add to their vocabulary, build content knowledge, and decode complex syntax. Those would be the things a state summative would be testing for, not whether they had crushed a text from two grades prior.

So what’s a teacher to do with all those leveled readers? Those books can still be very useful. Here’s how to leverage them to help students grow into fluent readers.

1. Work leveled readers into your guided reading practice

As Shanahan explains in “Limiting children to books they can already read,” “Instead of a steady diet of instructional-level texts, students should be reading a range of texts in their classrooms. Some proponents of leveled reading claim they too support this idea, but they propose that instructional-level texts should be the focus of small-group teaching. I recommend just the opposite, having students reading really demanding texts when the teacher is close by and ready to help, and less demanding ones when on their own or when a teacher just isn’t going to be available.”

Guided reading practice is an excellent time to make grade-level readers accessible to students who are a little behind. In “Guided reading reimagined: How to close reading gaps with differentiation and scaffolding,” I walk through the steps for using grade-level texts with all students during whole-class instruction.

Begin by focusing on vocabulary and concepts that warrant being pre-taught, to ensure all students are starting from the same place. Read the text aloud to your class, and give yourself enough days with it to allow for choral, partner, and silent readings. By the time you’re done, students will have heard and read a single text multiple times.

2. Use them for silent reading

Literature continues to recommend a 90-minute block of literacy instruction per day. Reading thought leaders encourage opportunities for students to practice sustained, silent reading in addition to this instructional block. (For more on this, see “The benefits of sustained silent reading: Scientific research and common sense converge” by Elaine Garan and Glenn Devoogd.)

Silent reading provides an excellent opportunity to promote student agency if you allow kids to select books, find a comfy spot, and read silently without interruption. Ask students to select books at their independent reading levels. Keep in mind that for some students, those books will be below grade level. That’s okay, as long as you’re following the other practices listed here that give kids frequent and consistent access to grade-level texts.

Consider age and skill level when determining how much time students should spend reading silently (younger kids won’t have the same stamina as older ones), and remember that silent reading time should never replace reading instruction.

3. Try a buddy system

Partner or paired reading is another evidence-based practice to develop fluent readers.

Pair students by similar reading ability or even by putting emerging readers together with fluent readers. Either way, this assisted reading practice is beneficial for all readers and fosters both literacy and cooperation skills, as explained in “Using paired reading to increase fluency and peer cooperation.”

If you can collaborate with other classrooms, consider pairing older elementary students with your school’s youngest readers. Be sure to review, in advance, protocols and best practices so readers know what to expect and how to respond. Older, fluent readers should be prepared to engage those young readers by periodically pausing to think aloud and ask probing questions. If time allows, encourage the buddies to write or orally share a brief reflection or summary, perhaps using the language experience approach.

4. Send books home

I used to send my students home each afternoon with a book in a bag they had decorated themselves. I would include family-friendly instructions on how to read the book, together, at home.

Silent reading provides an excellent opportunity to promote student agency if you allow kids to select books, find a comfy spot, and read silently without interruption.

Set your students up for success by communicating your expectations to families. For example, my instructions would explain if a book was likely to be a bit challenging and possibly frustrate a child so an adult could be sure to read to or with them. If the book was just right for a kid, I would let the family member know to stand back a bit while reading with the child, to give them lots of opportunities to decode new words and meet other obstacles in the text on their own first, before an adult jumped in.

Our Best of Teach. Learn. Grow. eBook How to support reading at home: A guide for families is chock-full of other information and tips that can further support reading outside of school.

How to use MAP Growth or MAP Reading Fluency to select just-right books

You might be wondering how to leverage data to select books for your students. Data from MAP® Growth™ and MAP® Reading Fluency™ can help you with this task.

A student’s Lexile® score on MAP Growth reporting indicates the level of text a student will likely comprehend. The Lexile Oral Reading measure from MAP Reading Fluency suggests how much support they’ll need to decode text at grade level. Read “Go, team: How parents and teachers can use Lexile measures to support young readers” for an in-depth explanation on these scores. Then visit the Lexile Find a Book site, which can help you search by grade, Lexile measure, and interest.

Kids should know what they’re gonna get

Those boxes of leveled readers in your classroom may be somewhat unpredictable, but they needn’t be. Unlike Forrest Gump and his chocolates, kids should know exactly what they’re going to get: books that challenge them to grow as readers so they can be successful in your classroom and beyond.

There’s no need to dump all those (expensive) leveled books out. They have a time and a place. When used to support guided instruction, silent reading, pair work, and family story time, you’ll convert them into valuable tools for building equity and improving literacy outcomes for all your students.

And while we’re on the topic of books and chocolate, complex and worthwhile for me, too, please!

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