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Reading levels - more political than educational

I shared this list from What Kids Are Reading; The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools, 2012 edition (80 page PDF) with the teachers and administrators in my district:


Top 20 Books Read Among U.S. High Schoolers 2010-2011:

  1. Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (ATOS book level 5.3)
  2. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (4.5)
  3. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (5.6)
  4. Night, Elie Wiesel (4.8)
  5. The Last Song, Nicholas Sparks (5.1)
  6. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins (5.3)
  7. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (5.3)
  8. Animal Farm, George Orwell (7.3)
  9. Twilight, Stephenie Meyer (4.9)
  10. A Child Called “It”, Dave Pelzer (5.8)
  11. Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer (4.8)
  12. The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan (4.7)
  13. The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton (4.7)
  14. Dear John, Nicholas Sparks (5.5)
  15. Crank, Ellen Hopkins (4.3)
  16. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling (6.9)
  17. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (7.3)
  18. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (5.0)
  19. The Giver, Lois Lowry (5.7)
  20. Marked: A House of Night Novel, P.C. Cast (5.4)”

And one English teacher e-mailed back with the question/statement: "Hunger Games and To Kill A Mockingbird are .3 apart?"

What she is suggesting is that reading levels are pretty much meaningless if you are just counting polysyllabic words and sentence length* and not taking sophistication of theme, imagery, and interest into account.
Increasingly reading levels are being use as a political tool (In today's crummy schools kids are reading way below grade level!!!!) and not as a means of helping students find and choose materials appropriate for them. 
I've never understood how all kids could be "at grade level" in reading scores. Wouldn't an accurate "grade level" proficiency be determined by establishing the mean student reading level, with lots of kids reading better and lots of kids reading less well? If we apply this logic, couldn't we expect all kids to be at "grade level" in height and weight as well?
In our insane metric-driven teaching environment, there are still a few voices of reason. In the document above, check out section "IV: Librarian's Picks" by my friend Terri Kirk from Kentucky. She writes:

What should kids be reading?

Maybe I should start out with what students shouldn’t be reading! They shouldn’t be required to read books that are over 200 pages. They shouldn’t be reading things that are developmentally inappropriate, no matter what their reading level is.

“I hate to read” is a common saying among teenagers. However, many of them hate to read because they haven’t been allowed to read things that they like. The basic tenet of getting all students to read is to let them choose what they are interested in. 

Spoken like someone who wants kids to love to read, not just know how to read. Yeah, spoken like a librarian, not a politician. Oh, I wonder what the reading level of 50 Shades of Gray or the latest Vince Flynn thriller might be? Are we adults reading "below grade level" as well?

Folks, you see "reading level" proceed with caution.

*From the report, page 67:

The ATOS Readability Formula is a free text-analysis tool provided by Renaissance Learning to estimate the quantifiable dimension of text complexity. ATOS takes into account the most important predictors of text complexity—average sentence length, average word length, word difficulty level, and total number of words in a book or passage—to help educators assist students in finding books to read at appropriate levels


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Reader Comments (9)

As a middle school Lit. teacher who has read many of the books on the list (not all...fortunately no Nicholas Sparks for me) because I try to stay on top of what kids in my room read when it's their choice, and having taught both To Kill a Mockingbird and The Hunger Games this year, I don't take any exception to their closeness in ranking. The Hunger Games is filled with social commentary, complex characters and both literary and historical allusions. It is well worth reading. It is also filled (as is much science fiction) with complex scientific vocabulary (or words based loosely thereupon) and words with legitimate Latin roots that make sense, though they are not real words, if you know a thing or two about Latin (avox anybody?). I don't disparage the classics...but we would do well to remember that many of them were once best-sellers too.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah H.

I think that when we are talking about reading, that we should be paying attention overall to what kids are reading. Even I like to read things are "below grade level" just as much as I enjoy a thought-provoking novel such as The Kitchen House. I did, in fact, just finish reading 50 Shades of Gray. Was it literary fireworks? Absolutely not. Did I enjoy reading the book? It was a real page-turner and easy to read, which felt good with my very hectic life right now. Plus, so many people are reading the book that it's been the topic of conversation in the lounge for weeks now! In the summer, when I have a bit more time to read, I can tackle more intense novels such as A Fine Balance and The Pillars of the Earth. The more we talk to kids about how reading enhances our lives (entertaining us, enlightening us, helping us empathize and understand) and the less pressure we put on them with reading tests and Lexile scores, the more likely students will become recreational readers.

I used the book The Hunger Games in a class of students who had been labeled as "struggling readers" and I had students reading ahead of the assigned reading. There were even two students who finished the trilogy before we finished book one in class. These kids are supposedly non-readers (and 10th graders)! I'm the first to admit that the writing style of The Hunger Games isn't profound, but the book created excitement over reading and our class discussions about the moral choices characters had to make was interesting. And to me, that means more than a leveled score. I'm getting tired of treating students as little fields of data for a spreadsheet instead of the human beings that they actually are.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaria Burnham

Hi Sarah,

Great point about classics having once been "popular" books. Dickens, Shakespeare and Twain all wrote for the great unwashed public! I wonder how Harry Potter and Katniss will hold up over the years?

Thanks for the comment!


Hi Maria,

Great comments and examples of getting students to read by finding something that interests them. I love this "The more we talk to kids about how reading enhances our lives (entertaining us, enlightening us, helping us empathize and understand) and the less pressure we put on them with reading tests and Lexile scores, the more likely students will become recreational readers."

You'd make a pretty good librarian!


May 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thanks, Doug. Very insightful as usual. I cringe every time I hear a teacher tell a student to "select a library book on your level". I'd much rather see students select a book they will read and enjoy. It seems to me the way to get students interested in reading is to let them read books they will find interesting.

I've worked in schools where there was a culture of reading -- daily sustained silent reading for students AND staff, books and magazines readily available, teachers who read aloud to classes, annual author visits, and lots of conversations about books. In those schools, reading levels weren't a concern. Of course, this was all before NCLB. :)

But my biggest pet peeve concerns dragging students into the computer lab 3 or 4 times a year to take "tests" that provide a "student's reading level", and then using these test scores to determine "student growth" or the student's book choices. Has anyone shown that these tests are a valid measure of student abilities? When did connecting a kid with a book get distilled down to whatever number is assigned to the book and the kid?

Thanks again for pointing out the fallacies of this system.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDiane

Hi Diane,

I'm not fan of computerized reading programs either.

and selecting books by some artificial reading level is nuts.

Your comment said it well. Thank you!


May 5, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I find it interesting that in the list above, Ellen Hopkins's Crank should be easiest to read and, perhaps, the one we would give to a struggling 4th grader! I KNOW this is not the intention of these leveling tools (I am a reading specialist who teaches first grade). However, like many tools that provide quick numbers and a limited range of information, these very limited tools are being used to assess and evaluate schools, teachers, and the quality of any given reading program (sometimes they are the EXCLUSIVE measure).

Don't you miss the days when we used a leveling tool to determine the likelihood that a given student would be able to decode a text AND then depended on professional librarians to help guide us to books that would be appropriate for any given student? Reading preference is something that I know about very well. I once surveyed every single high school student in my area (and many not in my area) as well as every single third through fifth grader. There is NOT a single text that will meet the needs of any single class or teacher. If we want students to read, we need to love the books, know about the books, and, perhaps most importantly, know the students to whom we plan to place these books. Unfortunately this plan does not lend itself well to norm referenced, standardized testing, evaluation mentality. Ouch!

May 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEd Spicer

Hi Ed,

Thanks much for your thoughts. I consider you one of the true reading experts writing today. (Good article in SLJ.)


May 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Leveled reading has its place. There is nothing wrong with using reading level as a method of guided practice. The problem comes when reading level trumps all else. Reading level has great meaning when a child is learning to read. When the child reads well at about a 4th grade level they either need no more outside incentive to read or they need no more guided practice.

I'm not going to complain about something I've seen work for thousands of children over my years as a teacher/librarian. The misuse of leveled reading is a real problem, but it's a pretty good diagnostic and accountability tool.

I may not like the artificiality of levels, but the amount of accountable practice kids get by using leveled reading programs cannot be replaced any other way. That is practice that many children would not get without the accountability that's built into computerized reading programs. The difference I see in library circulation, reader confidence, and sense of accomplishment in my 20 years experience has been impressive.

May 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRenae

Hi Renae,

Thanks for adding this very balanced POV based on experience. As usual, it's not the thing itself, but how the thing is used.


May 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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