Level best

Setting up for reading

In school libraries around the world, ‘leveling’ texts to match them to a child’s level of reading development is accepted practice. Uma Shankar Singh thinks we ought to think again – carefully.

The problem

Ray Bradbury, author of the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 famously wrote “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” This may sound extreme, but that’s what’s happening in many international schools today.

The reason? The practice of ‘leveling’ books – matching what is thought to be an appropriate level of book to a child’s level of reading development.

According to the American Library Association in a position statement on leveling books, librarians are pressurized by administrators and teachers in schools to label and arrange their collections according to reading levels, thus undermining the ultimate value of a library space.

One problem in international schools is setting up a library when the students are all second language / EAL learners and do not inhabit the culture that has produced the writers and authors to which they are being introduced. How do you strike the right balance by having collections with labeled reading levels to assist teachers and administrators with their assessments, at the same time as developing a library space which does not have labeled bins or books that promotes free recreational, independent reading at the same time?

Labeling books – or children?

Research over the years has argued that students tend to get better at reading and comprehension when they are reading at – or slightly higher – than their respective reading levels. Pernille Ripp in Passionate Learners: How to Engage and Empower your Learners talks about engaging students with just the “right books or at their level books” in order to develop their reading skills. Her ideas are very influential.  Teachers and administrators alike over the years have molded the idea of labeling books in library spaces in order to suit their needs to the point where reading levels systems like Fountas and Pinnell or the Lexile Framework no longer, it seems to me, work as a tool for the educator, but as a tag for the students.

Why do children read?

At this point it’s worth considering the idea of “Efferent Reading” as opposed to “Aesthetic Reading” put forward by Louise Rosenblatt. With Efferent Reading students read for the sake of obtaining information and do not focus on the rhythmic or prose aspects of the language, while Aesthetic Reading is about the book itself and the way the reader emotionally engages her or himself in the text while discovering information in the process. In pursuit of better grades and assessment scores, schools have unconsciously drifted away totally from the idea of aesthetic reading by labeling books according to reading levels and continuously proceed to do so without realizing what Donalyn Miller calls their “educational malpractice”.

The case against labeling

Labeling actually prevents a teacher from guiding students to new and exciting titles, while discouraging him/her from teaching effective strategies that would help the child find more challenging books independently in future. Furthermore, Miller argues that leveling books disempowers the students by removing their independent choices of selecting books, creating a negative attitude not only towards the act of reading, but also, on a larger scale, towards school. Students who are at lower reading levels are affected most by this practice in terms of motivation to aspire to read higher level books.

The case for leveling

Nevertheless, many librarians, teachers and parents around the world feel that leveling library/classroom collections is actually a great way to support learners who may be lagging behind in terms of reading skills. Even though leveling and labeling is a time consuming process, librarians and teachers feel that they are easily able to locate appropriate personalized learning materials for their students through this practice. Teachers are able to clearly define goals for their students and accurately report the progress of the students to their parents through assessments that reflects their reading levels.

Important decision

When it comes to schools, particularly new international schools, in which a reading culture is still in its infancy, I believe that deciding to label a collection is a call that librarians, teachers and administrators have to take together in order to determine what is best for their students. Initial labeling of books can help teachers identify reading levels of students and can be a great starting point to lead students in the right direction. But to continue on the same path for years in which students are limited to resources that are strictly labeled is something that I believe is detrimental to their progress.


Linda Wedwick Haling’s and Jessica Ann Wutz’s may offer a good way forward in : BOOKMATCH: How to Scaffold Student Book Selection for Independent Reading which offers an interesting strategy to promote independent and unrestricted reading among students. BOOKMATCH the acronym focusses on 9 criteria that can help students identify books for themselves:

(B) book length

(O) ordinary language

(O) orientation or organization of the book

(K) knowledge prior to reading the book

(M) manageable text

(A) appeal of the genre picked up

(T) topic – whether it’s interesting or appropriate

(C) connections related to the text

(H) high interest.

In order to develop successful citizens and effective readers, it’s essential that students are provided opportunities to choose books according to their interests and curiosity even though they may fail several times while picking up books. The BOOKMATCH strategy provides an impetus for thinking about texts through trial and error and is likely to provide experience to the student about books they will enjoy, while also providing the child an insight into his/her own character and interests.

A real responsibility

As librarians we have the power either to limit the students’ choices through labeling of books or inspire a world of critically informed readers, who find time to figure out the right books for themselves through unrestricted access. I know which strategy I would choose to make sure Bradbury’s prediction does not come true.


Uma Shankar Singh is a Librarian, Digital Literacy Coach and teacher of IT. He likes to read about human psychology, photograph wildlife and landscapes and research on trending library topics. He can be contacted at umashankar1991@hotmail.comor click his picture for his LinkedIn Profile. He currently teaches IT at the International German School in Ho Chi Minh City.



Feature image: mentatdgt, Pexels 

Other images: Wolfgang Eckert, Vlad-Vasnetsov, Pixabay Luis Quintero from Pexels