Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Easy readers and reading levels, part 2 - how to level books

This is the second of a three part post on leveled readers. You can find the first one ("Why level books?") here.

A lot of schools are using lexile levels to level books, which look at statistical complexity of text, specifically word frequency and sentence length. There are a couple of issues with applying this to beginning readers. First, lexiles don't measure below a certain complexity, which means the simplest readers end up lumped into one "BR" category. Second, complexity isn't necessarily directly related to whether or not that reader would actually understand the text. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has a higher lexile level than To Kill A Mockingbird. Lexile doesn't take subject matter, prior knowledge or reader interest into consideration. That makes it an inadequate tool, when used alone, for matching readers to texts.

I prefer to use the Fountas and Pinnell guided reading levels as a starting point. These were designed for teachers to use to select books to use with students, one-on-one for assessment or in small group instruction of reading. They are really not meant for use by students. I've taught kindergarten, first and second grade, and I find guided reading levels to be very helpful in my teaching.  They run from A through Z, but in the library, that level of precision is not necessary. Instead, I chose to use color codes to indicate a book falls within a range of levels.

Last week, while reviewing books during the Readathon, I came across a Penguin leveled reader that bore -- hallelujah! -- a meaningful set of levels. They are actually not unlike the ones I use, described below, but I was pleased to see them described so fully.

Red = guided reading levels A-D. There are few books published at this level that you can buy at the store. Some are phonics readers with words that can be decoded, like the BOB books, but most are repetitive texts with familiar vocabulary, since few beginning readers know enough about phonics rules to apply them consistently. I don't have very many red-labeled readers in my library, but there are some great picture books that fall in this category. Some of the Biscuit books fit in this category.

Yellow = guided reading levels E-I, or approximately the instructional level of an average first grade reader. This includes both Elephant and Piggie and Fly Guy.

Blue = guided reading levels J-L, or approximately the instructional level of an average second grade reader. Most easy reader books fall into this category. Frog and Toad is a good example.

Green = guided reading levels M-N. This involves some easy readers and some early chapter books. Most of the Magic Tree House books fall in this category.

After level N, I stop leveling books and focus on familiarity with series, authors and genre to classify books. Yes, a book may be a level R or a level T, but when reading for pleasure, by the time a reader can comprehend a level O book, they have usually learned enough strategies for figuring out difficult words. They can also open a book and read a page or two to decide if they can understand a text enough to enjoy it. Students who come in looking for "a level P" book usually end up with a whole range of levels in their hands when they leave my library -- and that's fine.

My students use the colors to guide them, but they are not required to follow them. I suggest they get one book they can read by themselves. This might be an easy book, a just-right book or a challenging book, as the student prefers. They can use the colors until they feel comfortable opening a book and reading some of it to see if it makes sense. This leads to confidence in using the library, as well as a better awareness of how and why books are easier or harder.

It took me a few years to get comfortable with leveling books. The best way is to start is by reading Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell's books. The act of leveling a library will teach you a lot, too. It's somewhat subjective, but it helps to spend time with students reading the texts and to watch them progressing through the levels. Here's a booklet describing each of the levels A-M.  Scholastic provides a Book Wizard, which you can search by level. I used this tool and lots of lists of leveled books when I was leveling my library, but I mostly used the Fountas and Pinnell database (pay subscription). Lastly, here's a very useful comparative chart with lots of different leveling methods compared.

The last post in this series will look beyond levels and more closely at what I've noticed about children as they develop into fluent readers.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

2014 Readathon finish line!

I made it! 24 hours minus six for sleeping (plus a few more for unscheduled naps during the day). Considering I had my kids the entire time, I'm very pleased with how much I got done. 
My goal was to read as many books as I could from my TBR pile from the library. Most of these were picture books; some were easy readers or graphic novels or short chapter books. I tweeted lots of them; I also posted every book on Goodreads, with a very brief review. I posted one long review here (Some Bugs). 
In 2011, I pretty much stopped reading. As in maybe five books total per year, down from 150 in previous years. Part of the reason for this is because I moved from the library to the classroom, but another big reason is that I started using all my free time to write. Since 2011, I've written almost three million published words. But a writer needs to be a reader, too, and I decided this was going to be the year I started reading again. This readathon was the opportunity I needed.
Sitting and reading a novel felt... really hard. I struggled to stay engaged. I skimmed, which is not the way I traditionally read.
End of Event Meme (from the Readathon web site):
  1. Which hour was most daunting for you? The middle hours when I got sleepy, and the dinner hours when I was most distracted.
  2. Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? Mine were short! I listed my favorites along the way during each check-in.
  3. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? Nope! It was great!
  4. What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? The cheerleaders were super. I loved all the participation on Twitter.
  5. How many books did you read? Still tallying, but I'm pretty sure it was over fifty.
  6. What were the names of the books you read? All of them are on Goodreads.
  7. Which book did you enjoy most? My favorite was Paul Meets Bernadette, but I had a lot of favorites.
  8. Which did you enjoy least? I read a couple early chapter books I didn't care much for.
  9. If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? (I wasn't)
  10. How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? I'll definitely do it again!

Readathon Hour 23 check-in

I woke up at 6 to continue reading, after a pleasant sleep. I haven't done a final count yet, but my TBR pile is SERIOUSLY smaller. But I still have 15 minutes to make it even smaller than that, so... I'll be back in 15!

Readathon 16 hour check-in

I read 25 picture books in one hour! I have another stack to read, but I think I'll read another couple short chapter books first. Best: Paul Meets Bernadette, Three Bears in a Boat, Bad Bye Good Bye, Emily's Blue Period. Now to enter them into Goodreads. (If you're not following me on Goodreads yet, you can find me here. That's where I post most of my reviews.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Readathon Hour 15 check-in

22 books read. I'm ready for a picture book blitz! How many can I read before midnight? Wish me luck!

Readathon, Hour 14 check-in

19.5 books read. Most of the evening was feeding children and myself, but I managed to get a few books read in the interim while my kids played. Favorite: Doreen Cronin's Chicken Squad (awesome!). I also updated all my Cybils entries and put a few more on hold. ILL, I do love thee. Now my dishes are washed, my kids are asleep and I'm sitting in front of another big stack of picture books. Trying very hard not to think about my manuscript that's just five chapters from being done... no, this is important too. 

Readathon Hour 8 check-in

12 books read, including one short chapter book! I accidentally took a nap, so that slowed me down a bit, but I'm okay with that. =) Now time to pause to change laundry and watch a show, and then back to reading.