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.