Easy readers and reading levels, part 1 - why level books?

This is the first in a three-part post on leveling beginning readers.

"Easy" readers and reading "levels." The air quotes are thick here, folks. I'm primarily talking about those books published for kids who are learning how to read, with a few words on each page, controlled vocabulary and lots of white space. They are by no means easy for their audience. (And if you doubt me, try reading one in a language you are just learning.) Why, oh, why do we call them "easy" readers? I have seen many alternate names, but usually I just call them "readers" or "beginning readers," although in an article like this it's hard to tell if I mean the people or the books. Whatever the term, if I find myself working in the same library for more than one year, you can bet I'm peeling off every one of those big "Easy" stickers off the spine and replacing them with my own color coding system (which I address in part two).

Every publisher has their own way of presenting the level of a reader. Autonomy is fine, but I really wish there was some industry-wide convention for leveling books instead of the ubiquitious 1-through-4 (sometimes 5) levels that stymy parents and kids alike. How baffling to look at two different books labeled with a big colorful Level 2 and have them clearly be so different?

Public libraries sometimes use leveling systems for their readers, but cataloging and judging reading level are two very different skills. Unless the public library has a cataloger on staff who has experience teaching reading to beginning readers, they're mostly coming up with their own arbitrary categories of easy-intermediate-harder.

Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether or not leveled books are useful for students, or if requiring students to read "just right" or "at their level" books (or, indeed, any particular books at all) is a good idea. My own philosophy about education skews far toward the unschooling side of the spectrum, and I have never once fell in love with a book anybody made me read. But one of my many goals as a media specialist is to help introduce my students to a large selection of books they can read independently. Luckily, along with the usual cartload of awful, painfully boring books like this on the market, there are lots of really good ones. Not all of them are shaped like typical 9" reader-sized books, either. Some books straddle the divide between formats. Others may be graphic novels. Regardless of their shape and size, I want these books to be easy to find -- without using a catalog -- so kids can spend less time searching and more time reading.

Students who are beginning readers may have a lot of experience with print, or none at all, but I have found that most of them are often overwhelmed by large collections of books. To meet the needs of these students, I have to help them narrow their selection down. This is why I label my books -- not because these are the only books these kids may read, but because it makes their process of selecting a book they can decode so much less stressful.

In the next post in this series, I'll talk about how I level my beginning reader books.