6 Reasons Why I Believe Labeling Reading Levels on Books for Young Readers is More Harmful Than Good by Angela Ferraris


There are many reasons why I do not support labeling children’s books by reading levels in the school library. Although this is a commentary, I’m not stating my opinion without merit. I have been working in libraries for twenty-nine years  and with twenty in school libraries. I have seen children come into my library crying, because they were so worried about not finding a book that their teacher would approve. It broke my heart.  They were only six years old and already hated reading.

What Does the Score Mean? 

Well, first things first.  How do they get a reading level for a student? There are many different assessments that can be given, so I suggest you contact your child’s teacher for that information. Here is a Google search of the various correlation charts.  At that time in that child’s life, he/she scored this level. It does not tell if that child was having a bad day. It does not tell us what the child’s interests are or maturity level. It doesn’t tell us that Johnny loves origami and wants to take out origami books to learn how to fold just like his grandpa. It doesn’t tell us that Sally is taking out cookbooks to make dinner for her little brothers, since Mom is too tired to cook when she gets home late at night. The reading level is a temporary assessment of one part of the child; not the whole child. It doesn’t reflect the passion, the curiosity, and the dreams they are seeking. It is used as ground zero in which your children will need to improve upon.

And as obvious as this may be to us, several of my students do not realize that the score will change. Mary may be the highest leveled reader today in her class, but she may just be average when everyone else catches up (or not) in six months. When the next school year starts, she may not have read a single book over the summer, because now she hates reading. The pressure(real or imagined) to always be the best reader got to her. She went down the summer slide and is reading at a lower reading level now then at the end of last year. I’ve seen it happen.  I also have seen it when a child’s score has shot up over the summer.

1. Censorship  

In my opinion, visibility marking reading levels on books is a type of censorship. It narrows the child’s reading resources. It’s telling them they may only read these few books at this time in their life. When really, we should be fostering exploration of the many nonfiction topics and reading styles  that a student may not even be aware of in his/her world. Not all students have access to a public library. The school library is it and sadly, in some cases, only the classroom library.

Elementary children have this amazing curiosity of the world around them and should have  unrestricted access to those reading materials to expand their knowledge and promote critical thinking. “A minor’s right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.” I totally agree.

Think about it this way.   Imagine going to the public library’s check-out counter  with  books that took you an hour to gather.  Picture books that you are going to read to your children. A field guide to identify the tracks you are seeing in the mud behind your house. How to build your own backyard fairy garden. Fairy tale books to use to refer to for making a castle for that fairy garden. The latest recipe book for the Paleo diet. Several romance novels. A juvenile origami book with step-by-step illustrations so you can make animals as a table centerpiece for your son’s birthday party. Five current magazines that were just put out when you walked over to the periodical section.  Now. Imagine how excited you are to take these books home and can’t wait to start reading and learning. BUT. When you go to check out with the librarian, he/she sets all of your books aside. “Sorry, Mrs. Smith. These books are below your reading level. You will need to go back and only get those with Lexile number…(wait while I get the list out that has your level on it) Oh, here it is. Level 1200 on the spine. You may only read those in the textbook area over there.”

Seriously? Would you ever want to read again? Wouldn’t  you be embarrassed in front of your neighbors that you were reading above all of them or what if you were reading way, way below them? Would that excitement of finding a book treasure ever return? Reading would be a chore and not a pleasure.  You would have to read only  textbooks. You would   have limited access. Why should our children be limited?

2. Not Realizing That Books are More Than Just Words But  Can Be Shared Aesthetic Experiences 

Not all school libraries have primary and intermediate books on each topic. Keeping that in mind, one can learn so much from just looking at illustrations.  The Eyewitness Books(usually a middle school reading level) go out constantly in my library, because students learn from all of those great photos and charts. The Guinness Book of World Records or Ripley’s Believe it or Not always involve a circle of kids looking at the photos together and talking about math and comparison, and “Mrs. Ferraris! Look how long this person’s nails are!!!  Can you imagine having long nails like this?  Do we have any books on monsters? Do we have any books on cats? Do we have any…” The spark is lit. Please don’t put out the fire by limiting access.

3. Invades privacy 

Again, the ASLA states it brilliantly:  “Labeling and shelving a book with an assigned grade level on its spine allows other students to observe the reading level of peers, thus threatening the confidentiality of students’ reading levels.”  Peers should not know another student’s reading level. It  shames and labels those who are not reading at the “normal” grade’s reading level. I have seen students lose the desire to read, feel ashamed of reading lower than everyone else, and also, at the same time, being arrogant reading above everyone else’s. I have had some students not take out books each week. They leave them at home on purpose, so they would not have to go through the ordeal of picking out a book at the “proper” reading level.

4. Does not Allow the Development  of Browsing  and Choosing a “Good Fit” Book Skills 

Having books labeled in a school library does not allow children to develop the skills of picking “just right” books on their own. This is a skill that we develop to help us later successfully choose books as middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and adults. One way of learning how to pick our books is by the failure of doing it correctly. There will be too many hard words or the plot was too complicated. It’s been two weeks and only the first chapter has been read. Let them fail. Let them fall. They will get up and try again with our encouragement from the sidelines.

I have had children melt because they could not make a book choice. They have had their choices all made for them. There is  a time for making their choices but not in the library. They need to learn browsing skills and how to make good book choices now so that they will have them mastered later on in their higher academic life. THEY need to choose the books.

5. Instead of Putting Them On a Diet, Let’s Feed Their Minds with  Well-Balanced Meals

I want my students to come in and get new books each week when they visit.  My goal is to develop lifelong readers who enjoy reading. My goal is for them to be excited about finding information about topics they are interested in learning more about. My goal is for them to explore and love the library. I want them to find valid information on the internet. I want them to get excited about a book and stand around a table reading it together and wonder. I want THEM to find the treasures. I am providing the best books. The organic food. The good stuff.  I want them to fill their plates each visit. Their minds are rapidly developing and only eating celery  is not going to develop a strong mind.

6. Does not Foster the Joy of Reading 

Sometimes, it’s not about picking out a book that is a good fit.   Judi  Moreillon says, “Sometimes the easier text is just what readers need to maintain their confidence or reignite their enjoyment.” Reading just for the joy of it.  Do you do that? It is essential for them to have access to all of the books in a professionally developed library collection where a certified, full-time librarian is there all day for the children to come and explore. A library that is always opened. A library that has books representing everyone. A library where students(and teachers) have access to informational texts for curricular assignments. A place where we can feed our minds!  Where we can have fun learning!

Having students only reading their reading level makes reading boring. It defeats the whole purpose of creating “lifelong learners” or other terms like “forever readers” or “book lovers” by making reading a chore, boring, and not relevant to their lives. Example: I found out that during recess students discovered a large caterpillar on one of the trees.  They were still talking about it when they came into library class, so I showed them the field guide books in the reference section. I helped them figure out what the caterpillar was and going to be. They were ecstatic by that. It was relevant to them. It did not matter that they could not read that field guide. They were able to look at the photos. I taught World Book Online the next week and saw that they were looking up all types of topics they had questions about. I showed them how to have the text read to them. Do you think I showed them how to narrow down their search by reading level? Yes, I confess, I did. Anyone do it? No. They just wanted to explore and share with their neighbors what exciting topics they found.

How I Meet in the Middle

My school’s online library catalog can search and print a list of books at a certain reading level that are available in the library if teachers or parents want to narrow a child’s book choices.  My library policy for grades 1-5 is to  allow students to take out what they want and  learn from their mistakes. I tell them to pick a good fit book to read for the classroom’s silent reading or assignments, but allow them to get a “just for fun” book too. I teach a book selection class at the beginning of the year where they  learn how to figure out if a book is too easy, too hard or just right with the Five Finger Rule and  I Pick methods.

They are shown where the books are located  that are good for their grade levels. I explain that this is the time they can explore the collection and figure out what they like or dislike. “Don’t like spiders? Well, have you seen these books about spiders? You may change your mind. Keep an open mind so new facts, new likes can be explored.”  We go over how they need to pick out a book for reading at school or researching for school assignments. I define a  “for fun” book to be something they enjoy just looking at the amazing illustrations, maybe  how-to books, or books a little too easy or hard. Many students take out chapter books for their parents to read to them at bedtime. Some take out easy picture books to read to their younger siblings. It’s all good with me. I don’t care what their reading levels are. I just want them to enjoy reading and learning fun library lessons. I am building a library foundation with them that will support them for a lifetime. I want it to be strong with the love and joy of reading.

(You may have noticed that I did not include kindergarten. They browse in the picture book area of the library, and I place nonfiction books for them on a table  to choose from instead of letting them go into the stacks where there are many reading levels. When they can read a bit more, like in first grade, they will have the full reign of the library).

What Should We Really Be Focusing On?  

Each school should have a certified, full-time librarian. Librarians are trained in library school how to develop collections without bias. We constantly are reading and examining books. We breath children’s books. They are our worlds.  We strive to have libraries that represent all students, have a wide range of topics, have all reading levels, and I could go on all day. We seek out books for curriculum. We talk to students about books. We book talk with teachers and other librarians. We go to workshops where we talk about books all day long and LOVE IT. We teach reading literacy, technology literacy, information literacy, and media literacy. Kids will want to read harder and more complicated books if they enjoy reading, have the freedom to choose, and have access to a wide range of books. We let them do that. We are the book people. We are the information people. You are living in the age of the librarian.

Bottom line: Invest in a school librarian.  They are one of those teachers who wears the most hats in your school. They teach all of the students (and teachers). They are ever-changing and reinventing. A good certified full-time librarian per school can put your reading and technology climate   on FIRE!  Recognize that librarians are feeding the brains of the future.  Recognize this. We take that very seriously. You should too.

Suggested Reading:

*Baraboo School District. “Choosing a “Just Right” Book.” Youtube. N.p., 22 Nov. 2013. Web. 15 July 2017. <https://youtu.be/XxoF-FDQ6Qo>.
*Cregar, Elyse. “Browsing by Numbers and Reading for Points.” Knowledge Quest, vol. 39, no. 4, Mar/Apr2011, pp. 40-45. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=60127371&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
*”Does Labeling Children’s Books Constitute Censorship?.” Reference & User Services Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2, Winter2012, pp. 90-92. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=84747597&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
*Eaglen, A. “Labeling the Dummies.” School Library Journal, vol. 36, no. 6, June 1990, p. 68. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=9008061198&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
*Greene, Peter. “Librarians Take Reading Level Stand.” CURMUDGUCATION. N.p., 14 July 2017. Web. 15 July 2017. <http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2017/07/librarians-take-reading-level-stand.html?spref=fb>.
*Grigsby, Susan K. S. “The Story Is More Important Than the Words.” Knowledge Quest, vol. 43, no. 1, Sep/Oct2014, pp. 22-28. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=97937359&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
*MOREILLON, JUDI. “Policy Challenge: Leveling the Library Collection.” School Library Monthly, vol. 29, no. 5, Feb. 2013, pp. 28-29. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=86739754&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
*Admin. “Position Statement on Labeling Books with Reading Levels.” American Association of School Librarians (AASL). N.p., 04 Mar. 2016. Web. 15 July 2017.<http://www.ala.org/aasl/advocacy/resources/statements/labeling>.
*Admin. “Questions and Answers on Labeling and Rating Systems.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. N.p., 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 July 2017. <http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/qa-labeling>.
*Tanyareads. “How to Choose a Good Fit Book.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 July 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwtHGh0PVHo>.

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