The problem with limiting children’s library book choices based on reading levels

Maria, a second grader, stands in front of the shelves during library time, trying to choose books to bring home for the week. She knows that the rule is she needs to take out a book that has a tag that matches with her reading level, L. At home she has a copy of Frog and Toad are Friends and wants another book in the series, so she gets excited when she sees Frog and Toad All Year on a nearby shelf. Unfortunately, there on the book spine is a big letter K, which is below her level so she can’t bring it home. She’s disappointed, but then she remembers that she saw her friend reading a book that looked like fun, The Day the Crayons Quit. When she finally finds it on the shelf, Maria realizes it’s a level M, above her reading level.

Is matching library book choice to reading level a good policy?

Reading that paragraph makes the idea of limiting reading levels seem absurd. Why can’t Maria just get the books she wants?  Many schools make the decision to limit books because they are eager to improve reading skills and they want to be sure children can independently read the books they are bringing home. The idea is that if children read books that are too easy they won’t be challenging themselves, and if children read books that are too hard then they will be frustrated and stop reading. There is a good premise there, but it’s flawed. An article written six months ago in Psychology Today spells out the reasons why Maria should be able to take the books she wants home. The article’s thoughtful analysis is worth reading in full, but in a nutshell, here’s why limiting book choices is problematic:

  1. Determining a book’s reading level is not a precise science. The leveling process is complicated, and therefore a book’s level might be assessed differently by the different well-respected readability scales available.
  2. Children often score differently on the various types of tests that are designed to determine children’s reading levels. A child’s results can depend on the kinds of questions asked, the way the skills are tested, etc.
  3. A child’s reading level isn’t always going to predict whether she comprehends a book below, at, or above her level. That’s because when she starts reading any book she might be refreshed and awake, or she might be hungry and tired; she might be motivated by interest in a book, or she might not really want to read it at all; she might have lots of background information about a book topic, or know nothing at all about it.  
  4. There are benefits to reading books at different levels: When children read books below their reading level, it can help them build confidence and fluency as they work to automatically read the words on the page. When children read books above their reading levels, especially with support, research shows they can become stronger readers.
    1. Remember — the goal is to get kids reading. If they are having to work too hard to read an upper-level book, they might get frustrated and stop reading. On the other hand, if they are only reading easy, lower-level books, they won’t have the chance to build all the skills they need to build as independent readers (who will be encountering more challenging texts in the years ahead).

Everyone gets that when children successfully read books, they are more likely to keep reading. And obviously, schools decide upon this library book policy due to an unwavering dedication to improving student reading skills through regular successful reading opportunities at home. But while the motivation behind limiting books to a child’s reading level –  that these are the “right” books and therefore children are most likely to have success as readers – is a good one, unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

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