Micah bounded into the library and gave me a hug. “How was your day?” I inquired.

“Good,” she answed simply.

“Anything fun going on at school?”

She told me about upcoming Halloween parties, portraits of kids placed on the walls of the school, an incident in the cafeteria. As her tutor, I was wondering about things leaning towards the academic matter of school.

“Read any good books lately?”I probed a bit more.

“I’m reading J,” she replied.

Not,”I’m reading Mr. Putter and Tabby, Henry and Mudge, or Bones. 

Just “J.”

Trying to explain that I wondered about titles, not levels, simply elicited a firmer J, as if to say, “How many times do I have to tell you this!”

This is not an isolated incidence. Children I tutor look at spines of the books surrounding us in the library and are amazed that there are so many “L’s.”

I explain, “In a real library, that letter on the spine is usually the first letter of the author’s last name.”  I’m secretly horrified at that puzzled expression that I see. I hold my tongue. I don’t say what’s on my mind. No wonder the librarians have taken a firm stance against levels. “Our job is to give kids a break from school reading and get them interested in books,” they tell me. “We have parents come in demanding we give children only a certain level of books. Kids leave crying. We’re sick of it.”

Ugh! I’m working with kids from schools where teachers value literacy, have received training from some of the best literacy collaboratives in the country, and think matching books to readers is one of their most important jobs. Yet, the children are hearing the message that they read at a certain level. Not, “You’re the kind of reader who devours mysteries.” Or, “You love books set in Pioneer days, don’t you.”  But, quite simply,”You’re reading at Level —-. Here’s your basket.”

And, it’s not isolated to one school or district….asking a little girl I work with who goes to a school in a different district to tell me some of her favorite books, she clearly tells me what Accelerated Reader level she is supposed to read. Then, she pulls a book from her bag, like it’s contraband, and whispers that she’s secretly reading a book at a higher level. I am sworn to secrecy. Well, at least as a tutor it gives me a place to start. “Let’s see if we can find some books and authors you’ll love to read. We don’t need to worry about AR levels here. We’re in a library. You can check these out.”

Teachers are under a lot of pressure to monitor progress and demonstrate growth. Some things get lost in translation. Micah yanks the “J” book from her book bag. According to her, “reading log,” she’s been reading it for three days. Hmmm… I ask her to tell me a bit about it. She doesn’t remember much. Read me a good part. She struggles. Not all level J books are created equal, as we all know. Apparently, someone forgot to throw this one out with the basal readers. Micah is stuck on every word with a k in it, because the font is something an editor would have selected for a Nathaniel Hawthorne book. Every k looks like an R. Not exactly a support for a struggling reader.

Is is this very different from me knowing I was SRA green, and longed to be violet like Kathy Gregg? At least, outside of SRA time, I could read books Mrs. Jones, our librarian thought I’d like. I remember her handing me a book in a series called Spice. 

Spice, and her puppy sisters, I think Ginger and Cinnamon, kept me reading for hours. I forgot all about my pea green SRA level.

I completely understand how knowing book levels helps teachers. I just question the sharing of levels with our readers and their parents…especially the strugglers.

I think this phenomenon is like Post-Its in books. It’s well-intentioned beginnings got lost somewhere. Common sense flew out the window like a well-constructed Post-it paper airplane designed and piloted by the brightest, bored student during independent reading time.

Parent-teacher conferences are here and now anxious parents voice concern. “They say she’s reading at Level K and she needs to read at level P by the end of the year and that is virtually impossible.” The parent also tells me that her daughter read all weekend. “She’s reading a book called Smile,” her mom elaborated. She tells me she told the teachers this, and they said it was most likely too hard. Yet, she stuck with it for long periods of time over the weekend. She was excited to read. She told her mom she had her next book picked out.

More contraband. When I ask the child what she has been reading, she dutifully replies, “Nate the Great and the Lost List.”

I’m sure her teachers rolled their eyes in their minds when her mom added that she thought Lauren was bored with the books they were having her read. I know the feeling. She’s a struggling reader. All assessments indicate she needs to be reading at Level K. Series books are supportive. She seems to like Nate and there are so many in the series. They won’t have to worry about what she’ll read for weeks and weeks.

Have we lost our way,again, I wonder? I recently read a blog post from Irene Fountas. You could almost feel the weight of the burden…here was our intent in creating a leveling system. Here is the monster it has created. For the love of literacy, please stop and use this as a tool to help you as a teacher match books to readers!

It takes time, lots of reading, lots of knowledge of the discreet differences between the levels to talk to a reader in a way that helps them find books that match them as a reader. Lots of patience, lots of practice, lots of trial and error as a reader to match yourself to a book. And, the harder it is for the child to read, the harder the matching is. If I do my job well, Micah will bound into the library someday, and tell me she wants to look at the R books, because she loves Cynthia Rylant and she wants to read every book she’s ever written. I’ll be able to say, “Oh, when you get older, I’ll give you one you’ll never find in this section of the library. It’s called A Couple of Kooks. It’s a book of love stories.”

She’ll wrinkle her nose and say, “Ooh, gross, ” because that’s not her level. She’s only 8. She’ll pick up her latest Poppleton and giggle when she tells me about the best part.