Early Grades and Leveling Books

I finally started reading Beyond Leveled Books by Karen Szymusiak, Franki Sibberson, and Lisa Koch.  Like I said before, this book was eye-opening!  Every elementary school teacher needs to read this book!

The first chapter is titled "Challenging Leveled Book Mania" and focuses on how we as teachers have gone into a tailspin leveling all of our books.  I have seen it too ~ all books are labeled A-M (in most primary classrooms) and students can only choose from the books in their leveled baskets.  There are beautiful setups for them with pretty letters and pictures.  It is truly inviting, and students love to see those pretty colors, letters, and pictures.


There is a problem with that.  What is the goal of reading?  Do we want children to want to love reading or just get to a certain reading level?  When there is a set up like the lettering or any other levels system, students want to just get to the next level.  Many times you hear things like, "I am a Level L, but Susie is a Level D."  Or "When will I ever get to be a Level M and read the fun books like they are reading?" 

The leveling system was created to help teachers find "just right" books for working with students. It was never meant for students to simply look within their "level" to find a book to read.    This can be detrimental to students who never learn to enjoy reading.  This happened to my son this past year.  Luckily, I knew what to do at home to intervene.
Zack reading a book that was considered not "just right".
His teacher followed the leveling system to a T.  We had read Magic Tree House, Amelia Bedelia, and Nate the Great all summer long.  When he went to school, his teacher tested his reading and told us that he read below grade level.  WHAT?!  I know he reads better than that!  So, we worked and worked and continued reading those books we knew he could read.  He wanted so badly to take Accelerated Reader (AR) tests on the books he read at home, but she said it was not on his reading level and told him he could only read up to a 2.4 level.   All of the books he WANTED to read were in the box just above "his level".  How disheartening for him (and many other students)!  We discussed this with his teacher at length, and she said that his group would never read Magic Tree House.  Well, they did by the end of the year!   He did not make the AR goal for the year because he did not want to read the books in his basket.  By the end of the year, he was reading on grade level and received the Principal's Award for all of his hard work.
So proud of his achievements!
The question of "just right" books comes into play.  The second chapter addresses "just right" books and is titled "Expanding Our Definition of Just Right Books in Our K-1 Classrooms" and answers that question.Just right books may be different in the early years.  Students may want to just look at pictures, a great way to boost comprehension.  They may want to reread a book that was read aloud.  They may want to look at nonfiction text to "learn" more about a topic.  The point is that "just right" books for independent reading may be different than the books we use in guided reading.

So, how should we arrange our books for children to enjoy?  The book suggests a different type of leveling system, similar to one I had used in my classroom.  I used colored dots that meant something to me, but the students did not know what they meant.  The simply knew where they could choose books.  My books were leveled in a range.  The books were placed in baskets per reading group and would change throughout the year.  

The best thing to do is to arrange books by theme, favorite authors, books song books, read aloud by the teacher, fairy tales, nonfiction topics, etc.  This allows students to see many different types of books and find what is right for them at that moment.  Leave the leveling for you to use as a teacher to find the "just right" books for instruction.  Also, be careful about telling students what "level" they are.  For some kids, it boosts their ego too much, while others feel left behind. 

My challenge to all of you is to think about your own classroom and how you arrange your books.  Do you level them or do you put them in baskets based on the types of books?  Do you do a combination of both?  I know that there are many different views out there, and there is no one right way to display books.  There needs to be a good balance for students, especially in the early years to find books that will encourage a love of reading.

And if you haven't read the book, find a copy and read it.  They even have it available for the Nook!

This has been a long post, so here is some fun!  Michelle at No More Monkey Business is having her 300 follower giveaway.  Check it out!

For now, leave a comment telling how you arrange your books for the students to choose.
Until next time (when I will begin talking about transitional grades and book choices)!


  1. Wow...I need this book! I have my books leveled by guided reading level. I had my kids pick a book from their leveled basket during our literacy stations so I knew they were getting books that were just right for them. Any other time, they were free to pick any book they wanted to read. I used to have during their free time pick a book from any level below what they were reading and up to 2 levels above. That went out the window quickly because of what you said above :) Thanks for posting about this...definitely adding this book to my list!

    Following Optimism in 2nd Grade

  2. This sounds like a very enlightening book. I do organize my classroom book library by theme. Your post gave me a lot to think about because there has been times that I've steered a child away from a book that I thought was too difficult for that child. I'm going to look into the book & see if I can download it on my Kindle. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Learning Is Something to Treasure

  3. This past year, I had a very low reader who was extremely interested in all things Titanic. All of my books about Titanic were WAY above this student's level....but he loved it and I would have NEVER told him not to read about this topic that sparked his reading interest so much. He was able to pick out facts (dates, some names, parts of the ship) and comprehended quite a bit just from the pictures (and probably what he already knew). Thanks for reaffirming this for me; I received some critique from others for allowing him to deviate from books on his level.

    1. I am so glad he was able to find something interesting to read. One thing I have done for students who love a topic is to write books at their level for them. Then they can get something out of them as well. I love watching them get excited when they can actually read what is on the pages. He does need a good mix of books on his level as well.

  4. I have leveled my books by guided reading level. I believe that children need to practice by reading books within their reading level. I have seen and worked with too many children who spend their day "reading" books they can't read. They then show little growth throughout the year. Children need to be able to practice at their level so they can easily read the story and comprehend the text.
    Now, I'm not arguing or disagreeing with this theory. I have often allowed children to take books that are easier or harder because of personal interest. However, I want to ensure that most of the books are at an appropriate level for accuracy and comprehension.
    I also remind students that we all learn at different rates. We relate this to riding a bike, skating, learning to walk, etc. I stress how we celebrate our learning no matter where we are!
    Where Seconds Count 2nd grade blog

    1. Amy,
      You are right ~ students do need books on their level to be successful. Most of this post really applies to K-1 students who are just really learning what reading is all about. They need to see all aspects of reading. One of the things the book talks about in later chapters is how students never learned to find a "just right" book outside of the classroom because the library or bookstore doesn't have labels on the books. That is another post for another day.

      I believe that if students have a variety of things to choose from at an early age, they will have a better understanding of what they like. Children who can't read words can always read pictures, building a base for comprehension.

      Leveling books is a good way to steer students in the right direction, and they do need books they can read at their levels. It is a true way to make sure they are reading for accuracy and comprehension. I am going to continue to talk about this book for posts to come, especially focusing on 2nd-5th grades, where book levels are super important for students when reading for comprehension and accuracy.

      Thank you for your comments and keep on the lookout for more to come.

    2. Andrea,
      I will keep checking back on this subject. I am interested in what else you have to say. Like I said, I don't disagree, I just feel that offering books on-level is vital!
      Where Seconds Count 2nd grade blog

  5. Great post!

    Btw, I just nominated you for The Versitile Blogger award!


    Live, Laugh, Love, Teach

  6. I'm going to check this book out. I level my books by Accelerated Reader levels. I too have steered kids away from too hard books and then felt bad because I knew they really wanted to read them. I read Junie B. Jones books out loud to my kids and of course they all want to then read them, but they are too hard for most of my first graders. Thanks for posting about this. I'm your newest follower and would love for you to check out my blog sometime.

    The Busy Busy Hive

  7. Great post! You're insight to that book and willingness to share is much appreciated. :)

    Sprinkles to Kindergarten

    I am your newest follower.


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