For years I assessed my students to find their guided reading level. The unique reading level of each child helped me in so many ways. I could find books at the students’ instructional level so they could reach their independent reading level. I could report the reading level to parents at conferences so they knew exactly how their child was progressing. I could tell the students which clearly-marked book basket to choose from so they could use most of their time reading a “just-right” book. My classroom library took years to finally transform into a Pinterest-worthy leveled classroom library and it remained organized this way for years. I even helped other teachers level their classroom libraries too. These leveled classroom libraries have become quite ubiquitous in schools across the country, yet I never questioned their existence–that is, until last summer. And here I found myself again, knee-deep in books, re-labeling over a thousand books.
Why the change? One of my students came up to me last year and looked so incredibly sad. I asked him what was wrong and he stated, “I’ve been waiting all year to read Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus but now I can’t because the last day of school is tomorrow.” I didn’t have to ask him why because I already knew–he was a level H and have been instructed to read from the “Level H” book basket and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was in the “Level I” basket. In that moment, I realized that I allowed their label to limit their choices from a library of over a thousand books to a basket of about thirty books. I grabbed the book from the “Level I” basket and told him to take it home.
No matter what assessment system you use, the resulting reading level is not an exact measurement. It is a tool to help inform a teacher’s instruction–and nothing more. The reading level was never intended to be reported to families nor was it intended to be used for leveled libraries. Irene Fountas stated, “With every good intention, the levels may have been applied by professionals in ways we would not have intended.” (Read “Text Levels–Tool or Trouble?” to find out more.) Telling a child to only choose from a particular level is not an authentic way to choose a book. While it takes a lot of time and patience, teaching a child how to choose to a book is a crucial life-long skill. After much thought, I knew I had to change my classroom library immediately.
I spent several weeks picking away at the seemingly-endless task of reorganizing and relabeling my books. While it was a tedious task, it was the perfect time to do it. I was beginning a new position in a new district, so all of my books were neatly packed and in my condo’s storage unit. When Chris was out of town on a camping trip, I had the entire condo to spread out 1000+ books across the floor. I needed to figure out how many book baskets to have, so I sorted the books into stacks by topic. At first I had almost 70 different topics which was way too many. My classroom is tiny, so I had to narrow it down to about 45-50 topics.
Next, I decided to take the reorganization of my classroom library a step further, and catalog all of my books in a spreadsheet. At the time I had over 1000 books so this was a very time-consuming task. However, with so many books, I had a hard time remembering what books I had in my collection. As I got new books throughout the year, I just added it to the catalog. If you are just starting to build your classroom library collection, take my advice–start a catalog now! I use Google Sheets so I can easily access my catalog from any computer. Also, an added bonus of not having a leveled library is that all books belong to a topic. I used to get so frustrated when I couldn’t find a book’s level on Scholastic Book Wizard or Lexile.com. Now, all books can be quickly entered in my spreadsheet and sorted into the appropriate bin.
My students are now able to choose from a large collection of books. The books are neatly organized by topic, therefore very accessible to the children. Each morning, the children shop for books filling up their individual book bins. I have only a five rules for book shopping:
- Choose “just-right” books.
- You may have up to 10 books in your bin. (Any more than that, and the bins will break or get too heavy.)
- Your bin must have a mix of fiction and nonfiction books.
- If choosing chapter books, no more than two chapter books.
- Go book shopping at least once a week.
It’s refreshing to know that their choices are no longer limited by a reading level. If you have a leveled library, I (along with Fountas and Pinnell) urge you to consider making the change and un-level your library.