“Recently I helped a student who came to me while his class was in the library browsing. As the librarian of a middle school library, I often see situations such as this one. The boy had been most recently reading about George Washington and Ben Franklin. His class assignment that day was to checkout two computerized reading program books within his tested reading level and thus was “allowed” only one free choice book. “But I’d rather not have to check out labeled books and there are some books I’d like today that don’t have the dots or reading level labels on the backs of the books. Does that mean Ican’t [sic] check them out?” he asks me.
Reflecting on my personal reading experience, I’m so very glad these programs didn’t exist when I was in school. It’s probably no surprise to those who know me, but I was reading well above my age level throughout my school years (when I was in 7th grade, I tested at a college+ reading level). Now, if I had been the above student, I’d have had a real problem: not too many grammar school libraries have high school (or higher) books. So what could I have read that was “at my level”?
Looking at AR’s books, I learn that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is “Upper Grades”, but I read it in 5th grade. Little Women is for Middle Grades, which I guess is good since most of my friends read it in 3-5th grade. The non-fiction topics I studied aren’t even listed. When I was in 6th grade there was a time when all I read was Nancy Drew, which prompted my librarian to speak with my mother because she felt I could be reading “better” books (my mother told the librarian that I could read what I wanted to, thank you very much). My point is, had I been restricted to my “level” I wouldn’t have read Mistress of Mellyn in 6th grade, nor would I have enjoyed the works of Thornton Burgess at a high school senior.
Why so many schools have jumped on the reading level bandwagon is beyond me. It’s sloppy teaching and librarianship to rely on some test (or tests) to give students a limited range of reading. Years ago I had a kindergarten class and there was one boy who always borrowed Agatha “Cripsie” mysteries. I knew he wasn’t reading them, but his parents read them to him – by the end of the year he was reading above level, but would he have been had we insisted on his borrowing picture books? Evidence suggests not. It also can be traumatic for students reading greatly above or below level to advertise their status, which is what happens if the books are labelled (and there are some libraries where there is no label other than the AR – or other program – level).
So let me take the opportunity to praise AASL’s statement. My fear is that it’s too little, too late. How do we get administrators to read this, and recognize the harm it does? How do we convince teachers to do the same? It’s not enough to write letters to the editor. We must find better ways to encourage a return to broader reading, to allowing students to read for pleasure, whether they’re reading “at level” or not. As reading experts, that’s a critical part of our jobs, right?