The Problem with Reading Levels

AASL, Labeling and Rating, Privacy, School Libraries

By: April Dawkins

When my niece was in 6th grade, she was informed by her teacher that she had to choose a book on her Lexile level for her next checkout from the library. When she told her librarian her Lexile level (1350), they checked the catalog. What were her choices? Anything from the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper. That was it. Do you want to turn off a student from reading? Tell them they have to read 19th century American fiction for fun.

Texas recently sent out recommended reading lists to students based on their STAAR scores (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness). I don’t know who came up with the recommendations, but it appears they were solely based on Lexile levels. For example, a 7th grader was sent a list that included Plato’s Republic, Dickens’ Great Expectations, War and Peace and Romantic Love and Sexual Behavior. Reading recommendations shouldn’t be based solely on reading levels, they should also be based on reader interest and what is appropriate for a 12-year-old!

How do educators create a society of readers? It’s not by restricting reading to an accepted range of Lexile levels or only books that have a quiz attached to them. Reading levels can be a useful tool to assist in guiding a child to the right book for them, but when those numbers become the only determining factor of what is acceptable to read, we have a problem. School librarians, especially those in the elementary and middle school level, are often pushed either by administrators or classroom teachers to label all of their books with Accelerated Reader (AR) levels. Then students are told to pick books that have AR quizzes so that they receive credit for reading and are eligible for prizes or rewards. A friend recently told me that students in her elementary school would come to their check-out time, go quickly to their AR leveled section of the collection, grab a book off the shelf without looking at it or reading the blurb, and check it out. The goal wasn’t to find a book they might enjoy reading, it was to find a book they could take a quiz on so they could meet a reading goal.

There are other reading programs out there, but Accelerated Reader is the most well-known one. AR has been a much-discussed topic in the school library world. It is most often viewed negatively. The issue with AR is that it is not used well. According to AR, there should be four components to a successful AR program: access to quality reading materials, increased free reading time, quizzes and incentives. The problem with most AR programs is in the implementation, the overemphasis on quizzes and incentives. If a book doesn’t have an AR quiz and you want to earn a reward or reach a reading goal that happens to be tied to the number of quizzes you must take, students won’t pick a non-AR book. If you restrict students to reading only the books on their level, you are limiting their access.

And then there is the whole labeling and shelving issue. When we choose to place visible labels of reading levels on books we are violating student privacy. Students might be embarrassed by the level they are reading and it really isn’t anyone’s business what they are reading. If a student is already a reluctant or struggling reader, being made fun of by their peers for the level of their book is a great way to turn them into non-readers. Reading levels can be useful tools, but their place is really in the catalog, not on the book’s spine.

So, what do we do when the administration or teachers push to label books with Lexiles or AR levels?

  1. I think it starts with a discussion about what they are hoping to achieve – a society of readers or something else?
  2. Does AR or leveled reading actually increase achievement? Share the research about AR or labeling of books. You could start with Krashen’s research or research on what students actually think of the value of AR.
  3. Discuss the violation of student privacy that occurs when books are shelved by level or labelled. You can do this by sharing AASL’s Position Statement on Labeling Books with Reading Levels.
  4. Finally, suggest a school-wide faculty book study on the power of independent reading. These are excellent starting points for discussion: Gallagher’s Readicide and Miller’s The Book Whisperer.

I know we now live in a data-driven education world, but using reading level as the final determining factor for reading achievement and reading choice is the wrong way to go. Sometimes it’s easier to point to numbers that show growth, but in the end if the reading experience turns a child off to reading we have a bigger problem – the creation of a society that sees reading as a chore.


April DawkinsApril Dawkins is a May 2017 Ph.D. graduate from the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Her research focus for her doctoral dissertation was understanding the factors that influence decisions around selection in school libraries and the role of self-censorship. April was part of the NxtWave program funded by an IMLS grant, a national cohort of Ph.D. students whose focus is school librarianship. In August 2017, April will join the faculty of the University of North Carolina Greensboro in the Department of Library and Information Studies. Prior to her doctoral studies, April served for 15 years as a high school media specialist in North Carolina. She is also a past president of the North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA). April also serves as co-chair of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of  NCSLMA. Find her on Twitter @aprldwkns.


  • thinking this is the response to AR which I have ALWAYS despised! My children did not like it either. Since they always tested very high in vocabulary, etc. they were expected to read the college level books, not ones which they may choose on their own and enjoy. SO, neither like reading…for pleasure. I feel I have failed as a parent/ librarian, but the schools certainly did their part in turning them off of reading. (I wrote this even before reading the post!)

  • I believe that originally AR was intended for students who were struggling with reading. Why would anyone think it necessary to impose this regimentation of a student who reads well already? By the way, in the 6th grade I did read 19th century American fiction for fun, but not Fenimore Cooper as Mark Twain referred to him in a scathing review. (I’m still trying to figure out why Leatherstocking Tales would even be in a school library.) On the issue of quizzes and incentives, I strongly recommend the research of Alfie Kohn.

  • I am a school librarian and speak against “leveling” school libraries every chance I get. The pressure and habit of leveling is spreading. I have seen it more frequently, often encouraged by administrators and teachers. The practice goes against everything I know and have observed as positive in children’s reading habits. Children love to choose their own books and in nearly a dozen years of practice, I’ve only seen a handful who consistently select materials which are too easy. Don’t forget that often “easy” books are clever, send a powerful message, or deal with important subject matter. The reading level is one factor, certainly by no means the most important one, to use when guiding students to suitable literature. I avoid talking about a book’s level to both students and parents. Literacy instruction and standardized testing force the kids into leveled tracks often enough that the school library must fight to maintain its unique position offering free and open access to all materials.

  • Thank you for this article. The most common visitors in my public library are parents who come with their middle or high school children asking for books on their Lexile level. I can see right away that the child despises the idea of reading recommended books. This is the least possible way or encouraging reluctant readers to read.

  • As a teacher, I have been saying this for years and since AR came into play . Everything has it place . But if I think I want to try to read War and Peace and I test out at First grade level then let me try . If I want to read a lower level book to practice word frequency then let me try. Labeling show be used as a guide not a mandate.

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