Text Levels– Tool or Trouble?


By Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative


This post was originally published on October 23, 2013

When my colleague Gay Su Pinnell and I created a gradient of text for teachers to use in selecting books for small group reading, we were excited about its potential for helping teachers make good text decisions to support the progress of readers.

Our alphabetic gradient is widely used by teachers for this purpose and has become an essential tool for effective teaching in guided reading lessons.

With every good intention, the levels may have been applied by professionals in ways we would not have intended. We did not intend for levels to become a label for children that would take us back to the days of the bluebirds and the blackbirds or the jets and the piper cubs. Our intention was to put the tool in the hands of educators who understood their characteristics and used it to select appropriate books for differentiated instruction.

We are well aware of the importance of communicating student progress accurately to families. Rather than the use of levels in reporting to families, we have encouraged the use of terms like “reading at grade level expectation” or “reading above grade level expectation” or “not yet reading at grade level expectation” on report cards along with other clear indicators of a student’s processing abilities such as understanding, word-solving abilities, accuracy or fluency. In addition we have encouraged the use of indicators related to amount and breadth of independent reading.

Students actually experience a variety of books at varied levels in a rich literacy program. They may experience complex texts as read aloud or shared reading selections and a range of levels in book discussion groups or independent reading. Highly effective teaching provides a range of opportunities with different texts for different purposes.

In our best efforts to use assessment indicators, we want to be sure that our purposes best serve the children we teach and give families the important information they need. This may not mean using labels such as book levels that hold more complexities and are intended for the use of the educators as they make day-to-day teaching decisions.

Level or not level?

By Irene Fountas

The concept of arranging texts in a gradient of difficulty has many important advantages for teachers. Fountas, I.C., and Pinnell, G.S. 2009 The Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Book List K-8+. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 

As a teacher’s tool, leveled texts are essential for differentiating instruction. When the level of the text is the student’s instructional level (90 to 94 percent accuracy and satisfactory comprehension, levels A through K or 95 to 97 percent accuracy with satisfactory comprehension levels L through Z), the teacher can provide a minimum amount of support and the student can learn how to read better.  When a student can successfully work through most of the text independently, he is not overwhelmed and can attend to a small amount of new learning. This is often referred to as the reader’s “learning zone”- the text is not too easy and not too difficult so it supports new learning. (Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Vygotsky, L.S. 1986. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Think what it would be like to process a hard text day after day. You have noticed the reading behaviors of a student who works through a text without smoothness or momentum. Usually you can notice that comprehension is lost and the reader resorts to inefficient means of solving words. The first way you can support the reading success of all students is to provide texts that are well leveled in a small group instructional context.

Of course our students need a reading diet that includes more than leveled texts. They need many opportunities with age and grade appropriate texts that are not leveled in instructional contexts such as independent reading, book clubs, shared reading or in read aloud time. These texts engage our students’ interests, build their background knowledge, and expand their language structures and vocabulary.

Our goal is to provide a multitude of high quality learning opportunities for every child. Leveled texts and those not leveled will need to be in our set of tools to reach the differing needs and support each student’s path of literacy learning.