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.

More on Text Levels: Confronting the Issues

New Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In response to the many comments the blog has received this week on the Text Levels- Tool or Trouble blog post:

You have shared many important thoughts on the topic of text levels.  Of course, children should read the books they want to read—those that engage their interests and that will bring them enjoyment throughout their lives.  Levels are simply not for children and should not serve as another means of labeling them and damaging their self-esteem.  Nor do they belong on books in libraries or on report cards.

Levels have an important place in the hands of teachers who understand them.  Many of you have found the instructional benefit of levels in assessment and in the teaching of reading, so you can support each child’s successful reading development across the grades.  When a text is too difficult to support new learning in small groups, the reader becomes passive and teacher dependent.  Reading becomes laborious and nonproductive.  When a text is just right, the reader can process it with successful problem-solving and expands his reading power with the teacher’s support.  We hope teachers go beyond the level label to understand and use the ten text characteristics to understand the demands of texts on readers.

The classroom text base needs to include a variety of texts for a variety of purposes.  All children deserve numerous opportunities every day to choose books to read and participate with peers in listening to and sharing age-appropriate books that fully engage their intellect, emotions and curiosity.  Alongside these opportunities, all children deserve responsive teaching in small groups for a part of their day with books that are leveled to support the continuum of competencies that enable them to become independent, lifelong readers.

Each of you can advocate with your school team to educate all involved in the appropriate and effective use of levels as one small part of an excellent instructional program that meets the needs of diverse students.

Understanding the Supports and Challenges of Texts

by Toni Czekanski

Intermediate/Middle School Literacy Collaborative Trainer, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Much has been written about how we can best support our students when working with them in small group instruction, or when we help them select texts for independent reading that they are able to read with understanding.  But how do we know which texts are just right for a particular student or group of students?  Which texts might present too many challenges, and which might offer just the right amount of support to allow for effective reading?  Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell developed a system for leveling texts that places texts along a gradient based on the supports and challenges that they present.  They take into consideration ten factors, which, if we begin to notice and understand them, will help us all look at texts differently.

The ten categories include genre and form, structure, content, themes and ideas, language and literary features, sentence complexity, vocabulary, words, illustrations, and book and print features (Fountas & Pinnell, 2011, The Continuum of Literacy Learning, p. 248 – 249).  If we consider these ten factors, we will notice that they are included in all texts, regardless of the level of difficulty.  Each factor increases with complexity as we move up the gradient.  The more complex the factor, the greater the challenge it present to students.

Now let’s think for a moment or two about preparing to work with small groups of students in guided reading groups.  Once you have assessed the students, and recognize their strengths and needs as readers, you select a text to use during your lesson.  When reading the text you use the lens of these ten characteristics to decide where the challenges lie, and what about the book will support your readers.  Is the theme one they can easily relate to, or will it require them to think beyond their prior experiences?  Does the text contain a great deal of technical vocabulary, or perhaps figures of speech that students are not familiar with?  Is the text organized in a way that will challenge them, or does it contain a structure that is familiar?

Once you decide what will be challenging, you can prepare a supportive text introduction that will take into consideration these challenges, and make this text accessible to the students through your supportive introduction.  You might discuss the complexity of the theme, or use the vocabulary as you introduce the book.  You might take them to a page with complex figurative language and ask them to think about its meaning before they begin to read.  By giving them this support before reading, you are working to insure that they will understand the text as they read it. Your own developing understandings of the factors that relate to text difficulty will help you support your students.

Similarly, when you confer with students around their independent reading, you can take a moment to notice how the text works.  By asking students whether there is any language that is causing them difficulty, or by having conversations around themes and ideas, you will assess whether this book is too challenging, or at just the right level for their independent reading.  Text complexity goes beyond being able to decode the words.  It is important that students are able to read their independent reading books with a good level of comprehension.  We can talk with them, keeping the ten factors in mind, and help them make more productive text selections if they are choosing books that are too challenging.

Although our goal is for all students to be reading texts that are at their grade level, there are students who need extra support.  The Common Core State Standards require us to use grade and age appropriate literature with our students, considering themes and ideas, precise meanings of words, figurative language, and details that support the meaning of the text.  Understanding the complexities of texts ourselves can help us to support our students.  When we read aloud texts that are at or above the students’ instructional level, we can keep these ten factors in mind and take the opportunity to model for students how to navigate the challenges presented in the text.

When the text presents a challenge, it is a signal to slow down and think about where the challenge lies.  Is it around word-solving?  What actions might we take to solve those words?  Is it the introduction of a new feature of text, such as a text box?  How do we read text boxes and why are they there?  In considering the theme, how might we notice how the author introduces it through the details of the story?  Do the illustrations support the text that is on the page, or do they go beyond the words in some way?  By modeling for students how to problem solve when encountering difficult texts, we give them tools to engage with texts on their own.

Reading is a complex interaction between a reader and the text, and understanding how texts work can help us to help students recognize both the challenges and the supports that they encounter when reading. Readers interact with their texts in order to take meaning from them, and grow as people who understand their world.  By working with a variety of texts across the day, and helping students to understand how texts work, we are supporting their development as readers who will grow and learn in many contexts.


Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2011).  The Continuum of Literacy Learning:  A Guide to Teaching.  Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann.