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Reading and Grade Levels: Keeping it FUN

Posted by Jen Robinson on June 15, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Fun and GamesLiteracy News
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I posted on my blog on Friday about the question of whether or not it's a good idea to encourage kids to read above their grade level. I was inspired by an excellent post on this subject by Dashka Slater at Babble. I discovered very quickly that quite a few people have opinions on this, as you can see in the extensive comments of both of the previous two posts, and the cropping up of other posts like this one at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, this one at Here in the Bonny Glen, and this one at Best Book I Have Not Read. I decided, based on this response, that it was a worthwhile topic to bring up here at Booklights. This is also, I think, a logical follow-up to Pam's post from last week about encouraging summer reading. Pam talked about the importance of bringing home a variety of books from the library. She said: "Don't overrule a book your child picks as being too young for him, but also reserve the right make some selections yourself." Like Pam, I'm not a reading specialist, but I do have something to say about this topic.

RES_AnInterestInArt.jpgAs all of the above discussions make clear, there is, in some circles, a bit of competitive pressure going on regarding kids' reading levels. I've heard about the five year old who likes the unabridged version of the Iliad, and the six-year-old reading at a sixth grade level. Melissa Wiley writes about a woman who discouraged her four-year-old from reading picture books, in favor of "something more challenging". An elementary school librarian commented on my earlier post: "I have some students who are "weightlifting" in second grade, carrying Eragon and Inkspell around rather than reading it." The Babble article says: "I hear parents dropping the names of children's books as if they were designer labels. "Junie B. Jones?" one might say witheringly. "My daughter loved that in preschool, but now she's reading the sixth Harry Potter." [Image credit: photo by ToymanRon, shared at MorgueFile. And no, I don't know exactly what this girl is actually reading.]

I can see how it would be easy to caught up in all of this. The parent who reads aloud to her child from the womb, provides lots of books, and is a role model for the importance of reading might be understandably thrilled when said child becomes an advanced reader. Particularly if teachers are encouraging the child to read ever more "challenging" books, and other parents are all talking about what tremendously advanced material their children are reading. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article says (in the context of homework, but I think there's a clear parallel), "Parents who cannot remember homework when they were in kindergarten now help their five-year-olds with up to 45 minutes a day of sheets filled with literacy and numeracy problems. Even those who doubt the wisdom of homework at such an early age reluctantly go along with it, driven by fear of their child falling behind." I know that the "fear of their child falling behind", in our competitive society, is significant.

BUT, there are problems with the relentless progression towards ever-more-advanced reading material for kids. The short-term problem is that children can miss books that they would enjoy reading. Books about kids their own age, having relatable experiences. Fun books. Books with pictures! Instead, they can end up reading books before they are ready for them, which often leads to not appreciating the books, and never going back. The long-term problem is that if you turn reading into a competition, you run the risk of turning it into a chore. You run the risk of having that bright-eyed five-year-old advanced reader grow, in the blink of an eye, into a fourth-grader who won't read anything beyond what's strictly necessary for homework. And that is a tragedy.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever let your kids read books that are above their grade level. If they want to do that, and if you deem that books aren't too mature for them thematically, then by all means let them read ahead. Kids usually have a pretty good notion of what they can manage. If they find a book too difficult, they are likely to get bored with that book, and move on to something else. (As Stacy Dillon commented on my post, "I'm bored" is often code for "I don't understand"). So, I'm not saying that the occasional first grader reading the first Harry Potter book is a problem.

JGS_Reading.jpgWhat I am saying is that it's not a good idea to pressure kids to read above their age level. Reading, especially in the summer, should be fun. It isn't meant to be a race. It's a pastime, a journey, a way to teach kids to love books. You don't instill a life-long love of reading by belittling the eight-year-old who wants to flip through picture books on a rainy afternoon. You don't encourage reading by turning down your nose at Goosebumps or comic books or (for teens) the Twilight books. Just because your seven year old CAN read at a sixth grade level, you don't have to deny her the joy of reading about Clementine, Ramona, Pippi Longstocking or Ivy and Bean. Just as we adults sometimes want to read recreationally, it's ok for kids, too. More than OK, in fact, it's something that can help them to maintain the joy of reading. That's what I think, anyway. And it's what many of the authors of and commenters on the posts above think, too, though I've only been able to capture a small amount of that discussion here. [Image credit: photo by Gracey, shared at MorgueFile]

What do you all think? Have you felt pressure, from teachers or other parents, to keep your children reading above grade level? How do you handle this? Or have you found it to be more of a problem the other way, with your library not letting kids read above grade level?


Brenda writes...

You hit the nail on the head in terms of the problems caused by pushing kids to read ahead of their grade level. I actually took my children out of the "gifted" language arts program at our school after they were forced to read high school level books in sixth grade. It was as if the teacher didn't realize that there were fabulous and challenging books written for middle-schoolers. Just because a test says a child "can" read at a certain level doesn't mean the child "should." In our school, I found the "regular" language arts program had a fun and joyful focus, one that encouraged my kids' natural love for the subject.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for taking time to respond, Brenda. What a sad thing, that the "gifted" language arts program at your school worked against the joy of reading. But kudos to you for seeing what was happening, and daring to make a change that many would never do (take a "step down" in terms of the ranking of the programs). I have no doubt that your kids will retain the love of reading.

christie writes...

My kids are six and learned to read well before kindergarten. In our home, this is not a big deal; it's just who they are, and we have LOTS of books at LOTS of levels. At the library, they self-select from easy readers and picture books. I don't so much get involved (though I am fond of picture books myself and often bring home more than they do!). I read aloud to them from kid-appropriate chapter books (e.g. finishing House at Pooh Corner right now, will embark on Ramona the Pest next).

My gripe is that so *very* many people (teachers and other parents, primarily) want to make a fuss over how well they read and related concepts. I don't want my kids to care about their reading level; I want them to read books they enjoy. They will get to the heavy stuff eventually, and there will come a time when "school" and "pleasure reading" don't intersect at all. We don't talk about levels; we talk about the books that look interesting and seem not-too-hard and not-too-easy.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for commenting, Christie! And I'm happy to have discovered your new blog. All I can say in response to your comment is -- good for you, focusing on your kids' enjoyment of reading, not their reading level. If it's any consolation, this topic seems to be really sparking for a lot of people - perhaps it's the beginning of a backlash away from reading for achievement in favor of reading for enjoyment. Sounds like your kids are very lucky!!

Brian Jung writes...

Hurrah for giving children the freedom to read what they wish.

My daughter's teacher refused to let her check out books from the school library that she was interested in (and that were at her grade level) because they were too "easy" for her. (According to the tests she should be reading Jane Austen. She's in third grade.) It's a source of frustration for her. All on her own she reads at various levels as long as the books contain princesses, fairies or unicorns.

On the other hand, my kindergarten son removed himself from his second grade reading class. His teachers were just fine with that. He tests at junior high level. He has the vocabulary and skills to read almost anything but lacks the patience for longer books. His favorite books are picture books and short chapter books especially if they're about aliens and/or robots so we help him find lots of those.

Sometimes my wife tells me I'm too smart or too old to read kids' books, and that's annoying. I read them anyway. I'm a rebel. Ok, so I'm interested in kids' books. I also read difficult academic books about children's literature.

Here's the point: We should be encouraging children to pursue their interests. They will push themselves to read difficult books as they get deeper and deeper into their favorite subjects and kinds of literature. And they won't hate you for it.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Brian, I'm with you 100%. I find your daughter's teacher not letting her read what she wants to read just sad. But it would be tragic if your daughter didn't have parents who support her in finding books about princesses and unicorns elsewhere. Clearly you and your wife are on the right track in managing the situation, for both of your kids. Now if only she could get you to stop reading those pesky children's books yourself ... (grin). Seriously, though, the frustrating thing about all of this how obvious it is. As you said, if you let kids pursue their own interests, they'll keep reading because they enjoy it and are interested in what they're reading. But enough venting for now. Thanks for chiming in!

Dawn writes...

Thank you for bringing this up, Jen. It reminds me of the teacher who had my daughter read The Secret Garden in second grade. She had good intentions, and was trying to challenge her, but there are some very mature themes in that book.

The problem for advanced readers is that there seems to be a very big gap between the juvenile books and the YA books. Many of the YA books have very mature themes, which often focus on death and dating. So, as if it isn't hard enough to find appropriate books, parents have to be extra cautious when their child gets to this level.

I think everything is about balance, and parents want to provide a wide range of choices, but often are on their own when it comes to book selections. My local library does not label the books according to reading level, and the teachers certainly don't have time to personalize book selections for each student. The parents have to figure it out themselves with the limited time they have.

I really think that there would be a big market for "lighter" YA books. Children deserve to be able to read at higher levels, and authors can find more creative ways to make their plots and characters more interesting without doom, gloom, and risky behavior.

Pam writes...

First, Dawn, there are many good and light YA books, but what gets a lot of the attention - especially from the media who love to play this angle - are the Dark and Gloomy books. Ask your local librarian, or stay tuned on Booklights where I'm sure you'll be hearing about some good titles.

Jen, you mention two big issues with pushing reading level - that kids are missing the good books and cultural touchstones of their youth and that they may be getting turned off reading by the pressure. I'll add another, with the necessary warning that I'm not a reading specialist, but that there is something that concerns me. By passing by easier books too quickly, kids are missing out on practicing their comprehension and analytic skills.

One of the values of reading books that fall completely in your comfort range is that you understand the story better since you aren't so busy struggling with the words. Imagine yourself learning French, and then think if you'd want to practice your language skills with Les Miserables or the French version of Harry Potter.

Don't think it's important that your child comprehend a picture book story? Wait until the school's standards testing where that is all they are asked to do. There's no question that asks what book they read last. Or what's the biggest word they can recognize. Comprehension is key in testing - and by the way, in life.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for commenting, Dawn. I do agree with Pam that the lighter books are there, but your point, that they are hard for parents to find, is well-taken. And good input for us here at Booklights, for books to look for and share with parents.

Pam, I'm sure that you're right about reading comprehension. Not to mention just immersion into the story. The more comfortable you are reading at that level, the less likely you are to be distracted from the story by an unfamiliar word or phrasing, and the more you can get into the story. I am encouraged by the high volume of discussion that I'm seeing around this topic on the web right now.

Jean writes...

Brilliant article, Jen. A mom of a fifth grade girl recently asked me if I felt her daughter was too young to read TWILIGHT. My primary objection had little to do with the literary quality or appropriateness of TWILIGHT and more to do with all the other wonderful books out there that are perfect for a fifth-grade girl. I recommended SAVVY as one example. So my biggest beef is that when you push kids to more and more advanced reading, they may leave some true gems behind.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

That's an excellent point, Jean (about leaving the true gems behind). Here's a quote from a post at Librarilly Blonde from this morning ( about that: "Leavitt also talks about the problem of Trickle-Down Readonomics squishing the great books written specifically for the age group that wants the age-inappropriate book. If the nine-year-olds want TSVB (Twilight), why on earth would they want the less sparkly Clementine?"

Kudos to you for recommending great books like Savvy for the kids for whom they are intended.

Nancy S writes...

This has been such a concern of mine since my 5th grader was little--he started reading early, always tested high, and was encouraged/required to read books on "his grade level". (His 2nd grade teacher was the same as Brian's daughter's teacher, making my son check out books at his "level") In first grade he got a cool book with an alien on the cover. We started reading it but stopped abruptly when a main good guy died very slooowly throughout the second chapter. My son didnt want to read it anymore--and it really hit me that being able to read years ahead of your age group is not always such a good thing...I started pre-reading books (and even today am really enjoying that!!). I was always slightly worried I was micro-managing his reading. When we go to libraries/bookstores, he hangs around the nonfiction sections. The fiction books we read together tend to be ones I have read and know he will like. This system has worked well and he still can (but doesn't)read years above his grade level.

I am SO GLAD and grateful for all the information/opinions that I have been reading here and thru the links to the other sites! I fully agree that there are so many great books at the correct maturity level for kids--why skip them and have the child miss out??

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I'm glad we could help, Nancy! That's what we're here for. Thanks for sharing your experience with your son. You've given a clear example of why "being able to read years ahead of your age group is not always such a good thing" (the Babble article talked also about Bridge to Terebithia, which is wonderful, but also crushing, especially if read to early). It sounds to me like you've found a great balance - prereading what you can, and letting him browse the nonfiction section, too. I wish you and your son a wonderful, book-filled summer!

Jana writes...

This was my first year as a librarian and I have discovered that I hate accelerated reading because of this exact issue. I cannot get the teacher who has totally bought into it to change her mind. She wouldn't let one of her more advanced readers read The Penderwicks because the "level was too low" I wanted to scream! I also have to deal with kids picking the highest amount of points for their level whether it is a book they would enjoy or not just so they can get their points. So frustrating!
I was a mom who read to her children in the womb, etc... and I have a fifth grade reluctant reader. You can imagine that I will put anything at any level in front of him to get him reading. Audiobooks have been our saving grace and I have gotten him to "read" so many books he wouldn't have looked at before.
Thanks for addressing this issue!

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Sorry that you're having to deal with this, Jana. You are certainly far from alone. Perhaps you should buy this teacher a copy of Donalyn Miller's book, The Book Whisperer (about how to teach kids to love reading). Or perhaps Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.

Regarding your own son, I'm sure that eventually he'll find the right book to get him engaged in reading. Donalyn Miller uses the term dormant readers, rather than reluctant, to refer to kids who just haven't discovered that they like reading yet. But it's in there. Meanwhile, I think that audiobooks absolutely count! Thanks for taking time to comment.

Kristen M. writes...

I also have a preschooler that is almost at a middle school reading level. The last book he chose at a bookstore? The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle -- and I'm not complaining at all. My little guy is socially delayed and I think there are some great social skills to be learned from picture books and younger lit and some NOT so good social skills to be learned from the higher level books. I don't think it's always an issue of what your child *can* read but what they *should* be reading. What books can help them get through life more effectively? What books will stimulate their imaginations? And what books will give them that life-long love of reading?

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

I agree 100%, Kristen. I think that you summed it up perfectly, in terms of what books kids should be reading. With the possible addition of "what books will make them smile with delight, gasp with astonishment, or nod with recognition"... or something like that. I hope that you and your son enjoy lots of reading together this summer!

beth writes...

Heh. When I brag about my kids' reading, it's mostly for their willingness to "read down." My 3rd grader still loves Mr Putter and Tabby books, and my fifth grade boy insisted on bringing some Franny K Stein books for a long plane ride. (Notice me also bragging on their willingness to cross gender lines.)

I do talk to kids about the five-finger rule, and the concept of a "good fit" book (which is code at their school for a book at your reading level) but we also emphasize that once you learn to read, any book you enjoy is really at your reading level. If it's a hard book, you have to really want to read it, and if you do, great! If it bores you, stop. The fifth grader made his reading breakthrough in second grade when he fell in love with some science fiction books of mine, and he read through the entire series. That was really the start of his independent reading, and he still reads everything from picture books through the Airborn books by Oppel.

Jen RobinsonAuthor Profile Page writes...

Sounds like something worth bragging about to me, Beth. Willingness to read down and to cross gender lines are signs of secure, prolific readers. The kid who reads three books a year might not have time to read Franny K Stein books in fifth grade. But the kid who reads all the time is looking for a mix of titles to enjoy. I think you phrased it really well. Any book you enjoy is at your reading level. Because the books that are TOO hard won't be enjoyable (not yet, anyway). And sometimes books that are too easy aren't enjoyable (e.g. an early reader with very simple sentence structure for a more advanced reader). I like that! Enjoy the coming reading experiences with your kids - clearly they are going to be reading lots of great books in the next few years. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

Buzz writes...

Jen, I found your article very interesting as we have become much closer to the issue with a kindergartener. I must asmit, I came upon your article searching for reading of my own weightlifting. Oddly enough, an article on bodybuilding competition started me thinking about our child's reading requirements and where they might lead. She enjoys reading, but she definitely enjoys illustrated books.

With our nieces and nephews having gone through reading contests in local grade schools in recent years, I wonder about the affect these contests might have on their desire to read in later years.

Although we were very proud for our niece after she won a reading contest for her grade for reading the most books during a summer, the thoguht of reading soon becoming a chore for her is troubling.

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