Common Core @ Home: ELA - What are the instructional level expectations for schools in reading now? I saw a chart that had a lot of letter grades on it from A to Z. What do those letters represent?



Part Four of a continuing series

Kiersten Greene, PhD, is an assistant professor of literacy education at SUNY New Paltz. She was born in the Hudson Valley, and recently returned to the region after living in New York City for 15 years, where she taught 5th grade. When she’s not reading, writing, or teaching, you can find her knitting.

Do you have a homework question for Kiersten? Submit your question here. 





Dear Kiersten, What are the instructional level expectations for schools in reading now? I saw a chart that had a lot of letter grades on it from A to Z. What do those letters represent?

That’s a great question! You are referring to reading levels, which are often used to help students choose “just right” books in the classroom. Levels are particularly important for children in elementary school, when reading abilities tend to grow at varying speeds, and teachers must meet a range of literacy needs in their classrooms. Reading levels help teachers assess students’ reading ability, and help students steer clear of grabbing books off the shelf that are too difficult or developmentally inappropriate. If a child doesn’t have a method for choosing a book that’s just right for her, she’ll end up feeling frustrated as a reader.

Fountas and Pinnell, two researchers and practitioners in literacy instruction, developed the A to Z leveling system. You might have also heard of the Lexile measure, Reading Recovery, DRA, or others that base levels on numerical scales. Correlation charts are available online to see how the different systems match up.

Each leveling system serves a similar purpose — matching books to readers. However, the strict implementation of any one system can be problematic.

In the name of college and career readiness, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) suggests the Lexile system as the best quantitative measure of text complexity, a key factor in literacy instruction. According to the CCSS, not only are students expected to read texts with “appropriate complexity” for their grade level, but they “must also show a steadily growing ability to discern more from and make fuller use of text” (2012, p. 6).

On the one hand, who can argue with making sure our young readers can engage with, unpack, and analyze texts with increasing complexity? Of course we want that for all learners! But on the other hand, as the CCSS points out in fine print, “the tools for measuring text complexity are at once useful and imperfect.”

Based solely on a software-generated formula that calculates word frequency and sentence length, the Lexile measure offers only one side of text complexity. What about plot, theme, or character development? None of these factor into Lexile calculations. Further, the CCSS matches higher Lexile ranges to lower grade levels than in the past, arbitrarily raising the bar for our youngest readers.

Levels are meant to be a guide, not a mandate.

Learning how to read is a sometimes unpredictable, fluid process — one that extends and retracts, blooms and stagnates, ebbs and flows; it depends on a multitude of factors and requires flexibility. The development of reading ability is not always linear, and is not comprised of a precise series of benchmarks through which all readers travel.

I am personally a proponent of reading levels in classrooms, but believe the rigid implementation of any one system can be dangerous. Ultimately, teachers, not policymakers, should determine which system(s) work best for their readers.

For an example of a correlation charts online to see how the different systems match up, click here

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