"I'm an N": Building Reading Identities in a Leveled Text Classroom

When I was young I read voraciously. I remember my parents catching me awake after my bedtime, with a flashlight and a Matt Christopher book under the covers.

As an early reader I was obsessed with the Cam Jansen series by David A. Adler. I would take out a stack from the library and go through them all in one sitting.

These books must have been easy for me, but I read them still, because I was interested in the character and solving the mystery. My classroom libraries never had levels to tell me where to find a “just right” book. I just gravitated toward certain authors and genres and consumed them with an insatiable appetite.

My classroom library today is different. And this is a good thing. Teachers often have a tendency to recreate their own experiences as students in their classrooms. This can be a deterrent to innovation and improvement.

But all changes need to done so with care, because there are almost always unintended consequences.

Most classrooms in New York City public schools use leveled libraries using Fountas & Pinnell’s leveling system (F & P). It’s an A-Z ranking that sorts books by their complexity. For my third graders the goal is to be reading Level P books by the end of the year. Currently my students range in reading levels from Level D to Level S.

Using text levels is a very useful tool and one I’m still working to utilize fully. The F & P system gives me specific strategies and skills that readers need to master to move on to more complicated texts. Having leveled books in my classroom also serves as a scaffold for students as they search for “just right” books.

When I was a young reader I never had trouble finding books that felt right for me, but I also never struggled as a reader. For the students in my class who struggle with reading, I see it is sometimes hard for them to honestly evaluate a book’s fit for them. Having bins in the library labeled by levels helps eliminate some of this anxiety.

That said, over the seven years I’ve spent using F & P levels, I have winced as students internalize their reading level as their reading identity. Younger students will come up to me to brag, “I’m an N now Mr. Ruben!” When I ask former students what they’re reading, my heart drops as I often hear something like, “I’m reading Q books.”

I teach in a school with a progressive philosophy — we have a whole child, student-centered approach to teaching, with an emphasis on inquiry and hands-on projects —  but we also use the Reader’s Workshop. As part of this we use running records three times a year to assess students’ reading progress. By the time students come to me in third grade, they may have been told nine or more times, “You’re at Level ___.”

This conversation is probably well-intended. We want to be transparent about the purpose of running records. We want to share information with students so they can celebrate their growth and they can use their level to find appropriate books to read.

But without an ongoing conversation at home and school about their interests as readers, we are sending students the wrong message. I’ve seen too many students focus on a book’s level, without thinking about the genre, the characters or the author. When trying to figure out who they are as readers, they aren’t going past the level of the books they’ve been told they can read.

As I’ve seen the tragedy of a leveled-center reading identity play out again and again, I’ve started to tell the story of my stack of Cam Jansen books more and more. I have started to emphasize to students and their families that the most important sign that a book is right for you is that it gives you joy.

Throughout the year, I work to frame the conversation about books around the content of the book, not the difficulty. I try also to have as many conversations with students as possible about why they are choosing the books they choose. I want them to keep difficulty in mind, and I teach them explicitly how to do so. But most of all I want them to think about how to find books that get them excited.

My classroom library isn’t just organized by levels. The majority are organized by author or genre. We have a basket for mysteries, sports, non-fiction books about animals, Roald Dahl, Zetta Elliott and many more. I encourage all my students to look first for a genre that interests them. If they’re having a hard time finding books that are right, then I ask them to look at their level.

Keeping the focus on students’ interests is an ongoing process. This year after the first week of getting to know my students I used eBay to find used Star Wars and Avengers books that I knew my students would love. I know some of these books might be too hard or too easy for certain Star Wars fanatics in my room, but I also know they are genuinely excited to read these books which is never a given.

Using leveled texts is central to my reading instruction. But it’s taken a lot of work to separate levels from the reading culture in our classroom. I’m hoping my students leave my classroom seeing themselves as all kinds of readers. I hope none of them see themselves as “Ns”.

This post was originally published on The Educator's Room.


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