Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Taking a Fresh Look at Our Practices: Shining a Spotlight on Reading Levels

by Mary Howard

On June 14, 2018, #G2Great launched a four-part series titled Taking a Fresh Look at Our Practices. After pondering the implications of reading logs in our first chat in the series, we turned our attention to Shining a Spotlight on Reading Levels on June 21, 2018. We anticipated a spirited discussion for this important topic – and we were certainly not disappointed. In fact Brent Gilson eagerly shared his reflections in a Pre-Chat post called Leveling Up.

Your #G2Great co-moderators, Fran, Jenn, Amy and I, carefully chose these four topics as we believe that deeper discussion regarding their purpose is necessary to re-examine how they are being addressed in practice. Quite honestly, I have seen each of these topics morph into a shallow act of thoughtless DOING, thus slowly transitioning away from the intentional research-based decision-making process that keeps children at the center of all we do. Our commitment to renew this culture of instructional responsiveness is based on our deep belief that the best interests of students is the perpetual driving force of our choices.

Regie Routman illustrated the critical role of instructional responsiveness almost a week before our chat when she responded to my question, “How do you feel about reading levels?” Regie implored us to set our sights squarely on helping students “become comprehending, self-directed, joyful readers.” Her reminder is essential considering that the way that reading levels have been misconstrued in recent years is in direct conflict with this lofty goal. Whether we are willing to view reading levels in more professionally responsible ways or we opt instead to blatantly misrepresent the intent of these tools can make or break our ability to achieve Regie’s words of wisdom.

The disconcerting misrepresentation of reading levels I have observed has not gone unnoticed by literacy experts Fountas and Pinnell here, here, here and Kylene Beers “A Kid is Not an H.” Believing that we have a responsibility to this profession to lift up our voices, I’d like to use my post as a forum to add my voice to this conversation. Our #G2Great family drew the reading level line in the proverbial professional sand, so I’ll add selected tweets after my reflection. Judging by our chat dialogue, there is widespread agreement that we can and should re-envision reading levels in order to approach them in more responsible student-centered ways.

Perhaps the best place to begin is to look back on my own entry point to the view of reading levels I still hold dear. In 1990 I began a life-altering phase of my professional training when I became a Reading Recovery teacher. One component of the powerful thirty-minute lesson design is taking a running record on the book the child read the previous day. The resulting information supported our thoughtful selection of next step texts across a gradually increasing gradient of difficulty. This flexible process allowed us to linger on the edge of each child’s growing understandings of the reading process at that moment in time to both strengthen and stretch those understandings.

It is important to emphasize that the reading levels we gleaned from running records in Reading Recovery were not used to label children and were never reported to parents or students. Rather, we used them as one instructional tool of many that helped us to understand and support learners. We knew we could only make the best decisions if we merged all we knew about the child in a combined body of knowledge. We recognized the potential and limitations of reading levels, aware that it is an imperfect science and that the analysis of the reading process in action was more relevant than numerical values. In other words, reading levels guided our text selection, but it was our deeper knowledge coupled with our unwavering commitment to the needs and interests of children that informed these decisions and drove our choices. We understood that levels simply do not work in isolation of these bigger picture ponderings.

Fast forward to 2018 and the thoughtful flexibility and broader intent of reading levels that I learned in Reading Recovery is in stark contrast to the way they are viewed in many schools. We have lost our collective minds of reason when we assign reading levels like a badge of honor or dishonor that tethers children to a leveled bin and relegates them to intervention groups with little hope of escape from either. Worse, classroom leveling charts are not uncommon as children are visibly reduced to numbers in a dreadful public display that decries professional ethics and has serious legal implications.

It seems apparent that the way reading levels are viewed in Reading Recovery and how this role is playing out in too many schools reflects our professional disarray on this topic. Having spent years of my life studying the work of Marie Clay, I can say with absolute certainty that she would be horrified by this lockstep approach that feels more akin to a level-assigning frenzy than flexibly using an instructional tool to support rather than dictate the decisions we make thoughtfully in the name of children. Sadly, reading levels are only the tip of the defective assessment iceberg since Accelerated Reader scores and varied data points continue to mount into a level of numerical insanity at a record high.

So, what is the tipping point between the way reading levels are approached in Reading Recovery and the flip side of that view that is harming children? There is no question in my mind that the tipping point is professional wisdom that feeds our inner voice of reason. As a Reading Recovery teacher, we were not mandated to take running records so that we could compliantly record reading levels. We knew why we were doing what we were doing and we understood exactly how this information did and did not inform our instructional efforts. Carrying our knowledge in our back pockets each step of the way allowed us to use reading levels in professionally responsible ways and always with the success of our learners in sight like a dangling visual carrot.

Therein lies the problem my friends. When we do not understand why we do what we do, it is impossible to do it in ways that are meaningful, purposeful and yes responsible! Too often, teachers blindly gather reading levels without the benefit of the thinking that would maximize their use and support our understanding of children. Professional wisdom is the fuel that allows us to bring our best selves to the learning table day after day. Too many teachers are struggling to address reading levels in instructionally responsive ways because we have unwittingly created a reading level culture of DOERS and in the process thwarted our efforts to use those reading levels within a culture of THINKERS. Reading levels are the WHAT but we are doomed to fail without WHY and HOW.

While I would hope my stance on reading levels is apparent at this point in my post, let me clarify my view in case I have not been clear enough. I began with Regie Routman’s words, so it makes sense to draw from her wisdom yet again using her phenomenal new book, Literacy Essentials:

Relying on leveled texts is insufficient and inaccurate for fully determining students’ reading ability and comprehension. (121)

Reading levels offer a flexible tool for instructional text selection but they are grossly inadequate when used in a vacuum. If their purpose and potential to inform is misunderstood, we will inevitably justify labels that assign children to leveled bins and unnecessary or ineffective interventions or subject them to impersonal charts that visibly create haves and have nots. We merely mindlessly reach for a text attached to a level until we first reach deep within to embrace our own knowledge of literacy and the reader in front of us. Regie reminds us that there is a difference between instructional levels and instructional needs. (220) Without a laser-like focus on instructional needs then instructional levels become less flexible and more definitive in nature. As a result, reading levels will be as meaningless as numerical spreadsheets thoughtlessly peppered with empty level references that have lost the immense beauty of the incredible child beneath it all.

So where do we go from here? Seth’s words of wisdom point the way:

The hard part isn’t coming up with a new idea. It’s falling out of love with the old idea. Seth Godin

It’s time to end our love affair with a shallow view of reading levels devoid of meaning and shift our focus to reading levels as envisioned in Kylene Beers’ tweet. Because if we fail to do so, this image will become the face of reality…

And that would be the most tragic reading level outcome of all!

Please Join us for rest of our #G2Great Series

Our #G2Great family reminds us why knowledge is key

To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy

by Jenn Hayhurst

June 7, 2018, marked an extraordinary day in #G2Great history. We celebrated the collaboration between two friends who met in this very community, Kari Yates and Christina Nosek.  Their collaboration has resulted in an important new book from Stenhouse: To Know And To Nurture a Reader: Conferring With Confidence and Joy I know that Amy, Mary, Fran, and I are all looking forward to having this book (just in time for summer learning) in our hands!

Conferring is synonymous with growth – growth for students and growth for us.  It gives us opportunities to grow language, community, and potential.

The Language of Learning.

When we open up our language we open up our minds. Conferring’s magic begins when we pose a good question or when we remark on a keen observation. Every time we give students our undivided attention, we are showing them that we hold their words, thoughts, and feelings in great esteem. What we say and how we listen to students underscores the foundation for a meaningful conference. As you read through these tweets think about what you notice:

The words are warm and inviting – there are no wrong answers.  This language is not “high stakes” it is “high impact”. These words denote wonder and caring. This language places a value on the learner and the process; not the task and the product. This is why we became teachers.

Building Relationships and Trust

Everyone wants to belong. When we build up community founded on trust conferring can be transformative. We are teaching our students something essential, everyone has a voice and we need each other to learn and grow.

We need emotional safety in order to take intellectual risks. Whenever we make the decision to be fully present and to listen we are helping our students to know their value. Through this exchange that conferring offers, students are also learning to value what we have to teach them.

Uncovering Potential 

Conferring reveals who we aspire to become. This is as true for us as it is for our students. Conferring helps us to clarify what we understand about students so that we can bring that awareness back to them. Our conversations are the foundation for critical thinking. Together we are all learning to be objective and analytical. This is how we can make complex judgments in the day-to-day work of being a teacher or a student.

My last words to you are that our conversations are important. Words matter. The work we do learning with each other is a gauge for how far we can stretch ourselves to know and to be more than we are today. The work of conferring rests on subtle choices we make in an instant. That can be quite daunting! Kari and Christina wrote this book as an invitation for us to lean into this work. Conferring can be comfortable and powerful. Doesn’t that sound great? It truly is and it really can be when we start from a position of joy. When there is joy, confidence follows. Thank you, Kari and Christina, for sharing your wisdom and leading the way.


Stenhouse: To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy

To Know and Nurture a Reader Blog with Kari Yates and Christina Nosek

Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8

by Mary Howard

May 31, 2018 was a special night on #G2Great when Ellin Keene joined our chat as a first-time guest host. Like many educators across the globe, I have admired Ellin’s work since 1997 when she collaborated with Susan Zimmerman in Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop (Heinemann). This week, we gathered together in a Twitter celebration of Ellin’s new professional masterpiece, Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning K-8 (Heinemann, 2018). To say that a buzz of excitement has revolved around the publication of this remarkable book and our much advertised #G2Great chat would be an understatement.

The term engagement is certainly not a new one, but Ellin has given us a unique perspective of what this term actually means in a way that no one has ever done before. As an entry point to discuss the critical role that engagement plays in the learning process, she explains that time on task has become an ‘overvalued commodity term bleached of meaning.’ And it is certainly devoid of the spirit of engagement Ellin bring to life in one of the most eloquent descriptions of engagement I have ever read:

This blissful wide-awakeness brings to mind wonderful images of children engaged in the joyful throes of learning, enraptured in a state of being where they become so captivated by a book or learning experience that they can willingly linger in emotion charged moments within quiet solitude or lively conversations in the company of others.

Ellin suggests that our best intentions to motivate children may have fallen flat. In pondering that possibility, we can all draw upon our own memory of a time when we watched children passively go through the motions of surface level learning fueled by little more than compliant obedience. Contrast this view with children immersed in the deep engagement Ellin describes and it would be hard to argue that our best intentions have indeed gone awry for too many children.

The question then becomes how we can create the conditions that would nurture the cognitive and emotional engagement Ellin captured so beautifully in Engaging Children. This kind of engagement is only possible when we acknowledge that students truly do desire this intense state of being and that we are confident that they are quite capable of achieving engagement under the right conditions.

Only a cover to cover read of Engaging Children can possibly do this topic justice, so I know that the book stands alone on its own merit and therefore does not need my review. Rather, I would like to revisit and reflect upon her chat tweets as an extension of some of the essential features Ellin details in her book. It is my intent to use her words as a thread to Ellin’s wisdom. As we work toward achieving the highest level of engagement possible for all students, we can begin by keeping these eight big ideas that will nurture, celebrate and elevate engagement.

Teacher Stories

Ellin shares a wonderful example of recalling and sharing her own engagement story about an airplane landing that was admittedly squirm worthy for this fellow flyer. She uses her story to illustrate the value of drawing from our experiences as a model for engagement. Our #G2Great chat is another example of this kind of personal engagement since Ellin immersed herself in a conversational form of blissful wide-awakeness Twitter style. I was mesmerized by how readily she conversed with fellow #G2Greaters considering that she is relatively new to the chat arena. If we want our students to understand what engagement looks like, sounds like and feels like, then we must become more engagement aware and then turn a spotlight on our experiences by sharing a time when we were spellbound by the very enthusiasm we hope for our students.

Student Stories

But simply sharing our stories with students as models is not enough unless we can use those stories to build a bridge from teacher to student engagement. Children are hungry to have these experiences and so we invite them to share moments when an experience beckoned them to engage in a deep and meaningful way. We do this not as an obligatory act of probing but out of genuine curiosity for our students’ experiences at home or school so that we may create the opportunities, resources or designs that would incite the kind of engagement they deserve and avoid those that would extinguish it. If we are willing to view engagement from their very wise eyes and allow them to share the experiences, we can give them a language for having rich conversations –  language that is brilliantly nestled in Ellin’s Four Pillars of Engagement.

Discovery Kidwatching

While engagement conversations with children can enrich future engagement opportunities, our noticings allow us to maximize those opportunities over time. When we make room to be intentionally present in learning moments, we give ourselves permission to enjoy the view. Kidwatching allows us to quietly fade into the background so that we can maintain a view from the sidelines to notice how students interact with the resources and experiences we offer and with each other. Quiet professional ponderings afford us time to soak in what we see without judgement in order to understand possible next steps. These thoughtful choices are guided by what we know about students and can dramatically alter their engagement in the future. I am so intrigued by Ellin’s idea to position ourselves in the room for varied perspective.

Trusting Nudge

Throughout the chat and Engaging Children, Ellin makes it clear that perfection is not the goal of engagement. Knowing all the answers so that we may carefully plan our day without leaving room to change course can cause us to miss signs along the way that could lead to real opportunities. Ellin asks us to invite students to generate passionate questions as a pathway to engagement rather than allowing engagement to stagnate when we merely view it as a question and answer process. Trust implies that we are prepared to be surprised by their responses so that we can celebrate the passions that are sure to lead us in new engagement directions.

Student Ownership

The goal student engagement is always to keep our sights on turning this process over to them. We model, discuss, understand, share, and support so that ultimately we can relinquish the responsibility for engaged learning to students. I love Ellin’s reminder to step back and her acknowledgement that this can be challenging. But when we trust our students, we willingly put them in the engagement driver’s seat and allow passion to be the fuel that propels them forward. Engagement is not a school strategy but a life strategy so we approach this critical topic so that students will carry those ideals with them long after they leave our four walls.

From ME to WE

I recall returning to this wonderful phrase again and again throughout Engaging Children because in so many classroom there is rarely a celebration of the WE that brings us together as a community of learners. I love the idea of courageous conversations where we can create a gathering space for students to come together and share their thinking. This collective thinking is about so much more than who they are as individuals as we celebrate who they are as humans. These conversations will be the inspiration for even deeper engagement as it invites them to create a shared passion trail to new learning possibilities in the future.

Enticing Resources

At no point during my enthusiastic exploration of Engaging Children did I ever feel that Ellin was handing us a recipe tied to a carefully crafted list of ingredients that we would dutifully use in a checklist view of engagement. She reminds us that we each need the books and resources that will entice and excite the learners in front of us rather than disseminating a preselected lists of books. She reminds us to personalize our selections while taking our students interests and passions into account and even engaging them in this process.

Room to Grow

The final tweet is one that I did not recall reading in Engaging Children and yet I realized that it is really a concept that is intertwined across the book. In the hustle and bustle of teaching, it can be easy to view the engagement process as a race to the finish line. And yet Ellin asks us to slow down our pace so that we call allow students to truly live in the spirit of engagement as Ellin defines it. Giving children space and time to think affords opportunities that will allow that thinking to take shape in the company of others through varying viewpoints. This seems to me to be a critical feature of true engagement.

As I look back at these big ideas inspired by Ellin’s hour on #G2Great, I realize that each is a theme woven across the pages of Engaging Children. I am struck by the idea that this is the first book that has actually approached the topic of engagement in a way that actually feels authentically engaging in every sense of the word, both as a learner and a teacher. I encourage you to revisit these tweets and then find the trail that leads back to Ellin’s book.

As I close this post in gratitude for Ellin’s wisdom, I am drawn back to her question:

Have we become so overwhelmed by what we teach — checking off one standard after another that we have forgotten that engaged students are much more likely to retain and reapply that content? Do we believe that students can learn to fall into the state of awareness, focus, intensity, and joy that we value so much for ourselves?

We are so fortunate that Ellin is leading the way to help our students fall into the state of awareness, focus, intensity, and joy and we happily go on this engagement journey alongside them. What a remarkable gift Ellin has given us all.

Finally, I include Ellin’s words at the end of the chat simply because it made me smile!

Mutual admiration my friend. Totally mutual!


Ellin Keene Website