Before You Level Your Library, Hear Me Out…

TRUTH: teachers want what is best for their students. As I write this blog post and as I have interacted with other educators online, I hold this truth at the forefront of my mind. I know we are all coming from a place of love and when I ground myself in that, I can see the concerns of educators coming forward in this issue.

*The opinions I express in this blog post are my own.

They are based on my own experiences and learning opportunities.*

What’s the issue? Leveling classroom libraries.

Travel back to 1996 with me. I enter my first grade classroom, excited for my first year of school in which I am in attendance for FULL days. The classroom library is packed with books in the middle of the room and I see little stickers on the corner of every cover. As the weeks pass, I realize what these little stickers are. They’re indicators of which books are available to me during reading times. The colors tell me which books I can take out and hold, which ones I can bring back to my table. Confusion ensues because in kindergarten I was able to grab whichever book I wanted, climb up in our classroom treehouse, and read it (whatever that meant for kindergarten me…I just know it is what it was supposed to be at that time).

I remember feeling joy during kindergarten reading times. I remember running into the school library and checking out books I knew Mum would read to my sister and I. Then kindergarten is over, first grade is my new thing. I think back on reading that year and I feel happiness, but it’s mixed up with pangs of frustration, self-pity, and guilt. There were books in that library that I wanted to read. They were off limits.

The (timely) spark:

10 days ago (September 20, 2018), Fountas & Pinnell tweeted this: Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 11.28.04 AM.png

Looking at the comments on the tweet, some educators were for and some were against. Which is to be expected, right? Well, then, an educator I follow on Instagram posted a screenshot of this tweet and all heck broke loose. I mean it.

A “battle” between two goods.

I am about to post some screenshots from the Instagram post I came across. These are comments that made me go “Hmmm…” or “Huh?!” or “OH MY GOSH, WHAAAAT IN TARNATION????” I have blacked out the photos and names of people because we’re all coming from love for our students and their reading lives. I’m looking to learn from others as much as I am wanting to share my own thoughts.

*For all intents and purposes, when I say “level” in this blog post, I am referring to the F&P levels.*

My takeaways from these comments, which are listed below each comment, are going to be addressed in the next section. I am a FIRM believer in NOT leveling a classroom library. I do believe there is a place for leveled books and a time for them, but my philosophy is that is not in a classroom library. Keep reading!


My takeaway from this comment: Some believe if students, during sustained reading times, choose books that are too difficult for them it’s a waste of learning time because they cannot grow from it.


My takeaway from this comment: Some believe that if books are joy reads (on either end of the easy/hard spectrum) then students will not learn from them or refine/gain any reading skills. Students should choose books that are of interest to them, but also at their reading level.


My takeaway from this comment: Some believe that students should choose books that are at their reading level, so students should pick from books with labels on them that tell them if they fit their reading needs or not.


My takeaway from this comment: Some believe it takes too much time from learning to teach students how to choose books that they can read fluently, comprehend, and discuss. This comment implies that there is no learning happening for a student when they are taught to choose their own books. This comment also speaks to an underlying bane of teachers: there is NEVER enough time.


My takeaway from this comment: Some believe that not leveling your library is a great idea. But they are also wondering the hows. How do you teach students to choose books? How do you address students who are continuously choosing books that are not working for them during their independent reading times? How do we teach students to recognize what they need?

These are just a FEW of the comments I read. Some of them also noted that administrators required classroom libraries to be labeled. Some reported that beyond that, students were to be told their levels after assessments. Some were also confused that F&P puts out leveled libraries for classrooms to utilize (books with the levels written on them). Let’s talk.

I am commenting on these comments knowing, well, nothing about the educators who wrote them. Do they use workshop model to teach reading? Do they have guided reading groups in their classrooms? Do they confer with their readers frequently?

In my classroom (really, my school), we use a workshop model to teach both reading and writing. We anchor workshop in Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study. We use F&P Benchmarks to assess students (actually, we just started this!). My philosophy is to teach the whole child. I am a huge proponent of inquiry-based learning. I confer with readers daily and make sure I see each child at least once a week during reading for a one-on-one conference. I utilize guided reading groups for students who are below grade-level in reading. This is where I am coming from. I’ll try to keep it succinct.


What students learn about themselves as readers through choosing, trying, sticking with, abandoning, and searching for books is extremely informative not only to me as their watchful teacher, but to them. When I sit down to confer with most of my students, I just sit down. I try to not initiate the conversation because my students, almost every time, just start talking to me about their reading. Often, they dive right into how the book is going, retelling what they’ve read, and letting me know that they did abandon a book yesterday after they gave it a good go.

It is wholly worth the time at the beginning of the year (and during those reteaching times throughout the year during conferences) to role model, teach, and encourage students to choose books from the library based on INTEREST and FIT. If you confer often with students and you identify those who are having difficulty choosing books that hold their interest during reading because they are choosing books that are too easy or too challenging for them, you can target your instruction towards them to give them the strategies they need to do this successfully. I know it’s scary to release the control and give the reigns to students but…

students can do this and learn about themselves as readers, but you have to believe they can. 


Think about yourself. Think about your interests. Think about how many books you have stumbled upon in your local bookstore that you wanted to enjoy because you loved the topic or genre. I am extremely (sort of obsessively) interested in quantum physics, space, and time travel. I will be the first to tell you, almost every book I have ever read on the topic was challenging for me. There were concepts, words, ideas, theories that I 100% did not understand. BUT, reading many books across the topic has allowed me to grasp at something I am passionate about. Students can do the same.

Right now, I have a third grade student who is reading at a level that corresponds to kindergarten. He is PASSIONATE (I don’t know if that word is even strong enough) about United States history. On Wednesday, this student was reading a book on the White House from my classroom library and privately recommended the book to me because he loved it so much. Guess what?! This book suits middle school reading levels and even though he just read the pictures, headings, and captions, he got so much from this book! Enough so that he wanted me to bring it home that very night and read it.

This is a teachable moment. It’s a moment to confer with this student, read the pictures with him, talk about nonfiction text features, grab another book from our library on the White House and compare the two texts, steer him towards an educational video that tours the White House, and ask him to share with his classmates about what he learned.


Kids know. A lot. They are watching for who is reading at higher levels. They are watching for who is reading at lower levels. They talk about it, they question it, they feel confident about themselves, or they feel like they are miles behind the race and they want to give up. I really believe it is damaging to students’ love of reading, empowerment, and intuition to know their reading levels. I very clearly remember which spelling group I was in as a third grader. It wasn’t as high as my bestie and our other friend and it broke my spirit every time we took those spelling books out. Our job as educators is to empower students. Build them up. Guide them to learn about themselves. We have to trust them to make decisions about their reading lives that are the best for them.

The ONLY person in the classroom who should know a student’s reading level is the TEACHER.

When students know their reading levels and know that we are looking for them to grow three levels in a school year, reading becomes competitive. It becomes a race. When students choose their own books and they understand how to choose books that are best for them, they know what they need to work on. When I confer with students I may say things like, “Wow, that retell was really comprehensive. I’m wondering if next time I see you, you could try to retell what you read between now and then, but by telling me ONLY the most important parts. Take big steps through the book instead of giving me all the little details.” Then, I bring that student into a strategy group that targets that exact skill. The next time I meet with her, we can try those strategies and refine the skills in a quiet conversation where she has (almost) all of my attention for several minutes.

When students do not feel empowered to choose their own books from an unleveled library, they grow pessimistic opinions about reading. They do not feel independent and inspired to let their lights shine through joyous connections with books. We want to grow readers who know who they are as readers. Limiting book choices does not lend itself to this.

There is a time and place for matching readers with leveled books.

If students are reading below grade-level, pull them into a guided reading group during the day. THIS, this, this is the time to use reading levels and match books to readers. The leveled libraries from F&P are meant to be used during instructional times such as these. When you pull students into a guided reading group, you use a book that matches their instructional level because then you can target and directly teach the skills the students need to progress towards the next reading level. This can all be done without students ever knowing what level they are as readers.

Reading volumes of texts and getting as many books into the hands of readers as possible will always, always, ALWAYS allow your readers to grow.

Here are some of the other comments on that Instagram post. These ones contrast from those I posted previously and they show that allowing students to choose books using their own intuition is a great move!


I will leave you with what my literacy block looks like during the school day. We have to be flexible, we have to be willing to make it work.

It’s far from perfect, but so far…so good.


9:55-10:10ish Read aloud (anchors either writing or reading minilesson)

10:10-10:20ish Writing minilesson

10:20-10:45ish Students write and teacher confers with approximately 5 students. Teacher may also lead a strategy group based on what she notice students need or what students have set as goals for themselves.

10:45-10:50ish Writing share

10:50-11:00ish Reading minilesson

11:00-11:30ish Independent reading

  • 11:00-11:15ish Teacher confers with 2-3 students
  • 11:15-11:30ish Teacher leads guided reading group for below grade-level students using LEVELED books

11:30-11:35ish Reading share

11:35-12:20ish Reading intervention groups, independent reading, strategy groups in the classroom for at or above grade-level readers, guided reading groups for below grade-level students, confer with 3-5 students

 Valuable Reading Resources on this Very Important Topic:

Click the photo to be brought to the Amazon listing!

Amazon Associates Disclosure
Isabelle MacDonald is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for her to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s