• Gabrielle Basha

Hooked on Books: When Passion Outranks Reading Level

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

When we organize book lists for the blog, Grace and I tend to assign them to categories based on which classroom would appreciate the book the most. Sometimes it's clear the book is created with toddlers in mind; other times, we find a picture book that would be a hit with anyone from age 3 to 13. We try to tag these best we can, and often repeat one of our favorite mantras: "Picture books are a format, not an age level."

When a parent asks for a recommendation, our first questions is almost always "What are they reading now that they love?" We can present children with books we care about, books we love or believe they would love. We can hand them a book that's appropriate for their skill level, and often do. But the seed that grows into the love of reading, going from merely a person who reads to a reader—a willing reader, an unstoppable bibliophile, an insatiable bookhound—is engagement.

When a child chooses a book for themselves there's a new energy, an electric possibility. Something about the cover has drawn them in, whether it's an image or word, a familiar author or something intangible—a vibration of sorts. It's a delicate moment. Truly, it's in your power as the adult to see where the interest leads—or, consciously or not, make waver the tiny flame that's just been ignited. "Are you sure that book isn't too easy for you?" Or "That one looks like it'll be too hard; why don't you choose one from over here?"

OK, I will say this: It is not easy. They are bound to choose books you wouldn't have chosen yourself. This is exactly the point. When they are laughing so hard they can't breathe because of a perfectly ridiculous turn of elementary humor, let them read the passage out loud to you so you can laugh along with them. When they burn through the whole Goosebumps series, congratulate them—that's 235 books!

If there are books you're concerned about because of the content, this is an excellent opportunity to talk to your child. As I said in an earlier piece on this blog, In Defense of Monsters, conversation is key. Chances are good that if the child is able to read the words but the content is too advanced, they'll put the book down on their own. (Please note, however, that this doesn't fly with inappropriate pictures or illustrations, only words.)

Parents looking for ways to support their fledgeling reader can easily get caught up in the significance of an assessment that dictates which books their child "should" be reading. Some school libraries, horrifyingly, only allow children to check out books within a slim range matching their assessed reading level. It's crucial to understand that most of these assessments don’t take into account the child’s engagement with the content and are not a good indication of reading ability without greater context.

Not only do engaged children read more fluently, they retain more information and remember it longer. When texts aren’t interesting, children may not score as well as they would if they were reading something they cared about. On top of that, each test is different enough that multiple assessments will produce divergent results.

It’s true that reading slightly above assessed reading level is a great opportunity for children to stretch themselves cognitively and learn new vocabulary, especially if it’s a topic they’re interested in or knowledgeable about. But what about the books that seem “too easy”? Is there still something to be gained from a book "below reading level"?

Consider this: How many of us constantly challenge ourselves with the books we read, never picking up a pulpy paperback, an old favorite, or something someone dubbed a “beach read”? If you want to raise lifelong reader, now is the time to solidify the association of books with joy.

I spoke with Diane Sullivan, a Montessori guide (and former colleague of mine and Grace's) working with elementary students at Wild Rose Montessori in Cambridge, MA, to ask her perspective on reading levels. Diane said she came from a place of being critical of reading assessments. “The [assessment] texts were so dry, I found them insulting to children—and I wasn’t sold on the results.”

Knowing just how boring these benchmark texts are is key in understanding the problem with reading levels. Sure, you can read the dictionary cover-to-cover—but do you want to? There’s a reason it’s easier to read 300 pages of the latest bestseller than a 50-page technical manual.

“I understood that books should be beautiful works of art,” said Diane. “I’ve never stocked my shelves with ‘Cat on the Mat’ type books.” The result of Diane's passion-first approach is that book choice in her classroom is driven by a child’s interests, and the classroom library is vibrant and varied.

“I was always of the mindset that if they enjoy the book, let them enjoy the book. They wouldn’t stick with it if they weren’t getting something positive from reading it... Even if, as with Harry Potter, [the] positive responses from peers are just from carrying around a heavy book.” We'd love to hear your experiences, questions, and thoughts on your child's reading journey and your experience with assessed reading levels. Send us a message!

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