Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Trouble With Double Yellow

My daughter's school uses the Fountas and Pinnell system of leveled readers.  The books (and children!) are rated on a scale of A (easiest) to Z.  Presumably to avoid competition and feelings of inadequacy, the school marks the books with colored stickers rather than the letters.  Of course, the kids figure out the meaning of the stickers right away!

My daughter's teacher has her reading at Level J (or, "double yellow" in sticker parlance), which are heavy on Cynthia Rylant's Henry and Mudge and Mr. Putter and Tabby books.  When she recently told me that the double yellow books are too easy for her, we decided she'd ask her teacher if she could try harder books.  But before she had a chance to do so, she came home with Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully, marked with the same double yellow stickers.

Mirette is a far cry from Henry and Mudge.  My daughter can read 95% or more of the individual words in Henry and Mudge and understands them all.  In Mirette, though, she was faced with words she either couldn't pronounce or didn't know the meaning of - or both!  And while she is pretty good at figuring out the meaning of words from context, these had her stumped, and with good reason.  Mirette contains words like vagabond and widow and boardinghouse and phrases like "traveling players."  Not something your average New York City first-grader is familiar with and not exactly in the same class as Henry and his big dog Mudge!  While it is great to read about unfamiliar things, this book is completely impenetrable to my daughter on her own.  It is far from a "just right" book, as books that are supposedly on her level should be.

While the contrast between the difficulty of Henry and Mudge and Mirette is dramatic, it's not the first time I've noticed inconsistencies among books which are ostensibly at the same level.  No leveling system can be perfect but, given these inconsistencies, how useful are these systems?  Are they popular now because they are yet another way to "objectively" evaluate student (and, by erroneous extension, in my opinion, teacher) progress?  They are helpful as general guidelines, I think, but not beyond that. 

What is your experience with leveled readers?


  1. My daughter's school uses the same program and we've had the exact same problem! Most of the time they're easy for her then all of a sudden one will come home that's totally different. It is very frustrating.

  2. A lot of books get rated by looking at one or two pages, so something like Mirette could change drastically depending on which page got examined.

    I agree with the "OK in general, but often silly in particular" view of them. Like the fourth grader told he couldn't do a report on a Riordan book because it somehow ended up with a 3rd grade sticker. ?? I hope in general the teacher feels free to override the system and put a better sticker on the book.

    Mirette's a fun book though; I hope you guys read it together and now she knows all those words! Although I'm pretty sure vagabond and widow showed up in the Moffats, so my kids might have known them in first grade. I tend to pick really old books when it was my turn to choose our read-aloud novel, and I do remember getting asked a lot of vocabulary questions in slow times.

  3. I posted my thoughts on this just recently:

    I guess one advantage is that AR rankings seem pretty consistent - they're graded on number of words in the book and vocabulary difficulty, but there are a lot of problems with this system, too, namely, the reward and prize driven system.

  4. Don't tell his teachers, but I rarely ensure my son reads his "book bag" books. They bring home one level book and one "choice" book. He told me that he is bored with all the books -- I think that this is not because he deems them too easy, but because there are not enough (he brings home the same ones over and over). His homework is supposed to be to read the books for 10 minutes. However, as he reads for much longer than that every day from his own collection I am unconcerned that he reads his school books.

  5. I think the (imperfect)system attempts to make book selection easier for parents, teachers, and students.

    It's hard for educators to stay on top of every kid's reading level (especially in the lower grades when levels vary so wildly). On top of that, knowing the readability of every new book and its level of difficulty, is an overwhelming task. (And don't forget that same elementary teacher needs to also be up on the latest methods for teaching math, writing, science, social studies, etc). A system like that makes it a bit easier.

    Did you tell your child's teacher about the problem? As Beth stated, hopefully the teacher will change the sticker if it's brought to his/her attention.

  6. I think these systems are mostly useless. Out of curiosity, I looked at some books in my school library here and checked their F&P level, their DRA level, their Lexile Level and their published "reading level." Every time I sorted the books by the differing levels, the list looked different! They rarely, if ever, matched up! This is far from an exact science. I tell kids it's just a ball park range and that their background knowledge and, obviously, INTEREST count.

  7. It is an imperfect system. I know the system (and it varies with state and school district) does help know where a student is at. To an extent. But I agree that sometimes the books dont seem to match within their given levels.

    I'm not sure there is a perfect solution. I prefer to find ways to make reading fun and enjoyable. If it's fun, they'll want to read more.

  8. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    By the way, a friend of mine looked up the F&P level of Mirette and found it was level P, so it was misclassified somehow.

    Jim, I love your experiment - very revealing. I also can't agree with you enough about a child's background knowledge. My daughter once brought home a seemingly easy book in which children pretend to be cowboys and a bicycle is their "horse." Except she knows nothing about cowboys and could not follow the story at all!

    Also, the number of different leveling systems actually make things harder for parents - or at least this parent! (although maybe not teachers). I have no idea what my daughter's F&P level corresponds to in other systems (the most common ones I see at the library/bookstore seem to be of the Step 1-4 variety).

  9. As a former librarian (once a librarian always a librarian?), I think these systems are both useless and discouraging to growing readers. Children are people with their own interests, and if a child who is reading at a beginning level wants to pick out a "hard book" to read, then he or she has her reasons. I say let them try it. Give them freedom to pick out any children's book they want and read freely. They'll find their own reading level without the stickers and the artificial systems.

  10. We have no experience with leveled readers at all! This is really interesting as my kids won't be learning to read English in school, but I'll be teaching them, so I will be making a lot of use of leveled readers in the future. Other than the stickers I wonder how to find out what level books are?