What we talk about when we talk about reading levels…

Okay, so I have to begin by saying that I AM NOT A TEACHER.  There are brilliant people out there in the trenches (to whom we owe a great debt) who are, and they know a lot about this stuff. I fear what I am about to say  will seem stupid to them.

So I want to phrase it as a question… (that’s a trick I know)

The question:  to what degree does the term “reading level” refer to form/format ( stuff like length/ vocabular/ chapter length/sentence length) and to what degree does it refer to complexity of ideas and structure?

This has been nagging at me.  Because I see people talk a lot about how, say, verse-novels appeal to kids who struggle with reading. Because such books offer lots of white space and are short.  But this seems odd to me, because shortness doesn’t always indicate easy, does it?  Or I pick up graphic novels that I’m told also appeal to such kids, because kids like pictures, and I find them (on occasion) disjointed and hard to follow.

So I wonder– are these really the best books for kids who have trouble reading, and (maybe as a result) don’t love to read?  It seems like the best book for such a reader might be one with simple words, straightforward structure, and short chapters, but really interesting ideas.  Just because someone is a slow reader doesn’t mean they’re a slow thinker, right?

I find myself reciting poetry to myself, mulling over what the AR level for a “simple” poet like WCWilliams might be. Or Creeley?  I mean– they have simple words in them, and they’re SHORT and stuff.

Like, have you read I KNOW A MAN?

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

How does that go over with these readers?  Is it simple?  Is it easy?
Or what about that old favorite, THE RED WHEELBARROW? I mean, what does a “reluctant reader” do with something like this?
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I want to ask you all– what are some things that really work well for a kid who’s struggling to read? I don’t want to know the best books. I want to know what you think makes them the best books.  What are the elements of a great book for a reluctant reader. (understanding, of course, that these readers are all distinct individuals with specific tastes. But generally, what do you see as successful?)

3 Responses to “What we talk about when we talk about reading levels…”

  1. Bestbook Says:

    Great Question! I’m going to reflect and post my version of an answer

  2. Franki Says:

    Love this conversation! I have issues with all things reading level because of the things you mention. Books are easy or difficult for a variety of reasons, based on the reader. But I have found that novels in verse and graphic novels often help more reluctant readers –readers who just don’t live their lives as readers. i think novels in verse often work because often, our struggling readers are very sophisticated thinkers. So, giving them books without depth and powerful issues doesn’t match what they need in a story. Novels in verse often have depth, but the text is not overwhelming. A lot of things for them to think about and they often have the stamina to get through the whole book. I agree that they aren’t easy, but it is one type of books that work for some kids who struggle–middle grade kids who struggle with comprehension, not with text. Can’t wait to read others’ responses and experiences. Thanks for starting such a great discussion.

  3. Venessa Ann Schwarz Says:

    This hits home. My son is a second grader. He’s considered to be a struggling reader. I agree with you. Just because it has a lot of white space doesn’t mean it’s easier. I know this firsthand. My poor baby. Every night we read a book. It’s like scratching nails on a chalkboard. I can FEEL his frustration. The books that give him confidence are written with an easy flow. And the storyline matters. If he thinks it’s funny or has an interesting twist, he’s prone to be eager for the words. He tries harder. If that makes sense. It’s not just the struggling reader that struggles. As a mom, I do too. FOR him.

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