Monday, October 13, 2008


Beyond Leveled Books: Supporting Early and Transitional Readers in Grades k-5 by Karen Szymusiak, Franki Sibberson, and Lisa Koch; foreword by Sharon Taberski. Stenhouse Publishers. 2008. Copy provided by author.

A few months back, there was a conversation on Yalsa-Bk about reading levels. I had a couple of questions, so did what people usually do; turned to friends who are experts, Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn of A Year of Reading. In addition to answering my questions, I found out about Franki's new book, Beyond Leveled Books, and Franki kindly sent me a review copy.

In the foreword, Sharon Taberski says, "Leveling does have a place in our classrooms - a practical one. It can help match a child with a range of books he's likely to be able to read on his own and during guided reading, and it can play an important role in helping struggling readers become more proficient. . . . [T]here's a lot more to teaching children to read than finding their levels and moving them upward. Children need to plateau in their reading. They need to consolidate their skills and strategies, to read widely and deeply, to increase their vocabulary, and to experience life and gain humor so that they have more knowledge and insight to bring to texts and consequently understand them better."

Libraries have books. And librarians. And librarians are very good at matching a book to a reader. But what we don't learn in library school is how to teach reading or how reading is taught. Which means when a kid comes in looking for a book, it's great. But when a parent (or teacher) comes in asking for level this or that, it's a blank, because for us it's about the book, not the level.

Beyond Leveled Books is also about the book, not the level. Aimed at teachers, it is a must read for librarians. While showing teachers why it is good to go beyond leveled books, it also works as a great primer as to what is a leveled book and how reading is being taught in the classroom. Yes, as public librarians we focus on the book; but it's also good to know what is going on in the child's classroom.

I'd further suggest it to parents who are trying to understand what is going on in their child's classroom and what is happening with their child's reading skills and how those skills are much more than a "level." What about comprehension, understanding what is going on in the book, etc? The authors and other contributors, all classroom teachers, explain some of the "critical needs" of their students, using examples, including how and when an adult can help the student meet those needs. The parent who complains about a teacher using picture books or graphic novels, or who doesn't use books grades above the child's grade, needs to read this book to understand better how reading is much more involved than learning how to read words.

The book is full of articles, reading lists, lesson plans, and suggestions to address a child's reading as something much more than a vocabulary level. Over and over, I found examples and illustrations of reading being more than words. When a child reads "right" in a sentence, do they understand they are being directed to look at a photo to the right of the text? Or do they think the author is saying "right!" How does a child learn about the use of flashbacks in a text?

I especially liked the ideas of grouping books by authors, characters, genres, series -- a wide assortment of ways that kids can find the book they want, rather than obsessing about what level they (and their classmates) are at. These suggestions for classroom libraries can easily be used in public libraries, for displays and booklists. The chapter on series books is perhaps my favorite, because I read them as a kid and read the grown up versions now (Nora Roberts is my comfort read).

The authors address one of my pet peeves about levels and reading above levels. When books are viewed as simply the sum of their vocabulary words, kids are given books above their age level that are best left for a few years down the road. The example in the book is The Giver, with a well-meaning teacher using this book with third graders. (While the book uses all school examples of this "reading up", I also see it happen with parents and relatives selecting books for kids). The teacher writing about this notes, "I understand the importance of giving children books to read that support their growth and development as readers. They won't make progress as readers if they read only easy books. However, there are better options for young advanced readers than young-adult books. Teachers need to look at more than the readability level of the book when book selections." She then notes that the theme of the book is just as important, if not more so, than vocabulary. When children are pushed into books that are above their comprehension, the result is books they won't reread once they do have "the life experience, cognitive development, and emotional maturity to truly comprehend the book." They also miss out on the books they missed in the hurry to rush them into older books.

Stories about reading include the authors mentioning their own children and their students. I am very thankful that in doing this, the authors presented a variety of types of kids and readers; there is no "this is how I raised a reading genius and so can you." Instead, this is about teaching reading, and teaching a love of reading, with a huge emphasis on how reading is more than just vocabulary and grammar.

As Franki wisely reminded me in a comment to a post of mine last week, "I have worked with lots of kids over the years who really struggle with reading and it is hard to love something if it is never easy enough to enjoy--thus the teaching how to read being essential. It is the teacher's/librarian's job to know books and kids well so that a child can find books they love--and books they can read. They go through the motions, and say they love lots of books, but when you talk more, they never actually finish the books or they've not understood the book. So, for me, it is a combination of the two--always."

Looking for how that combination works? Read this book.

Cross-posted at Pop Goes the Library.

3 comments:

Karen S. said...

Thanks for the nice review of our book. Some of may favorite memories are walks to the local library. Thank goodness for librarians who make such great connections with kids and books.

Jill said...

Hi Liz - I happen to be randomly checking in with your blog at a good time!

what we don't learn in library school is how to teach reading or how reading is taught

Actually, this is exactly what we did talk about in my class tonight. Not in as much detail as in Szymusiak et al's book, but touching on some of the major points. :)

Maria said...

I was an advanced reader--oh, a thousand years ago in grade school. Sadly many a difficult "classic" was pushed on me early. While the vocabulary was readable for me, I'm quite certain I was not ready for 1984. Even earlier, I don't think I enjoyed the richness of Huck Finn that I did as an adult. For that matter, I may still not be ready for Bambi on some days.

You're so right--teaching reading is completely different from teaching a person to love to read. They aren't necessarily the same books, although I wish they were more often!!!

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