There was a small, exciting moment yesterday when I thought I had read that the classic show Reading Rainbow was coming back. Sadly, it’s not. Instead, host Levar Burton managed to fund a project to expand Reading Rainbow content on different web platforms. Good for him, I guess, but not the same as a whole new season of such a great show.
For those who don’t know, Reading Rainbow was canceled several years ago when PBS decided to shift their focus in their reading programming entirely to teaching reading mechanics, as well as focusing more on younger viewers. Thus began the era of shows like Super Why and the new Electric Company reboot, shows that are mostly about rhymes and phonics and sounding out words, shows that are aimed closer to the preschool set than the upper elementary one.
There’s nothing wrong with shows like that (well, I have a totally separate issue with Super Why’s complete dumbing down of fairy tales, but that’s a rant for another post). In fact, teaching reading mechanics is critically important. Without phonics, no one can actually, you know, read.
In the last decade or so, the pendulum has swung very firmly from a more whole language approach to reading to a more mechanics based approach with schools moving to put in phonics programs and drill kids on reading mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, it needed to do so. Schools had turned whole language into a very simplified drill of sight words which wasn’t really serving most kids in learning to read. PBS’s programming shift is just part of the trend toward teaching phonics.
However, the reason that everyone loves Reading Rainbow and got so fleetingly excited about it’s potential return and even funded Burton’s Kickstarter so generously is because reading is not phonics.
Reading is stories. Reading is going to other worlds and traveling in time. Reading is poetry. Reading is escape. Reading is finding yourself in a book. Reading is learning. Reading is how the world works and why the sky is blue and how big dinosaurs are. Reading is inspiration. Reading is fun. Reading is meaning.
Phonics, as important as it is, is not meaning. It’s just mechanics. It’s the notes, not the song. Reading Rainbow is so beloved so many years later because it talked about the songs, not the notes, something that it feels like we’ve gotten too far away from in early reading instruction sometimes to me lately.
When children can’t see the point of what they’re learning, then they don’t have the same motivation as when they do. Supposedly, PBS’s refocusing on phonics was supposed to be especially important for lower income kids who might be most struggling with reading mechanics. However, the same kids are the ones less likely to see reading modeled in their lives. In general, learning about the reason why we read, feeling inspired to actually go read a book, not just gain the ability to sound out the words, seems so essentially important. That’s what Reading Rainbow brought.
So Reading Rainbow may not be coming back, at least not the way many of us might wish, but here’s in praise of reading for meaning, reading for content, reading for fun, and generally loving books and stories and beautiful words. Here’s to just let me finish the chapter before you turn out the light. Here’s to why don’t we take a look in a book to find out. Here’s to toting around your book wherever you go. Don’t just share the sounds of the letter A, share that love of words and books.
I posted about this on a certain other social media the other day, but I was so bothered that I wanted to vent a little more. While the boys were in the Lego Movie (which they loved), I decided to skip out and run errands. I ended up at the Barnes and Noble next door, which was sort of interesting because I never go to big box book stores these days.
As I walked through the children’s section to see what they were promoting (which is the sort of dorky children’s book thing I like to do), I overheard a conversation between a mom and a daughter, who looked to be about ten years old. The daughter was holding a copy of Scat by Carl Hiaasen and trying to tell the mom why it was the book she wanted to read next. The mom was clearly about to buy a book, but she was dubious about this particular book.
“Tell me the level again.”
“It’s a 5.6. But I can read it.”
The mom made unsure noises. “No. You’re only supposed to have a 5.5.”
Before I left the area, the mom had stuck Scat back on the shelf and had a pile of other books for the daughter to consider. Meanwhile, the daughter was looking resigned. They were going to get something, but it wasn’t going to be the book she wanted.
I’m not totally sure who’s to blame for what I hope we can all agree was a travesty of reading encouragement. I suspect it’s not the mom, but rather a teacher or school that gave out rules or guidelines about what kids “should” be reading. I’ve seen that some schools require students to read only books in a certain range and I think that’s what this was.
I used to find RL’s really annoying, but I’ve gotten to where I see that they can be helpful for parents who don’t have any context for children’s books or authors beyond just a few titles they remember from their own youth. However, it makes me angry to see how they’re misused so terribly. So, for your consideration, some guidelines on how to use reading levels responsibly.
1. Know what these numbers actually are.
There are several reading level systems. RL levels are easy to understand and probably the ones that a parent is most likely to use. The first number is the grade level, the second is the month of the grade. So a RL 4.3 means it should be an appropriate book for a fourth grader in the third month of school. Lexile and DRA levels are a little more complex and don’t correspond to grade or age. Especially with Lexile levels, there’s a wider range of what is considered “appropriate” for each grade. If you need to use those systems, then begin by looking up a few books you know well to see their numbers and get a feel for the scale.
The numbers are mostly determined by a computer. That means they can be skewed or not follow common sense. The computer doesn’t know that Of Mice and Men is a great work of literature, so it doesn’t mind giving it a lower Lexile score than Twilight. The computer doesn’t know that the 6th book in the A to Z Mysteries chapter book series isn’t actually two and a half grade levels more difficult than the first book. Special vocabulary, slang, fragment sentences, and more can all throw off the level. And the level doesn’t always take into account things like the length of the book, the depth of the content, and the size of the text, all of which can matter a lot to a young reader’s ability to read a book.
If you’re looking at the levels, the best resource is the Book Wizard from Scholastic, which allows you to search and browse books by RL, DRA, Guided Reading, and Lexile levels. It’s not always a great site to find a new book because nearly every American children’s book currently in print is listed there and the site won’t distinguish except by level. But if you want to know the level of a particular book, it’s the best place to find it.
2. Interest level and adult directed labels can help you pick a read aloud, but otherwise ignore them.
Lexile has long had an “AD” label on their books. This means that the book is “supposed” to be read aloud by an adult to a child. Scholastic has added an “interest level” to their system. It indicates the grade and age that a book “should” appeal to. It can be useful to know that a book with a high RL can potentially appeal to younger kids. In other words, the content or story is appropriate and interesting to younger listeners because then you know you can try it as a read aloud. But take it with a grain of salt. If a second grader isn’t interested in animal books, the interest level being right obviously isn’t going to change that. And don’t discourage kids from reading “AD” books in their reading ability or interest level books that are supposedly below their age. These designations are extremely subjective.
3. Treat it like an estimate – a very rough estimate.
Because these numbers are determined by a computer, there’s a margin of error. Assume that any book might have a level that’s a good year (or a hundred points in Lexile or ten in the DRA) off. Don’t get dogmatic about the numbers. They’re very general.
4. Use it to know about what level your child is reading.
If you look up the RL or lexile level of a few books your child found challenging but enjoyable, then you’ve just found out what level they read at. Then you can use that level to find other suggestions.
5. Give more weight to award winners and classics.
If a book is a Newbery winner or a well-known classic, then never worry if the level is “too low.” These are books with meat to them beyond sentence structure or vocabulary. These are almost always worth reading.
6. Give more weight to recommendations from real people.
An informed children’s librarian or your local bookstore children’s department will be able to give you better advice almost every time. Another parent or another child at school who just read a good book and is passing it on word of mouth will also have better advice. Trust the people, not the computer.
7. Remember that kids need lower level books for fluency.
While many parents dream that their children will progress constantly up, reading only the best quality books, the truth is that kids often find a stage and stick with it, reading comfortable books or returning to easier novels even when they’re technically capable of more. The Lexile website talks about this as if it’s a terrible thing, saying children are “easily bored” by writing below their reading level. But children often need to read to build their fluency and stamina as well as to solidify understanding of how story works and to gain information. No one sits down to read for fun if they’re bored by a book. Books that are “easy” can help with all of those things so children still learn from them. In our house, we try to balance this by having one required reading book a month that is meant to stretch the kids a little, but not limiting pleasure reading.
8. Use it for suggesting books to kids, not making rulings on books kids find themselves.
Many parents don’t know what’s new or good to read out there, or hear vaguely about books but don’t know what the reading level is. That’s what RL lists are made for. From it, you get an estimate and know if the book is something that might be worth suggesting, buying, checking out, or strewing for your child. But when a child has a book they want to read, don’t even bother. If a book is too hard or so easy it’s boring, a child will naturally move on. Let them figure it out on their own.