From Dick and Jane readers to leveled books: moving forward or reaching back?
Dick and Jane played the lead roles in a series of books for teaching reading published between 1930 and 1965. You may remember them as the story characters who coined such enduring expressions as, "See Spot run! Run, Spot, run!" and "Look, look. Look up." The controlled vocabulary and sentence structure have provided great fodder for popular culture parodies over the decades. The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons television show, for example, spawned a new line of clothing when he wore a T-shirt with the catchy phrase: "C:\DOS C:\DOS\RUN RUN DOS\RUN."
While the tightly-controlled sentence structures and syllable counts of these readers may amuse humourists, they are likely to be unappealing and perhaps even confusing to young children learning to read. The language in books created by piecing together one or two syllable words into simple sentences lacks the natural flow and vibrancy of the language that children hear around them in everyday life and read in children's literature. Many contemporary reading theorists argue that reading is driven by a desire to make sense of print, illustrations and other visuals. When children read books designed to fit within reading level formulas, figuring out the words becomes the goal--rather than reading for meaning. Book publishers and teachers will tell you that Dick and Jane readers, with their restricted language, have no place in today's classrooms where reading for meaning is the primary goal.
Yet, how far have the reading materials in many classrooms moved from the controlled language, sentence structure and content of the Dick and Jane readers? When I talk to teachers or visit classrooms, I often see that, in place of bookshelves filled with children's literature on topics that engage students' interests and stir their imaginations, are bins filled with leveled books that have been written and/or categorized according to reading level formulas. The book's level reflects the sentence and word difficulty (e.g., regularity of the spelling of the words, and the number of syllables) in the book, as well as the number of pages, the number of words and the number of lines on the page. The characters in leveled books may not be named Dick and Jane and they may not say, "Look, Susan, look!" They may represent more evenly the lifestyles and children in our diverse classrooms than Dick and Jane and their family did. Yet, in many ways, leveled books restrict children's reading every bit as much as the Dick and Jane readers of decades past.
While many of the leveled books available in Canadian elementary classrooms have been fabricated to fit within reading levels, this is not the case for all leveled books. Some are well loved trade books that have been entertaining, informing and inspiring children for decades. Their authors clearly did not choose from a list of words with particular numbers of syllables. These books appear in the leveled book bins because committees of educators have used reading level criteria to assign reading levels to them. Multi-paged lists resulting from this process have been published on websites and in teachers' resources. An issue for Canadian educators, authors, illustrators and publishers is that the majority of the books on one of the most widely-consulted leveled book list (Guided Reading; Good First Teaching for All Children by Irene C. Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell) are American. Jo Ellen Bogart's Daniel's Dog, Phoebe Gilman's Jillian Jiggs, Paulette Bourgeois's Franklin Goes to School, and Kathy Stinson's Big or Little are the only Canadian titles I could find. If Canadian teachers are following the published lists closely when stocking their classroom leveled book bins, then their children are not reading many Canadian books. Not all teachers and librarians are using these lists, however. Instead, they apply the reading level criteria to assign levels to trade books already in their libraries or to books they plan to purchase.
Arguably, assigning a reading level to a book does not change the book. It remains the delightful reading experience it always has been. The problem that arises is that once the book is placed in a reading level bin, only certain children, who are determined through oral reading and comprehension assessments to be reading at that level, will be allowed to read it. Children have access to books that have been designated as "at their level"--even when they are choosing books to take home to read with family members. Categorization of books by reading level means that some students will have access to them and others will not because their teachers instruct them to read books at their level.
It is not only the books that are categorized when leveled books are the sole source of reading materials for children. When told they can only choose books from, say, the Level K bin because that's the reading level they tested at, children come to see themselves as Level K readers, rather than as poetry readers, mystery readers, non-fiction readers, newspaper readers, or omnivorous readers. Children's reading identities are tied to their reading levels because they don't have the opportunity to develop personal reading tastes and their own criteria for selecting books.
The practice of restricting children's reading choices to leveled books narrows children's reading experiences at a time when there has been an explosion of print and other media texts being produced. In spite of this vast selection of reading materials available in the world around them, schools select from books that have reading levels attached to them when allocating funds for books. Indeed, authors and publishers of reading materials intended for classroom use tell me that assigning a level to their books is a prerequisite to selling those books.
Great amounts of time, money, and energy are being devoted to organizing books by reading levels within classrooms and schools. Are the time and money well spent? Are children benefiting from having their reading choices controlled? Research conducted by Rosalie Fink suggests that motivation and interest are more powerful than controlled language in supporting young people's reading (detailed in "Successful Dyslexics: A Constructivist Study of Passionate Interest Reading" in Reconsidering a Balanced Approach to Reading, edited by Constance Weaver). Fink interviewed 12 adults who had been diagnosed as dyslexic in childhood. They had a history of difficulty with letter identification, word recognition, fluency, spelling, writing, fine motor control and memory. Many said they became fluent readers between the ages of 10 and 12 years old. One learned in Grade 12. Yet they were attorneys, biochemists, graphic artists, gynecologists, immunologists, neurologists, physicists, theatre set designers, businessmen and special educators. Ten had graduate degrees. As adults, they still had difficulty sounding out unfamiliar words, yet they read extensively from their specialized fields and loved reading. Their fluency developed because they read voraciously anything they could get their hands on related to their passions. They learned from the context and continued developing vocabulary and sight words through their reading. Their growing knowledge and their keen motivation were powerful forces in their reading success. If they had been restricted to books at their reading levels, their reading would not have been as varied or as stimulating.
Leveled books are intended to support students as they begin to read and for specific instructional purposes (e.g. when teachers work with small groups of children who are struggling with reading). They were never meant to be the only books that children read in and beyond the classroom. Outside formal reading instruction, every child should be given wide choice of reading materials. Students' interests and personal motivations for reading should be primary when they select books to read independently or for reading to family members. Like adults, children should be able to choose books to read for a multitude of self-determined purposes.
It's time for teachers to spend more time in bookstores, reading resources such as the Canadian Children's Book Centre's magazine Canadian Children's Book News and the annual selection guide Our Choice, and consulting websites that review children's literature, than meeting in committees poring over reading level criteria. It's time to fill classrooms with multitudes of books that have never been under the scrutiny of a book leveling committee, where books are shelved by author or genre or topic and plastic bins are used to store math and art materials. In a world where technology and global communication have made it possible for the production of reading materials that introduce children to a vast range of topics, issues and ideas, the literature that children read should not be mired in the simple sentences and low syllable counts of the Dick and Jane readers of the mid-twentieth century. It's time to open up a world of reading choices to children.
Shelley Stagg Peterson is an associate professor at OISE/ University of Toronto.