Levels of books are more complex than they seem. The gradations of complexity from one level to the next are subtle, but significant. Understanding levels and how they work takes time and practice. But it can be done! Here is an explanation to lay the foundation for learning the intricacies behind the levels and how you can use them to make your teaching efficient.
What are levels?
First, look at the F&P Text Level Gradient™. This gradient of reading difficulty was created and refined by Fountas and Pinnell as a teaching and assessment tool over the past thirty years. Each of the twenty-six points on the F&P Text Level Gradient ™, from easiest at level A to hardest at level Z, represents a small but significant increase in difficulty over the previous text level. (There is a level Z+ on our website, which refers to the highly complex texts, many of which contain very mature subject matter that students read in high school and college. But for our purposes here, let’s just look at A to Z.) Each level is made up of a composite of ten text characteristics that increase slightly in complexity as you move up the level. The ten text characteristics are:
- text structure
- themes and ideas
- language and literary features
- sentence complexity
- book and print features
A great way to learn the specific characteristics of texts at each level and see how they increase in complexity is to get your hands on The Fountas & Pinnell Literacy Continuum www.fountasandpinnell.com/continuum. It’s all in there.
Uses of the text gradient
OK, so now you know what levels are and how they make up a gradient of text. How can the levels help in your classroom teaching? “A gradient of text is a powerful tool for you as a teacher. It helps you in the very challenging task of selecting texts that will challenge your readers and offer them opportunities to learn (Fountas and Pinnell 2017).” You can organize your leveled texts in magazine boxes or baskets from easiest to hardest. If you have a school book room, organize it by level, which will make selecting and using books easier for all your colleagues. But you want your students to choose books the way readers do—by author, topic, genre, and general interest—not by level. So, in classroom libraries (and school libraries) you don’t want the level to be a criterion or even visible. But more on that later. A nifty tool for looking up a book’s level is by accessing the Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Books Website www.fandpleveledbooks.com. You can look up the titles and it will tell you the level, genre, and much more. Easy.
How do I know my students’ reading levels?
Begin with a benchmark assessment to learn your students’ instructional book level so you can group them and begin teaching www.fountasandpinnell.com/bas. Once you begin teaching, observe your students and notice their reading behaviors. There are specific behaviors to look for at each level that change slightly as you move up the F&P Text Level Gradient ™. Students start at the instructional level, a level that offers some challenge, but not too much. Once they demonstrate good control of most of the behaviors and understandings at the level, move up a level to introduce more and new challenge opportunities for learning.
“A gradient of text is not a precise sequence of texts through which all readers pass. Books are leveled in approximate groups from which teachers choose for instruction. The teacher who recognizes the convenience of the gradient yet reminds herself of its limitations will be able to make good choices and test her decisions against children’s behaviors while reading and talking about texts (Fountas and Pinnell 2017).” Below is a figure that sums up what a text gradient is and is not.
So back to the aforementioned warning about not letting your students know at what level they’re reading. They may notice some levels on books (and as students grow more sophisticated, they will realize that some books are harder than others to read); but assure them that these markings are helpful to teachers but not important in choosing books. Teach them to evaluate a book for themselves. “It is destructive to measure their own progress by “moving up levels.” This does not provide the real motivation that consuming and talking about texts would (Fountas and Pinnell 2017).” To put it simply: a level is a teacher’s tool, NOT a child’s label.
Log in next week to learn more on that topic and how to avoid using levels as labels for students.
Fountas & Pinnell Marketing Manager
Guided Reading: Responsive Teaching Across the Grades, Second Edition. © 2017 by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.