This past year I engaged in an informal teacher-researcher project focused on an unrelenting question in my mind about the range of text complexity in elementary classroom libraries: what percentage of books in a classroom library are at or below the suggested complexity for that grade level (at the time of year the data was gathered)?
This question was in response to concerns I hear colleagues express about text complexity:
- Readers feeling labeled and restricted by text complexity
- Developmentally inappropriate curricular expectations
At first, these two concerns seemed disparate, but as I investigated, it became clear to me they may both be closely tied to classroom library design. I decided to collect data in a more systematic way to see if what I was noticing was actually a pattern in the complexity of texts in classroom libraries. I decided to analyze one hundred classroom libraries and focused on kindergarten through third-grade classrooms.
I used the Fountas & Pinnell Progress Monitoring by Instructional Text Reading Level chart (2017) to determine the grade-level complexity. (Chart also available on pg. 61 of It's All About The Books)
The levels on the chart are instructional, so I assumed one level below for independent level. I wanted to focus on independent level since these were the texts students were choosing to read independently. I found 95 percent of the classroom libraries I analyzed had 75 percent or more of its inventory for independent reading above the recommended grade-level complexity. Here is how the data broke down:
Kindergarten: 90 percent of the inventory above grade level
First Grade: 85 percent of the inventory above grade level
Second Grade: 75 percent of the inventory above grade level
Third Grade: 50 percent of the inventory above grade level
Since my question was focused on text selection for independent reading, I only inventoried the baskets in the library that were organized and labeled by series, author, and level to determine these percentages. I used the process my coauthor Tammy Mulligan and I outlined in Chapter 4 of It’s All About the Books. I did not hand-count every text in each basket. I found the number of texts in 5–10 baskets and then estimated the number in the other baskets.
I then used the Fountas & Pinnell chart to determine how many baskets were below, at, or above grade level in relation to the total number of texts. For example, using the grade-level complexity chart, nothing in a second-grade classroom library should be more complex than Cam Jansen or King and Kayla. It is important to note that those texts should not be in a second-grade classroom library until April, yet 75 percent of the libraries had these series displayed in September. In kindergarten, 90 percent of the classrooms did not have baskets of books for students to choose from at the complexity recommended. These texts were organized for teachers to use in guided reading and not available in the classroom library. Third grade faired the best, especially as the year progressed, but still had many series that were above grade level. For example, the majority of the texts shouldn’t be more complex than The Littles, Little Shaq, or Owl Diaries in the first half of third grade. The basic inventory for independent reading in all of these classrooms was six to eighteen months above grade level.
In addition to this, participants reported that less than 5 percent of the classroom library is rotated or refreshed throughout the year. When you look at the developmental growth of a reader in these grades, this may add to why the percentage of texts above complexity is so high in classroom libraries. In these grade levels, the type of book a reader needs in September is completely different than what she needs in June. The books available to the reader in a classroom library need to reflect identity, interests, passions, and developmental needs. If the majority of the books do not match the developmental stage of the reader, we may be encouraging them to move up the bands of complexity prematurely. This may both elevate curricular expectations by having kids apply grade-level standards to text that is more complex than necessary and restrict students from reading books that are developmentally appropriate because they are simply not available.
This has left me wondering if students really feel restricted because they want to read books that are one to two years above grade level or is it because we are inadvertently selling these books to them through our classroom library inventory. Showing them the possibilities and then telling them they cannot choose from the majority of the baskets in our library may be setting up this feeling of restriction. Their reading level could be right on target and still be restricted from the majority of the classroom library. This problem is magnified throughout the years when a book that is a perfect complexity for a third grader is rejected because it was in their first-grade library and now deemed “too easy.” Classroom library inventories may be sending an inferred message that is pushing our readers “up” the ladder of complexity and sending a message that texts at grade-level complexity are less engaging. We all know this is simply not true. I love Fly Guy and I am pretty sure this text is below my assessed reading level.
This brings me to the second concern expressed—developmentally inappropriate standards. The standards are challenging. Twenty-first-century literacy requires inferring, synthesis, and analysis. This is why I never worry about a student reading a book that may be easy in terms of complexity. I can always make a text match the developmental needs of a reader by the reader’s task or purpose. Let’s take Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. At first glance this text seems easy. It is short, there is repetition, strong picture support, and only a few challenging words to decode. When you consider, however, the word choice, themes, and use of symbolism in this text it becomes far more complex. Including what the reader brings to the text increases the complexity. And why would we ever want an upper elementary, middle grade, or even high school student to miss this beautiful text? What is the rush when there are so many beautiful, funny, exciting, thought-provoking, touching texts at every band of complexity?
While we do not have control over the standards, we do have control over the texts we use to teach the standards and the texts students are reading to learn these standards. When most of the inventory in a classroom library is six-to-eighteen months above grade level then we may be making this work more difficult than it needs to be for our students. The standards do not say our students need to be proficient with the most difficult text complexity in September, yet this might just be what we are expecting when we ask students to practice grade-level standards with above-grade-level text. If we shift the complexity of our inventory, we shift the demand of the standards.
While I am not suggesting students shouldn’t ever read above grade level or that many students are not capable of proficiently reading above grade level, I am questioning the messages our classroom libraries may be sending our students if the majority of books are above grade level. I cannot ignore the number of elementary students I am meeting that are struggling from anxiety, stress, or depression. Even if there is a chance that revising the range of complexity of text in classroom libraries could have an impact on students’ emotional health and reading identity, I think it is worth it. Reading should be joyous, inspiring, calming, reinforcing, and engaging. Our students should love reading and feel good about their reading journey. If our classroom library inventory is mostly above grade level, students are measuring themselves against an inflated benchmark. If our classrooms libraries are sending a message day in and day out that they are not measuring up, what impact might it be having on our readers?
As we prepare to begin a new school year, it is the perfect time to survey your classroom library to determine if the inventory reflects the developmental needs of your students at the beginning of the year. If you need more information about the inventory process check out Chapter 4 from It’s All About the Books and Chapter 4 from the study guide. Once you have a sense of what you have, it is easier to determine what you need.
Steps to Take
If you determine you do need to shift your inventory to better meet the needs of your readers, the first step is to create some space. You can’t rotate if you do not have space to add new baskets and space to store the baskets you will use later in the year. If you find you have a lot of texts that are a year or more above grade level, you might consider sharing them with the school bookroom or an upper-grade colleague. You can also plan to create space later in the year by sharing what you have out in September with a lower-grade colleague in the second half of the year. Planning to rotate your inventory to match your curriculum throughout the year is another way to engage your readers in a developmentally appropriate way.
Readers love new books. Refreshing your inventory throughout the year will support your instructional goals, meet the ever-evolving developmental needs of your students, and invite your students to add their voices by letting you know what types of books they want in the library. This only works if you have a flexible classroom library design. You can check out Chapter 3 from It’s All About the Books and Chapter 3 from the study guide if you want to learn more about designing a classroom library to maximize access.
The process I used to analyze these classroom libraries was informal. I wanted it to be quick, less than an hour, and easy so there would be more time to revise if necessary. If you are interested in determining the percentage of grade-level text complexity of your classroom library inventory you can use the process suggested in Chapter 4. Focus on inventorying the texts in your library that students choose for independent reading. If you need resources to help determine text level some tried and true resources are provided on page 63. This blog post also provides the level of some common series in K–3 classrooms: find it here. I do not recommend finding the level of every text. Instead, spend time getting to know the characteristics of each level, choose representative trade books for each band of text complexity, and use these books/series as models when inventorying. This will save you time. More details and resources to support you in this process are available in Chapter 4.
We would love to hear what you discovered and how you revised your classroom library. You can add your results, questions, reflections, ideas, and photos to our Facebook group.
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Clare Landrigan is a staff developer who is still a teacher at heart. She began her work as an educator over twenty years ago, teaching in an integrated first- and second-grade classroom at the Eliot Pearson Children's School in Medford, MA. She now leads a private staff development business and spends her days partnering with school systems to help them implement best practices in the field of literacy. Clare is the coauthor of the book, It's All About the Books: How to Create Bookrooms and Classroom Libraries That Inspire Readers. She believes that effective professional development includes side-by-side teaching, analysis of student work, mutual trust, respect, and a good dose of laughter. You can find Clare online at Twitter, and at her website, where she blogs about books and the art of teaching.