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November Carnival of Children's Literature

Reading and Grade Levels: Keeping it FUN: A Booklights Reissue

This post was originally published at Booklights in June of 2009, a result of posts that I'd seen, and discussion on my own blog and at Booklights. Since I wrote this post, I've become a parent myself. And although I have hopefully nicknamed my daughter Baby Bookworm, I certainly don't intend to ever pressure her to read books at any particular grade level. I do very much hope that she will love books, and I believe that the best way for that to happen is for her to read the books that she loves. Don't you?

Reading and Grade Levels: Keeping it FUN

I posted on my blog on Friday [in June of 2009] about the question of whether or not it's a good idea to encourage kids to read above their grade level. I was inspired by an excellent post on this subject by Dashka Slater at Babble. I discovered very quickly that quite a few people have opinions on this, as you can see in the extensive comments of both of the previous two posts, and the cropping up of other posts like this one at A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy, this one at Here in the Bonny Glen, and this one at Best Book I Have Not Read. I decided, based on this response, that it was a worthwhile topic to bring up here at Booklights. This is also, I think, a logical follow-up to Pam's post from last week about encouraging summer reading. Pam talked about the importance of bringing home a variety of books from the library. She said: "Don't overrule a book your child picks as being too young for him, but also reserve the right make some selections yourself." Like Pam, I'm not a reading specialist, but I do have something to say about this topic.

RES_AnInterestInArt.jpgAs all of the above discussions make clear, there is, in some circles, a bit of competitive pressure going on regarding kids' reading levels. I've heard about the five year old who likes the unabridged version of the Iliad, and the six-year-old reading at a sixth grade level. Melissa Wiley writes about a woman who discouraged her four-year-old from reading picture books, in favor of "something more challenging". An elementary school librarian commented on my earlier post: "I have some students who are "weightlifting" in second grade, carrying Eragon and Inkspell around rather than reading it." The Babble article says: "I hear parents dropping the names of children's books as if they were designer labels. "Junie B. Jones?" one might say witheringly. "My daughter loved that in preschool, but now she's reading the sixth Harry Potter." [Image credit: photo by ToymanRon, shared at MorgueFile. And no, I don't know exactly what this girl is actually reading.]

I can see how it would be easy to caught up in all of this. The parent who reads aloud to her child from the womb, provides lots of books, and is a role model for the importance of reading might be understandably thrilled when said child becomes an advanced reader. Particularly if teachers are encouraging the child to read ever more "challenging" books, and other parents are all talking about what tremendously advanced material their children are reading. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article says (in the context of homework, but I think there's a clear parallel), "Parents who cannot remember homework when they were in kindergarten now help their five-year-olds with up to 45 minutes a day of sheets filled with literacy and numeracy problems. Even those who doubt the wisdom of homework at such an early age reluctantly go along with it, driven by fear of their child falling behind." I know that the "fear of their child falling behind", in our competitive society, is significant.

BUT, there are problems with the relentless progression towards ever-more-advanced reading material for kids. The short-term problem is that children can miss books that they would enjoy reading. Books about kids their own age, having relatable experiences. Fun books. Books with pictures! Instead, they can end up reading books before they are ready for them, which often leads to not appreciating the books, and never going back. The long-term problem is that if you turn reading into a competition, you run the risk of turning it into a chore. You run the risk of having that bright-eyed five-year-old advanced reader grow, in the blink of an eye, into a fourth-grader who won't read anything beyond what's strictly necessary for homework. And that is a tragedy.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't ever let your kids read books that are above their grade level. If they want to do that, and if you deem that books aren't too mature for them thematically, then by all means let them read ahead. Kids usually have a pretty good notion of what they can manage. If they find a book too difficult, they are likely to get bored with that book, and move on to something else. (As Stacy Dillon commented on my post, "I'm bored" is often code for "I don't understand"). So, I'm not saying that the occasional first grader reading the first Harry Potter book is a problem.

JGS_Reading.jpgWhat I am saying is that it's not a good idea to pressure kids to read above their age level. Reading, especially in the summer, should be fun. It isn't meant to be a race. It's a pastime, a journey, a way to teach kids to love books. You don't instill a life-long love of reading by belittling the eight-year-old who wants to flip through picture books on a rainy afternoon. You don't encourage reading by turning down your nose at Goosebumps or comic books or (for teens) the Twilight books. Just because your seven year old CAN read at a sixth grade level, you don't have to deny her the joy of reading about Clementine, Ramona, Pippi Longstocking or Ivy and Bean. Just as we adults sometimes want to read recreationally, it's ok for kids, too. More than OK, in fact, it's something that can help them to maintain the joy of reading. That's what I think, anyway. And it's what many of the authors of and commenters on the posts above think, too, though I've only been able to capture a small amount of that discussion here. [Image credit: photo by Gracey, shared at MorgueFile]

What do you all think? Have you felt pressure, from teachers or other parents, to keep your children reading above grade level? How do you handle this? Or have you found it to be more of a problem the other way, with your library not letting kids read above grade level?

This post was originally published at Booklights on June 15, 2009. Since Booklights has ended, I am republishing selected posts here, at Jen Robinson's Book Page, with permission from PBS Parents. Booklights was funded by the PBS Kids Raising Readers initiative. All rights reserved.