We were discussing Easy Readers — Levelled Books — in my Rutgers class last week, and my students had been assisgned to cover the waterfront. That is,they each read five books — from the same publisher, at different levels. We then put together a grid examining what all the various levels mean in practice. As a skeleton we used the outline K.T. Horning gives in From Cover to Cover, where she specifies the precise range of letters, words, font sizes, and uses of type and art suited to each one of three levels. The short answer is that the books do not conform to her rules, nor — and this is more important — do they match up. Instead we found that each publisher has its own definition — are surely rationale — for what makes a 1, 2, or 3 (or 4, 5, or beginning 1 versus 1). This apparent system with the clear logic of ratings actually creates great confusion. Of course a publisher can say whatever it wants — the ratings are not handed out by a Czar of Reading, they are set by each house, for its own reasons. But the very fact that they sit there with the apparent clarity of a countdown (or count up) breeds confusion.
For my students, most of whom are training to be librarians, or already work in libraries, the rating mess is an opportunity. So long as they know, they can match a child and a book, ignoring what the numbers say — or, as one student said, applying the kind of knowledge many women bring to buying clothes — “a Size X from this Company is really a Size Y from that one.” Teachers also often have that bred-by-experience sense of what the ratings mean book by book and can safely ignore what it says on the cover. But parents, especially those buying in chain stores, do not have that support of comfort. And parents face the particular problem that relates to this blog: interest.
As we all know, the motivated child will work to read something s/he wants to read — whether it has multisyllabic dinosaur names or only three to five letter words about pets. Motivation turns the whole rating scheme upside down yet again — even if there were a widely accepted system. The numbers probably do give some direction and comfort to kids — a sense of belonging and a goal, a mission to rise. And we clearly detected a pattern in some of the books which suggested that the publisher’s strategy is to make them all so simple that a kids can be pleased to be reading a 2 like her classmates, even if her 2 would be a 1 for any other publisher. That may be a trick (again the analogy is to what one student called “vanity sizes” in dresses) but it plays to the desire of students who are making the transition into reading to know where they are, where they are going, and what is ahead.
It reminds me of buying wine — all of the Robert Parker 90s and Wine Spectator 89s — you have to know enough to recognize what the terms and ratings mean, otherwise the apparent clarity of the numbers only creates more confusion.