Level One Lament

Josie Leavitt - October 25, 2013

The other day I was helping a grandmother select early readers for her granddaughter. She said specifically that she wanted “…Level One books.” I walked over to our spinner full of the early readers and pulled out several level one books from the following publishers: Penguin, Harper, Simon Spotlight, and Scholastic, and found a vast difference between each publisher’s definition of what a level one book.
As the grandma looked at each book I couldn’t help but see the differences, some enormous, between the books. For the first time in a long time (I’m ashamed to admit) I really looked at these and found there is absolutely no consistency with what a level one book is supposed to be. Some were what I would expect: bold, easy to describe pictures with a limited number of words on the page. Each publisher describes what a level one clearly on the back of the book with a range of reading abilities required. Perhaps it’s just me, but I think most of my customer think level one books are for kids who are just learning how to read; these are the easiest books to read. The customer started rejecting book after book because they were too hard.
I’m not sure when we moved from the very simple: “The cat sat on the mat.” of the Bob books. Here are random sentences from four different level one books that highlight the range of language and sentence structure in these books. “Have fun with your balloon,” from Hippo and Rabbit: Brave Like and then,” Let’s go home!” from Clem and Clara Take a Ride to, “Trucks in pink,” from Trucktown. And then finally, this sentence from Fancy Day in Room 1-A: “Lionel makes the points on his crown look like bloody shark teeth.”
I think the differences between these sentences is fairly obvious. It’s clear the sentence from the level one Fancy Nancy book is not only the most complex, but the scariest. As someone who struggled learning how to read, some of these books would have been far too hard for me. Which leads to the inevitable discussion of consistency among the publishers. It’s probably too much to ask that the publishers all have the same sentence structure in each leveled reader.
So, I’ve decided that my job as a bookseller is to know how each publisher treats each leveled reader. Now I know Harper level ones are far more advanced than others’ level ones. This is making me rethink how we shelve the I Can Read spinner. Rather than going alphabetically within each level, I think it makes more sense to shelve by publisher. But then it’s hard for customers to find books, although I have noticed that most parents seem to know which publishers are good for their kids.
Booksellers, how does your store treat the leveled readers?

7 thoughts on “Level One Lament

  1. Carol Chittenden

    We have way too many early readers to fit in the spinner, so we try to have one — sometimes two — shelves with the very simplest ones. We do group them by publisher, and often warn customers about the varied interpretations of “Level 1”.
    For the earliest beginners, my own favorites are the ones by Nora Gaydos, published by Innovative Kids, because they’re very, very systematic and carefully organized, but also they use energetic illustrations to help make an interesting, funny narrative.
    Also excellent, IMHO, are the early levels of We Both Read titles from Treasure Bay.
    Apparently history, alas, are the Real Kids Readers from Millbrook, later folded into Lerner. They use(d) photos and rhyme, and show some real kid emotions, leavened with humor.

    1. Cathy Anderson

      We now shelve all leveled books alphabetically by author in their own section. Not only was there too much variation in what the levels meant, but they got looked at so often, it was hard to keep them organized. This way is somewhat easier, though being so thin, they are difficult to scan on a shelf. Most parents know what their child can read or is ready for, so we give them a few suggestions to start, tell them that the levels mean different things for different publishers, and encourage them to browse. We do separate out the non-fiction early readers on a separate shelf, and have created a section called “after early readers” for those 3rd grade readers not quite ready for no pictures, with the more popular series, like Magic Tree House, on a spinner rack. There is always overlap between all sections in the store – creatively called cross-merchandising – but often confusing!

  2. Melissa Posten

    I love the We Both Read, and there is a great line of early readers from Creative Teaching Press. These are more commonly carried by parent-teacher stores but there’s no reason they wouldn’t work in retail. They have a huge sight word readers series that’s BOB-ish but with colorful pictures. They’re inexpensive and there are a lot of them. They have readers that introduce math concepts and science concepts, and a large number that are also available in Spanish. Before I worked for a wholesaler I’d never heard of them, but they’ve become one of my favorite early reader sets and pretty much the first place I go when I’m asking for something for beginners.

  3. Bonnie Bader

    You’re right — there is a big inconsistency on how publishers level their readers. We even found this within our own house (Penguin), when we embarked on a project to re-level all of our readers. Using a combination of “guided reading” levels (a-p) and “traditional” levels (1-4), all of our readers are now under one imprint: Penguin Young Readers. The readers in our program adhere to strict guidelines, and after re-branding we were left with only a few true level 1 books. Going forward, our mission is to publish as many level 1s as possible — we will have 28 level 1 Penguin Young Readers as of our Fall 2013 list.

  4. Sue Carita

    We, too, have to explain to parents that there is a big variation between publishers as to what constitutes each step in the leveled books. Levels 1 and 2 have their own spinners A third spinner is shared by steps 3-5. All titles are in order alphabetically (by first letter of title according to what is on the spine). Unfortunately some of these books are coming in as hardcovers that do not fit on the spinners! We have them shelved with the Early Chapter Books on regular shelves, where they fit physically but are way too easy to sit with Magic Tree House and Clementine!.

  5. Ann Staman Hollingworth

    I completely agree about the inconsistency with the leveling of trade books.
    Many educational publishers level books systematically, using either qualitative Reading Recovery or Fountas and Pinnell leveling systems, or one of the computerized/quantitative systems (Lexile, for example) made popular with Common Core SS. This works, for the most part, although Scholastic uses a combination of leveling approaches, and often the various levels they provide for certain books are contradictory.

  6. Warren Dew

    As a parent, what I’d like to see is books sorted by Fountas Pinnell level. This would require a little research as publishers often provide the Fountas Pinnell level online but not printed in the book itself.
    This should be true even for books without illustrations. As someone who is working with a daughter who is intelligent but behind on reading, I need books that are Fountas Pinnell F or thereabouts, but which do not have illustrations to distract her.


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