The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 107 Transcript

See all podcast episodes.

This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to Episode 107 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I interview Jen Serravallo about the best ways to use leveled texts in the classroom.

A few weeks ago, a teacher named Isabelle O’Kane sent me a direct message on Twitter. She had been reading a debate that was raging all over social media, and she wondered if it was something I might want to write about. The debate took place in response to a single tweet sent out by reading experts Fountas & Pinnell: Their tweet read as follows: “The classroom library should NOT be organized according to level, but according to categories such as topic, author, illustrator, genre, and award-winning books.”

Teachers responded to the tweet from all directions: Some shouted hallelujah, because it supported what they were already doing. Other people agreed, but argued that their hands were tied because administration required leveled libraries. Quite a few insisted that the best approach was to do both; yes, students should be able to seek out books based on interest, but without levels, how would they ever find appropriate books on their own? And some threw up their hands entirely, wondering if a single, clear answer was ever going to present itself.

Because my training and classroom work has all been with students in grade 6 and above, I don’t have a lot of experience or knowledge on this topic, but it definitely seemed like something teachers needed help with.

So it was pretty serendipitous when literacy expert Jen Serravallo contacted me right around that time about her new book, Understanding Texts & Readers: Responsive Comprehension Instruction with Leveled Texts. In the book, Serravallo takes a deep dive into the question of how best to match texts to readers. She starts with a discussion of why we have leveled texts to begin with, what their original purpose was, and the missteps we often make as teachers when using them. Then she explores the levels themselves—for fiction and non-fiction—and unpacks the characteristics to look for in each one. Finally, she brings it all together, showing teachers how to combine their knowledge of text levels and students to assess student comprehension, set goals, and match students with books that are just right for them.

In our conversation, we talk about the mistakes a lot of teachers and administrators make in how they use leveled texts, and how, in an ideal classroom, they should be using them.

Support for today’s show comes from Microsoft. Over the past few years, Microsoft has added some really impressive accessibility tools to its products, like Immersive Reader, which allows users in OneNote, Word and Outlook to read distraction-free, with adjustable spacing, limited line visibility, a picture dictionary, and the ability to hear any text read aloud to them. Or Microsoft Translator, which sends real-time subtitles in 20 different languages right to students’ phones while the teacher presents from a PowerPoint. To learn more about all the incredible things Microsoft is doing to make learning accessible to everyone, visit

I’d also like to thank our other sponsor, Peergrade. Peergrade is a platform that makes it easy to facilitate peer review in your classroom. Students review each other’s work, while Peergrade takes care of anonymously assigning reviewers and delivering all the relevant insights to teachers. With Peergrade, students learn to think critically and take ownership of their learning. They also learn to write kind and useful feedback for their peers. Peergrade is free to use for teachers and students. And now, Cult of Pedagogy listeners can get 3 months of Peergrade Pro free of charge! Just sign up for a free 30-day trial, then redeem the code CULT to extend that free trial to 3 months. To learn more about Peergrade visit

The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast is part of the Education Podcast Network. The EPN family now includes 25 different podcasts, and each one is focused on education. Check out all of the EPN podcasts at

Finally, I want to thank you, as always for the reviews you’ve left for this podcast on iTunes. These reviews help other people discover this podcast, so if you’ve been listening and think other people would like the show, take a few minutes to go over to iTunes and leave a review. Thanks so much.

Okay, here’s my interview with Jen Serravallo.

GONZALEZ: What got you wanting to write this book in the first place, what prompted you to think that this book was a necessary part of the world of early reading?

SERRAVALLO: It’s a good question. What’s in this book is not something I learned in college. Even in my yearlong reading methods class, they didn’t teach us this really. They taught us, you know, how to do a lesson or how to read aloud to kids, but they didn’t teach us, this to me is the content of what it means to teach reading, especially elementary school age through middle school age kids. And without this knowledge, I think that sometimes teachers feel like they’re a little in the dark about what exactly is the right strategy to teach each kid each day. I used to work in New York City public schools, I had classes of 32, 34 kids, I mean huge classes, and the range of reading ability in my class was several grade levels. I mean it could be in a third-grade class, kids ranging from first-grade reading level to fourth-grade reading level. And with more and more diverse classes, it’s very hard to just go about teaching the way I was taught reading as a child, which was everybody got the same book and we all just sort of slogged through it, snail’s pace, underlining vocabulary words and defining them in a notebook.


SERRAVALLO: And the teacher would talk to us about what we were reading. It’s just very clear that that’s not meeting everyone’s needs. So I did a lot of studying, I did a lot of learning at the reading and writing project where I used to work, I did a ton of reading, I’ve gone to Fountas and Pinnell’s work who are masters in the world of leveled texts, and I learned a lot about what to expect of books and what to expect of readers. And I did a couple years of pilot studies where I asked kids to read whole chapter books, respond to questions, and I used their responses to create these learning progressions or these skill progressions. It was all that work that helped me feel more sure-footed in the classroom. It helped me feel like I can, most of what I do is I visit classrooms and I teach in front of an audience of teachers. I’m teaching kids I’ve never met before, reading books that sometimes I haven’t read, and I usually find an appropriate strategy to teach them, because I have in my mind these expectations of what to expect of the books and then what to expect of readers. So I wanted to share this with teachers, this information that unfortunately many people didn’t get in their training programs that I believe is essential information in order to teach reading well.

GONZALEZ: You know, and it could not have come at a better time, because just a few days, right around the time that you contacted me, somebody else contacted me and said look, there’s this big debate raging on Instagram right now about classroom libraries and how some, Fountas and Pinnell said we shouldn’t be leveling our classroom libraries, and then there’s a bunch of teachers saying, well, my administrators tell us we have to level our classroom libraries, and then I get on Facebook and I see parents saying, “My daughter is supposed to only choose a book from Level P for her book report. She’s not allowed to go up or down.” And the parent is so frustrated because there’s — and I’m thinking, there’s so much confusion about —


GONZALEZ: — how to use leveled texts and then along you came with a book that’s basically all about clearing up the confusion, and it’s really, I think, a very reasonable approach, because you’re not saying all of anything, you’re not saying, “only ever do this or only ever do that.” And I think it’s such a nice balanced approach that I think it’s going to come as a real relief to teachers.

SERRAVALLO: Thank you for saying that, and thank you for understanding that, and I think yeah, these little one-sentence soundbites about leveled texts is I think maybe where we get into a little bit of trouble. So I was very careful to provide context and background and research and timelines so that I explain my approach to it, and I explain why I came to this conclusion.


SERRAVALLO: Through experience, of course, but also through a lot of research and knowledge of history. And then I get past that part pretty quickly and move into a lot of practical information about how to use them well, how to use levels well in the classroom.



GONZALEZ: So yeah, and actually that was kind of where I thought we should start, just really quickly, because I know most people listening just want to know, “What do I do, and what do I not do?” But I thought, I found the section on the history of leveled texts to just be pretty interesting for people to have some perspective on how we even have leveled texts, what do we mean we say leveled texts and what was their original purpose? So just a quick overview of that would be really helpful.

SERRAVALLO: Sure. I’m really glad that you found that interesting, because I totally geeked out over that spread. Those two pages with the timeline, the historical timeline.


SERRAVALLO: I probably spent more time on those two pages than anything else in the whole book. So first, I think, you know, when some of us think about leveled texts, we might think about in history back when they had decodable readers like Dick and Jane, which were written for, to fit into a level, or the SRA kits, I don’t know if you used these in childhood but —

GONZALEZ: I totally remember SRA.

SERRAVALLO: Yeah, we had like, I don’t know, to get to turquoise or something was the goal by the end of the year, right?


SERRAVALLO: And those were early attempts at trying to differentiate in the classroom, to try to manage multi-level texts with the acknowledgement that not all readers in the class are ready for the same book on the same day.


SERRAVALLO: So I think that was an effort at doing that, but what’s happened is through research we realized that those decodable texts don’t actually offer kids real language structures or really interesting storylines.


SERRAVALLO: And kids were not able to read those with as much comprehension as real children’s literature, so then I think the shift came, how can we start to level real children’s literature? And we have different ways to level books and therefore any text can be a level text if it’s evaluated. There’s computer evaluations that are known as quantitative leveling, so people are probably most familiar with Lexile, and the computer measures thing, you know you put the text into a computer, and the computer spits out a number level and it’s counting things. It’s counting how many words are in the text, how many words are in a sentence, how many syllables or letters are in each word, how often the same word shows up over and over again. So that’s quantitative. Qualitative leveling has to be done by a human, so an actual person has to read the text, and they’re evaluating it based on things like what kinds of topics are addressed in the text? What are the themes and are they easily inferred, or does the reader have to do a lot of work to infer it? What’s the character development like? How many main ideas are in the nonfiction text? The structure of the text, the vocabulary, things that you can really only evaluate because you’re reading it, you’re thinking about it.


SERRAVALLO: So one of the most common qualitative leveling systems is the Fountas and Pinnell Text Level Gradient. So one of the things that happened, Marie Clay created this reading recovery program and Fountas and Pinnell studied the work of Marie Clay and they had their own institute at Lesley University and they’re deep experts on leveling, and they took these initial reading and recovery levels and expanded them to an A through Z alphabetic leveling system and they believe that this leveling system is most helpful to level text for the purpose of guided reading for — there’s all this confusion about what “guided reading” is too, so I’ll just define that quickly. Guided reading, by their definition, is a small group lesson led by a teacher where the kids are reading a text selected by the teacher at an instructional level, so it’s a level above what kids could handle on their own. And the teacher provides a lot of guidance and support and coaching and prompting to help the children through what would otherwise be a too-challenging text for them.


SERRAVALLO: So they really believe, and the reason why they’re sending out messages about not leveling the classroom library, is because they really believe that the independent reading portion of the reading block is not the instructional time, guided reading is the instructional time. But on the other side or another perspective, I guess I should say, are the reading workshop people. So I spent eight years at the reading and writing project with Lucy Calkins and there we spent a lot of time studying the research of Richard Allington who says that kids need to be able to read text with fluency, accuracy and comprehension to get the most benefit out of their reading time and that kids need a lot of time spent reading, a high volume of reading, so they need to be successful and they need to read a lot. And so the reading workshop approach is really an approach to instructional-ize independent reading, to say, while kids are selecting their texts and reading independently, the teacher can be engaged in a lot of productive instruction. We can pull small groups with the kids using the books that they’ve chosen themselves. We can confer with kids, we can offer them whole class lessons connected to curriculum, and then they can practice what we teach in the lessons in their books. And so if you think about that perspective, kids are spending a lot of time each day in these texts they’ve selected, it’s not going to be as effective if the books are always way too hard for them, and there’s actually research to show that the kids that select way too hard texts are often the struggling readers who need the most time spent with texts that are high success. So I think that some of that confusion is coming around these differing approaches to use of texts in the classroom.


SERRAVALLO: Are the texts being used for instructional-ized independent reading, otherwise known as reading workshop? Or are they being used for guided reading? And maybe that’s part of it.


SERRAVALLO: And then of course the Common Core back in 2012 published this whole thing about text complexity in one of their appendices and that got a lot of attention as well and some schools shifted to looking more at Lexiles and at qualitative leveling. So there’s just, there’s a lot to this story obviously.

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SERRAVALLO: But I think it’s important to understand kind of these different perspectives and where people are coming from.

GONZALEZ: And it’s, everybody wants to be doing the right thing, and so —

SERRAVALLO: Of course, yeah.

GONZALEZ: — so when you hear slightly different messages, it can get really confusing. And, you know, when you and I first started talking about this too, my last conversation about this topic was with Pernille Ripp, and we were talking about independent reading, you know, and she was really advocating pretty hard for letting kids kind of pick out whatever they want. And I think the perspective she was coming from though was not to say let them consistently choose stuff that’s way too hard for them.


GONZALEZ: I think she was pushing back on the idea that kids are never allowed to go below their level in some cases, and she said they should be allowed to read picture books if that’s what’s interesting to them. And so, you know, she was really talking about developing a strong love of the act of reading as opposed to kids feeling constantly limited by somebody else’s choice for them. And from what I’ve read in your book, you’re not really pushing back against that approach either, but just if I’m understanding it right, you’re saying that this independent reading time can be so beneficial to them if they’re actually making the right choices for where their abilities are, they can actually be becoming much, much better readers as a result of this time. But if they’re choosing the wrong books over and over again, it’s just going to be frustrating.

SERRAVALLO: That’s right. I totally agree. And I agree with Pernille that we, engagement matters, and if we’re putting books in kids’ hands or saying, “You can only choose from this bin,” that is a misuse of levels, absolutely. And I think teachers need to keep an eye on what kids are selecting and be flexible. So I’m not saying that choosing a text that’s just right always means choosing from a particular level. There are so many variables that we have to consider when we’re helping kids to make text choices. So level is certainly one of them, but levels are meant for books, not for kids. So if we have, if we use levels as sort of a shortcut to know some things about the text, especially when we’re talking about classrooms that have huge classroom libraries, I usually say 1,500 to 2,000 books is the size of a library I want in an elementary classroom. So we can’t expect that most teachers, right, have read all 2,000 books in their classroom library —


SERRAVALLO: — before they’re allowed to begin instruction or begin allowing the kids to choose the books.


SERRAVALLO: So levels could be a shortcut for a way for us to be like, “Oh, this book is kind of like that one,” or “This book is going to have complex characters just like that one did, because they’re both Level O,” right?


SERRAVALLO: But it’s not a way to level a kid, and I think one of the ways that levels get misused is that teachers administer one assessment, it’s usually a short assessment.


SERRAVALLO: It could be a computer assessment that’s a short text with multiple choice, it could be a running record where kids read a selection of a text and answer a few questions. So there’s this one assessment, and then from that they get a level or a level range, and they say to the kids, you can only pick from that level range. But the problem is that’s misunderstanding all of the different variables that kids bring to the table, things like memory, kids that are able to read longer texts are kids who are able to keep track of a story and keep track of the facts in a nonfiction text, and we have to assess that to see how kids are doing.


SERRAVALLO: Things like motivation, prior knowledge, stamina, their command of English, the genre. There’s so many variables. And so I think we need to have, I think we need to be, one of the messages I’m trying to send in the book is we need to look at a couple of different assessments, and we need to account for these variables, and then once we have a sense of about where kids are able to read, we still need to be flexible when they go to choose. So if I have a kid who knows a lot about dinosaurs who typically reads books around Level O-P, if it’s a dinosaur book and he wants to read it, and it’s a Level R or S, maybe that’s okay.


SERRAVALLO: Or a kid that really wants to read a picture book, that’s fine. Reading easier, it’s not going to hurt you.


SERRAVALLO: I read easier all the time.


SERRAVALLO: So I think it’s the lack of flexibility and the lack of accounting for all these other variables that gets us into trouble with limiting kids’ choice, which negatively impacts engagement. So I totally agree with Pernille around that.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. I thought, one of the most interesting parts of the book, it was early on too, where you talked about this one student who was testing at a certain level based on short assessments, but then when she would go to full-length books at that same level, she was constantly miscuing and not able to answer basic comprehension questions, and you sort of, I think if I’m remembering right, you sort of tested that out with other kids, and you found that to be pretty consistent that a lot of kids, when it came to reading a whole book at that level, it was a different story, basically. And the problem with us assessing only short texts is that we don’t have that complete picture, and so kids are not getting out of the independent reading time what they could be.

SERRAVALLO: Exactly, yeah. I mean, and she was a drastic example.


SERRAVALLO: So she was able to read a running record at Level R but a whole text at a Level M. So it’s a huge difference.


SERRAVALLO: And when I did the, I repeated that same assessment and compared results, most kids tended to be around two levels difference.


SERRAVALLO: And it’s funny, when I share this story at workshops or when I’m working with teachers in professional learning, they’ll be nodding along with me while I’m telling this story, and then I ask them to turn and talk and they’re all like, yes, I’ve got kids like that. Or “I’ve been feeling like something’s off for a while, but I just haven’t been able to put my finger on it.” And I think it’s the, yeah, it’s the problem with putting everything into one assessment. I think we need to look at these different variables, look at the kids from these different perspectives.

GONZALEZ: Yeah. So we sort of covered a little bit of the mistakes that we see teachers and administrators making in the way that they use text levels. Let’s see if there’s anything that we didn’t cover. You talked about inflexibility and about leveling readers instead of looking at them as books. Anything else we want to cover in terms of myths or mistakes that you’re sort of seeing widely made right now in classrooms?

SERRAVALLO: I think one other big one. In the last few years I’ve seen a lot of, I work with districts all over the country, and I’ve seen a lot of districts in different states, sometimes it’s called an SGO, student growth objective, SLO, student learning objective, something like that. It’s sort of an accountability measure for the teacher accountability. They say, “You come up with goals for your students, and then we’re going to measure and make sure you met your goals.” And what’s happening a lot is that I find teachers are using levels. Say, “This student’s starting off at an L and is going to end up at a P,” or something like that.


SERRAVALLO: That’s really problematic for all the reasons I mentioned before, that there’s really no point in time when a kid is just a level, just one.

GONZALEZ: Yeah, right.

SERRAVALLO: There’s a real range, and it depends on a lot of other factors, so the practice of sort of reporting a level at any point in time is already a little funky. And then on top of that, what do you think is going to happen when the teacher is supposed to be making a goal by the end of the year? The teacher is going to be pushing the student into harder texts —


SERRAVALLO: — in order to meet the goal, and a lot of times you get kids at the end of the year whose “level”—which already we said kids aren’t a level—but a level’s reported onto the next year’s teacher, and then you’ve just got this kid being pushed through because they can maybe decode the text but not because they’re actually getting everything they can from it in terms of comprehension and meaning making. And that’s one of the other, yeah, big things I’m trying to talk about in the book is what does it look like to really understand a text at this particular level? What is in the book? What are the characters like? What are the themes like, for nonfiction? What are the main ideas like? What’s the vocabulary like? And what does it look like and sound like to really be getting it?


SERRAVALLO: And if the kids are not thinking on that level, why be pushing them into harder and harder books, why not work with them in texts that they choose to help them get more from the texts that they’re reading.

GONZALEZ: Right. I don’t know if this is an accurate leap, but it sort of sounds like in general the problems that you’re seeing more often have to do with kids being forced into books that are just a level or two, a little bit too challenging for them, and instead of that being a good challenge, it’s just a frustrating challenge, and that if you were to take a blunt instrument to the whole system, you would knock everything slightly down a bit just so a kid could be reading more fluently and getting more out of it. Is that too general?

SERRAVALLO: No, I think that’s actually a true conclusion is what I’m seeing is a lot of kids are pushed into books and then forced to read in a particular level or level range, generally that’s too hard for them, and they’re reading superficially.


SERRAVALLO: I mean, that’s fair to say.


SERRAVALLO: And if we could all just back up and say, how can we help kids go deeper? And isn’t it better to think, get kids to think more deeply in a slightly less complex text?

GONZALEZ: Yes, right.

SERRAVALLO: Than to constantly just be getting the gist in a very hard book?


SERRAVALLO: I don’t know. To me I think that would be true.

GONZALEZ: And the thing is too, and based on what I’m reading in your book too, that even this general statement is not something you would say 100 percent of the time, that it would be —


GONZALEZ: It’s great for a kid to be challenged, but with appropriate scaffolding and support. And you had even listed being in a group, a book group with a kid, you know, with other kids, like a literary club with other kids who are reading the same book as a really significant source of support for a challenging book.

SERRAVALLO: That’s right, yeah. So in a classroom, and again, I’m coming from a reader’s workshop perspective. So during independent reading, I want kids to be thinking deeply, to have high levels of engagement, to be able to read for long stretches of time, and I think they’re going to do that best in books that they’re really engaged with, that they have choice in choosing, and that they can read with deep understanding. But like you said, if I’m in a book club, maybe it’s a little bit of a different story because even if alone while I’m reading that text to get ready to talk, I’ve got one understanding. The act of being with peers and being in conversation can lift the level of my comprehension.


SERRAVALLO: Likewise, when teachers are selecting text for instructional purposes, like during a read aloud or perhaps if you’re doing guided reading, that would be a different story too. Like maybe you could go a little higher, a little more challenging because you’ve got that level of support and scaffolding.


SERRAVALLO: Absolutely.

GONZALEZ: Right. So, and I’m going to, the book goes into so much more, and you’ve got these long sections where you really go deep into what every level kind of looks like, the kinds of responses you typically see from a reader who’s able to handle that level, and we’re not getting into any of that, but just in an ideal situation, an ideal classroom, what would it look like if a teacher is using level texts appropriately to support readers?

SERRAVALLO: So I think of levels kind of like a shortcut. I was kind of mentioning a little bit before, but if I have two texts at R, and I’ve read one of them, and I know some things about what’s in an R text, like multiple characters that are well-developed and secondary characters that help bring about change in the main character and multiple themes, flashbacks, foreshadowing. If I know those things about R books, and I’ve read this one R text as sort of my teaching touchstone, then I can expect some things of another R text, even if I haven’t read it. So again, coming from a perspective of somebody who believes in lots of independent reading time with instruction, I’m going to sometimes be sitting down next to a student to confer in a book I’ve never read before. So if I know what’s in that book, because I know what kinds of things to expect of a level, then I know what questions to ask. I know to say not, “What’s a lesson you’re learning?” but, “What are a few themes in this book?” I know to ask, not just, “Tell me about the main character,” but also I know the second character is important, so that’s going to change how I’m questioning this student. It’s also going to change the expected responses I’m going to get from that student. So, for example, if I hear a student responding who’s reading a Level R text, who’s telling me that their character’s really nice and thoughtful and kind to their friends, I know they’re missing something, because in Level R books, characters are well-developed, they’re multi-dimensional, they’ve got strengths and they’ve got flaws.


SERRAVALLO: And that’s going to help me figure out which strategies to offer them and how to support their understanding and helping them to see these different layers of meaning. So again, I think that having this knowledge of text levels helps me with my questions, helps me with my expectations, helps me select my strategies, helps me figure out what goals to focus on for kids. But I also think it can help with text selection, but not exactly how it’s being used now. It’s not to say, “You read Level R books, so only go choose Level R,” I think you can say, “This Level R book was a good fit for you. This book’s going to have similar challenges to the one that you’re reading now, but if you have high motivation or you’re in a book club or you have a lot of background knowledge, be flexible about it.”

GONZALEZ: Well, and that really empowers the kids too to teach them. There was one section where you had talked about how these kids are not always going to be in a leveled classroom library anyway, and so we need to equip them with the skills to be able to go out into a bookstore or a regular public library and choose books that are going to be a good fit for them.

SERRAVALLO: That’s right, that’s right.

GONZALEZ: The conversation that you were just talking about too, that’s one of my favorite sections of the book where you’re talking about maybe things that teachers might say, like, “That book is too hard for you,” or “No, you’re a Level R, don’t read that,” and you have alternative things that a teacher would say that would be just more useful and more helpful to that student as a reader.

SERRAVALLO: Yeah, I read a long time ago, and I re-read it every couple of years, Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words,” which I just, it’s just such a brilliant, slim little book.

GONZALEZ: Yes, mhmm.

SERRAVALLO: That really, for those of your listeners who haven’t read it, it’s a book about considering your language choices and the unintended consequences of those language choices might have, and how slight tweaks in language can have a huge impact on what you’re trying to communicate to kids. So if we want to use levels, and we want kids to be aware of levels, and I think some people are not going to want that, and that’s okay. Like I said, if there’s people out there who don’t feel like there’s a place for levels for independent reading because the only instruction you’re offering is during time when you’re selecting the text, and that might be, so middle teachers who are selecting novels for their class and the independent reading time is really their own time.


SERRAVALLO: Or it might be people who are following more of like a Fountas and Pinnell model where you have guided reading, that’s teacher-selected texts and then independent reading time is a little bit more free choice. I could see why you might not want to talk to kids. Or if you’re somebody who’s read all your children’s books. I do work with some teachers like this, they read every new book that comes out, they’ve read everything in their classroom library. You might feel like, “I don’t need levels, because I know my books wells, I know my kids well, and I can keep an eye on how they’re choosing and redirect them if necessary.”


SERRAVALLO: But if you’re the kind of teacher who feels like yeah, I could use a shortcut. Yeah, I haven’t read all my books. Yeah, it would be helpful for me to know some characteristics of the text so that when I’m talking with kids, I have something to hang my hat on. You have to then be careful about how you’re using level, or how you’re talking about levels with kids. So yeah, instead of saying, you know, this book’s too hard for you, choose from your level, I might say something like, “That book’s going to be harder than what you typically read, so let’s think about how I or your friends can support you as you read if you find that you need it.”


SERRAVALLO: Or instead of saying, “You can’t read that book, it’s too easy for you,” I would say to kids, “I actually have books in my stack that are comfortable —


SERRAVALLO: — and where they offer less challenge, just make sure that if not this week maybe next week you’re choosing some that are going to challenge you a little bit.” Or instead of saying, I hear this a lot, “Yay, you moved up to a Level blank,” you can say, “Do you think you’d like to try some more challenging books? Are the ones that you’re reading starting to feel like you’re not working on your goal as a reader?” So it’s just these slight language tweaks that I think have a really big impact on how kids view levels and really how teachers are using levels.

GONZALEZ: So anybody who has come here looking for a definitive answer about how to definitely use them —


GONZALEZ: No, I think that’s much healthier, though. I really think they need to read the book, because even now you’re talking about setting goals as readers, and that’s a whole other section that you get into in the book in terms of having conferences with them and sort of targeting exactly where they might improve. And to me, it’s so eye-opening. I have no idea how it would be for somebody who’s actually been trained a little bit in this, but if you’re saying you didn’t get this in college, then probably a lot of other people didn’t either.


GONZALEZ: So I don’t know. To me, it seems to make the whole process a lot more doable and less intimidating. Okay. So the million dollar question, I just want to make sure that we cover this. If you were to design, say, a third-grade classroom library, would you put the levels on the outside of the books? How would you organize the books? What would be your dream library?

SERRAVALLO: So in my classroom what I would do is I would actually put levels on the inside front cover. And the reason I’d put them inside is because that way they’re, when a child is holding a book, it’s not like everyone can see the level on the book, so it’s a little bit more private. But I like that having them on the book, because for a teacher, it’s helpful for me to know, like I said, if I haven’t read that book, I can peek at the level and be like, oh yeah, okay. Complex characters in this one.


SERRAVALLO: And I can use that to guide my discussions when I’m working with kids. In my classroom, kids were reading 40, 45 minutes a day. So it was not unusual that I would be sitting down with a student on Monday and by the time I got back around to them on Thursday, they’d read two more books in that time.


SERRAVALLO: So I need to have a quick way to figure out what’s going on with them as a reader and support them with an appropriate strategy. So I would put the level on the inside front cover.

GONZALEZ: Would you then group them by category and by topic?

SERRAVALLO: Yeah, I wouldn’t put them in leveled bins, although I have to be honest, I did used to have them in leveled bins, but I’ve changed my thinking on this after seeing the consequence of what that does to kids’ reading identity. What ends up happening is kids go to the classroom library and they say, “Q. I’m a Q. I’m going to pick a Q book.” And they go to the Q bin and they only look in the Q bin. I would not do that now. I would organize them by topic, by genre, by author, and I think involving the kids in this process would be great, so to having the kids say, “What are you interested in?” If they say, “I love graphic novels,” or “I love ‘Diary of Wimpy Kid,’” you can come up with a bin that says, “If you loved ‘Wimpy Kid,’ you’ll also love — ” and put all the books in there that are going to be like that.


SERRAVALLO: So the first thing kids see when they go to the library is identities. Who am I as a reader, and what am I interested in reading?


SERRAVALLO: And they think about themselves first before they think about level. And then again, this is up to the teacher’s choice, I would let kids know that the level’s on the inside front cover if they want to peek at it.


SERRAVALLO: And the way that I talk to them about that is, you know, these are the kinds of books that you feel successful with or think about a book you’ve read recently that you feel like you really understood it and use it as a shortcut to say, “Oh, this is going to be about as challenging as that other book.


SERRAVALLO: But again, I would talk to kids about motivation. If you really want to read something, maybe it can be harder, or background knowledge, if you know a lot about it, maybe it could be a little harder. If you don’t know a lot about it, maybe you want to read an easier one, that’s easier or a lower level than what you typically read so that you can work your way up to something more challenging in that same topic. So I think it’s okay to talk to kids about it as long as you’re careful about how you talk about it.


SERRAVALLO: And never ever label a child as a level, because that’s a misunderstanding and a misuse of levels. I think kids can understand this perspective, and I think they can handle the information.

GONZALEZ: Right, right. Where can teachers go to learn more from you?

SERRAVALLO: So I have a website,, and I have a blog that I don’t keep up very well, but I also have links to places where I’ve done guest blogging, so all of the guest blogs are all there. I have a podcast called Teachers Ask Jen Serravallo, that’s linked there as well as places where I’ve done guest podcasts like this one. My speaking calendar is there, my books, everything there. On Twitter I’m @jserravallo.


SERRAVALLO: And on Facebook there is a really great Facebook group that you could join called the Reading and Writing Strategies Facebook group, and I pop in there often and answer questions. It’s got 54,000 members, people share things, I did a summer writing camp this summer where I came on every day live and interviewed authors and taught strategies to encourage teachers to write over the summer. So all those videos are there, so that’s a really great resource too.

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Jen. This is going to be so valuable for all kinds of teachers everywhere, and I have a feeling it’s an episode that people are going to be listening to for years after this. So this has been really valuable.

SERRAVALLO: I had such a great time talking with you. Thanks so much for doing this.

For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, visit, click podcast, and choose episode 107. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.