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It’s Time to Break Down our Reading Boxes

In the third grade, my daughter read and loved Fudge by Judy Blume.  So I asked her if she wanted to read Double Fudge, and she looked at me and said, “Oh I am not allowed because it is above my level.”  I had a very visceral reaction to this reply.  My first thought was, who the heck is telling my daughter that she can’t read something – isn’t that my job?  Then I moved on to the, why would we tell a kid they couldn’t read something they wanted to read?

The AR Box

It turns out that she wasn’t allowed to read it according to her teacher because they were doing AR (accelerated reader) and it was leveled higher than what her grade level was. I tried to explain to her that she could read it, of course, but the truth was that if she wanted to stay on track to get the number of AR points that she needed for school then there wasn’t a lot of time for any non-AR reading. Which is when I decided that I hated AR as I sat there and watched it suck the joy out of reading from my child.

For 3 years now I have watched her scramble to find ways to get a certain number of points. I have watched her suffer miserably as she read utter crap to get those last 2 points that she needed in 2 days time. I have watched her pick up a book around our house with a fiery, burning interest in her eyes only to see her put it back down again because it’s not on the AR list. Or it’s not on “her level”.

Then I learned that they had “Reading Clubs.” What this means is that they can read say a Nancy Drew book, but they can only read 3 and then they have to move on to a different reading club. Magic Tree Houses, A to Z Mysteries, etc. So if you find a series you really, really like, you can only read 3 of them. This rule is, I’m sure, designed to get readers to try a wide variety of books. What it does is give the illusion of free choice – because as we know being able to select your reading materials increases you enjoyment of reading – while really only gives kids a limited reading choice. Plus, it creates frustrating reading experiences while kids find series that they want to read but are forced to move on to different choices to meet outside demands. More boxes.

Read. Read for fun. Read all the time we say.  And then we go and put readers in boxes and suck all the joy out of reading.

This is a girl book. This is a boy book.  This book is above your level.  This book is below your level.  Tons of boxes.

The Big Box of Reading Levels

The other day a mother came in and asked where the books for 3rd graders are. Well, we don’t have a section of books for 3rd graders. We have a large selection of books for Middle Grade readers (approximately ages 8 through 12ish).  She wanted to know why we didn’t put stickers on the spines that said 3RD GRADE. So we had a chat. You see, not all 3rd graders are alike. They don’t all read at the same level. They don’t all like the same things. And can you imagine if we grade levelled all of our books what it would be like for that 3rd grader caught reading a book that said 1st grade on the spine. Actually, I can assure you they probably just wouldn’t be caught carrying around a book.

The Gender Box

This is also true of boys and girls. We like to talk about what “boys” read and what “girls” read. A family was in the other day selecting some Bluebonnet books off the list to read. On one of the covers was a boy, so she kind of cast the cover aside and said, “This is a boy book.” “Actually,” I said, “There are no boy books or girl books. There are just books. Books are about life, our world. They help us to learn about the lives of different people, the validate our experiences and emotions, the broaden our view of the world.” She paused, “That’s true,” she said. But they didn’t check out the “boy book”. But they did consider it, where they wouldn’t before.

The Reading Must Be Educational Box, i.e. “Good Books” Box (see also, quality books or literature or whatever term you choose to use to denote “quality”)

Another mom came in and wanted classics for her 7 year old daughter. She didn’t want her reading any of that “crap”. She really wanted her daughter to develop a large vocabulary. “The truth is,” I said, “reading is about more than learning new words. If your daughter likes to read Magic Rainbow Fairy Pixie Dust books, she is learning about relationships and how to navigate them, she is learning decision making, she is learning about cause and effect, she is learning about problem solving, she is learning about creative thinking . . . books are about so much more than big vocabulary words.” This mother was very receptive and I was able to get her to check out some books that her daughter was actually interested in reading instead of making her try and read Moby Dick in the 1st.

Boxes, Boxes Everywhere

Cute Puppy Alert!

In this world, I have noticed, we are so interested in putting people in our boxes. We want to make them smaller than they really are. We want to label them. He goes in the boxes marked “boy”, “jock” and “angry”. She goes in the box marked “girl”, “slut”, and “depressed”. As if we aren’t complicated creatures. As if we aren’t fluid and changing. Here is some fancy psychology talk for you. Piaget talks about the idea of assimilation and accommodation. When we are little, before we know much of the world, we see an animal and think CUTE PUPPY. Because we know what a puppy is so every other hairy, four-legged creature is a puppy in our small, limited mental capacity. But as we grow and our view of the world expands, we begin to realize that not all four-legged creatures are puppies so we get more and more boxes to label things. There are puppies and kitties and bears – oh my! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). It’s time to grow up and change the way we view readers.

Less Boxes, More Individuals

But when it comes to looking at people, the people standing in front of us, shouldn’t we stop putting them in boxes and see them as individuals? The correct answer here is yes! I am a girl and my daughter is a girl and really the only thing we have in common that makes us both girls is that we have these female anatomy bits. She has a sister. They are both girls but that have very little in common. If you put them in a box together based on their female bits you would be very, very wrong and know absolutely nothing about them. And the same is true for boys. Knowing someone’s gender doesn’t tell you what they like to read.

I once had a boy come in and ask for the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I am ashamed to say that I assumed that he was being forced to read it for school. But he wasn’t, he just wanted to read it. And then I got a library director, a man, who loved – and I do mean loved – Harlequin romances. He read them, he collected them, and he goes around speaking about them. If you gave him a number he could tell you what the title and author of that number would be. They didn’t fit in my boxes, so I had to break my boxes down.

Because boxes aren’t helpful. They are limiting. They are based on assumptions, and you know what happens when we assume, right? They are damaging. They make the world smaller when what we are trying to do by promoting reading is make it bigger. They take away choice and put up limits and walls and barriers. They limit discovery.

It’s time to break down our reading boxes. Deal with individuals, not stereotypes or preconceived ideas. Discuss books in terms of themes and writing styles, not genderized audiences, grade levels or AR points. Take the time to really help individual readers select and connect with books that will ignite a passion for reading in them. Make the world bigger.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Read on! AR and other school reading programs seem to do more to kill a child's reading interest than to turn them into successful readers. Reading is a choice, an entertainment choice and an educational choice. Boxes and labels aren't super helpful in creating avid readers. Access to books, a wide variety of books and magazines and audio books will make people fans of reading! Tear down the boxes!

  2. Great article and my sentiments. I'm not as annoyed with programs such as AR as I am with educators who have turned them into something they were never designed for.

  3. At my Tween's school, they have a very public list of how many points each student has. It drives me insane. 1. I think it violates some serious privacy issues and 2. I think it can lead to shame or bullying. So I do see a lot of misuse of the program which I think makes people's feelings against it much stronger. I work at a public library so I don't have any hand in implementing it, but as a mom seeing what it has done to my child's love of reading I loathe and detest it.

    Sorry, strong feelings there. Thank you for your comment. I think this is such an important discussion to be having.

  4. I pump my fist at your comment. Right on! Karen

  5. Such a great information. This is really very helpful for bloggers

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