“Read at your level.” What the hell does that mean?

Disclaimer:  This post is not directed at teachers, but those making the rules.

“Read at your level.”  I can’t even comprehend that sentence.

What does it mean, oh wise educators rule makers?  Is that your way of telling kids not to learn more than we think they should?  Don’t expand yourself?  Don’t excel because you might make another student look bad?  I’m confuzzled.

I remember as a child my teachers encouraging us to read beyond our grade level.  They wanted us to strive for more than See Spot Run.  My mom read Heidi to me when I was five years old.  I read it by myself at the age of 7.  Soon after that, I read Call of the Wild and White Fang.  I was 8 years old.  A Wrinkle in Time soon followed.  By the time I reached 7th grade, I’d read Ulysses, Homer, The Grapes of Wrath (some of which I didn’t understand at the time), and Great Expectations.  By my sophomore year in high school, I had read Tolstoy, Tolkien, Ayn Rand, Hemingway, Frank Yerby, Twain and many others.  I had an insatiable thirst for books and was never content at ‘reading at my level’.

Can someone please explain to me what ‘read at your level’ means, and who determines such nonsense?  Sure, we all have to start somewhere, but by the time a kid leaves 1st grade, unless they have a learning difficulty, they should have the basics of reading down.  It then becomes a matter of the child learning new words and what they mean and developing comprehension (which comes from more reading).  Of course, grammar, and punctuation follow, but I have to tell you , I learned more words and how to use and write them from reading than I ever did from tests.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors in the past year or so tell authors not to put big words in YA novels because teens don’t want to stop and look up what a word means.  Say what???  As a child, my teachers encouraged us to keep a dictionary at our side when we read. They encouraged us to increase our vocabulary, to learn how words are used. I am thunderstruck that some teachers nowadays not only don’t encourage the use of dictionaries and thesauruses, but discourage young people to read books that are not suitable to their grade level.  Really?  This is the most insane, idiotic notion I think I’ve ever heard.  Hey, you school system, core curriculum weirdos, please explain?  Do you want our kids to not strive beyond their comfort zones?  Do you really want them to go unchallenged?  Are you trying to keep them ‘dumbed down’?  Do you know there are studies out there that show struggling readers improve their comprehension and reading skills when placed with more advanced readers?

I’m not saying kids need to stray totally out of their comfort zone, and I’m not talking about struggling readers.  That’s where staying in your comfort zone and sticking to what you like to read is sooo beneficial.  No, I’m talking about your average kid in school who is told by their teachers not to pick books to read outside their age-appropriate level.


Now, I don’t believe jumping from Old Yeller to books by Frederick Nitche is wise, but kids should always be pushing the envelope when they read. And with dictionaries and thesauruses so readily available on phones, tablets and computers, there is no reason why kids shouldn’t be encouraged to look up a word or two they stumble upon while reading.

So, parents, go on and keep reading age-appropriate books to your little one, but every now and then throw in The Hobbit, Great Expectations, Harry Potter or Watership Down. Expand their minds.  Feed their imaginations.  Increase their vocabulary.  Shower them with your love for the written words.  Don’t dumb them down.  They’ll thank you later when they’re graduating at the top of their class, with honors coming out of their ying yangs.

“Read at your level?”  Ha!  Never!

So, what do you think?  What was the most difficult book you read as a child?

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20 thoughts on ““Read at your level.” What the hell does that mean?

  1. Freakin excellent post!
    I agree wholeheartedly.
    I love books (surprise, surprise) and that love has continued from when I was very young. I don’t have many memories of being read to, but when my mother last came to visit she brought a selection of books that she clearly had read to me when I was younger because I remembered them. I remembered the magic of the stories and the characters and the voices come to life.
    That is one of the best gifts my parents gave me and it keeps on giving.

    I have a friend that keeps buying my boys books. They are nowhere near ‘age appropriate’ but she doesn’t care. Neither do I. Because how are they going to learn if they aren’t challenged? If they aren’t allowed to expand and test and experiment and grow? They won’t. They can’t!

    I must admit, in recent weeks I’ve kept to the books marked out as ‘age appropriate’ because that’s what I happen to have. But my boys are smarter than that. They’re 21 months and can read whole numbers out of the phone book. So… I’ll be cracking out some far more interesting stories in bedtimes and reading times to come.
    And they’ll love it – they already adore books! I know we’ll enjoy stretching ourselves that little bit further.


    1. And as parents, that’s what we’re supposed to do. I think it’s great that they know their numbers at such an early age!! Freaking awesome, mom!!! Keep up the good work.


  2. Funny. My Oldest Dude is in 7th but reads at a college level. That’s probably because I only censored for content, not for grade-level. In his school they actually encourage kids to read a few grades higher, which I think is great. My know it all held up his hand and said “Well, then what am I supposed to read then.” The teacher said. “Ummm, I guess just do whatever you are doing.” Funny. I finally have middle dude reading. Littlest is a tussle at times.

    When I was in school, I can’t really remember reading much. I guess Dragon’s Lance may have been above my level. And Dragon Riders of Pern. The Wheel of Time, which I picked up as a teen, was probably rated pretty high, mostly because of the length.


  3. I’ve been an educator for 13 years, and I’ve never seen this happening. Yes, they take a computerized test once a month in elementary school that gives them a range of reading ability, but this is so they WILL be successful. We always tell them they can go ABOVE their zone, but NEVER below. If they read a book above their level and choose to take an AR test on it and then fail said test, it shows they didn’t really ‘read’ it because they didn’t comprehend the material. Then we tell them to stay within their range until they get their average back up to 85% and then they can try to go above their level again. Keep in mind that their zone usually covers about 3 grade levels. This is my first year in middle school, but from what I can see, the students are at the point they can read whatever they want on their own. Yes, we have to use certain books in our curriculum for class read alouds, but this is just so teachers aren’t reading books to their classes that they’ve already read before. As far as looking up words, why would you think a teacher is discouraging the use of dictionaries? We all have a class set at my school and utilize them on a daily basis. Electronics still aren’t allowed (THANK GOD–don’t get me started on that can of worms), so they can’t use their phones and stuff to look up words. I’m really tried of the blame game. Most of us are overworked and underpaid and will do ANYTHING to make sure a child is being successful. I’m sorry if that wasn’t the case with your own children, but at least God gave them you to foster their love of reading. Unfortunately, far too many parents don’t read for pleasure themselves and set a bad example for their kids.


    1. It’s nice to know that your school district is progressing, Jamie. Pinellas County schools could learn a lesson. I was talking to a parent yesterday and she was complaining about this same thing with her 5th grader. They wouldn’t let him read the 4th Harry Potter because it wasn’t among the ‘approved’ books and it was above his ‘grade level’. It is what spurred me into writing this post. I truly didn’t mean to offend any teachers, Maybe this is an inherent issue in my county alone.

      As to the dictionary thing, I have to tell you this story. At an open house when my daughter was in 5th grade, a parent was disgruntled because her son got upset that he asked the teacher what a word meant and she told him to look it up in the dictionary. The child said he didn’t know how to look words up in the dictionary, so the teacher stopped the class and showed kids how to use a dictionary. I thought that was brilliant. The kid, however, went home and told his mom that the teacher made fun of him and called him out in class for being stupid when all he wanted was to know what a word meant. The teacher told us that night that she will always tell the student the meaning of a word and she apologized for any discomfort she placed upon the child. She said that dictionaries are in the room for those who want to use them, but she would no longer make it a habit to tell the kids to look up a word. I felt so bad for this teacher. Throughout the year I asked my daughter if the teacher ever made her look up a word and she said no, that she wasn’t allowed to tell kids to do that. She did say that the teacher would look up a word and tell the class what it meant, but she never sent the kids to a dictionary. I thought it was an isolated incident but I could tell you horror stories of what I hear going on behind the scenes at elementary and middle schools in my school district. It’s very sad.


  4. As an education support staffer, I have to say that I don’t know what your tag line means, either. Without context, I can’t judge it. However, it sounds to me like “read at level” is telling kids not to read something easier than what they can actually handle. In other words, to not slack off.

    I have never witnessed a teacher telling bright students not to read above level. Most teachers celebrate how bright their students are. It baffles me that anyone would assume teachers don’t want their bright students to tackle challenging material.

    But, for every bright student there are two who are so far below what you’d expect for grade level that they’ve been sent to me in the resource room for help. Others, especially as they get into high school, simply give up trying to read.

    For every set of parents who are involved and encourage their kids to read, there are two sets who ignore such accomplishment in favor of other things, such as athletics, or whose families are in such turmoil that homework of any kind is a lost cause.

    Before you assume the worse of teachers, I urge you to spend some time volunteering in your neighborhood school. Get familiar with reading education, and don’t jump to conclusions based on three words with no context.


    1. Thanks for the weigh-in Deby. As a little background, I live in Florida and I have witnessed with my own children teachers telling them not to read books above their Lexile and grade-level. I have had many parent-teacher conferences with said teachers and they have explained their hands are tied due to Florida curriculum. They have told me that the State wants to keep children on the same level as reading due to the ‘no child left behind” act. While they secretly love these students who show initiative and excellent reading skills, they have to stay within curriculum guidelines, therefore cannot promote outward signs of excellence.

      I think this is ridiculous and I want to know who the “educators” are that are trying to assimilate our kids to make them all think the same and on the same level because of a few that might get left behind.

      As I stated a couple of times, there are children who have difficulty reading. My post was not directed at them. It’s directed at those kids like mine, who, when in 6th grade, wanted to read “Of Mice and Men” and was told by their teacher that they could read it on their own, but it would not count toward their Lexile reading count because it was above their reading level. They were punished because they wanted to read more challenging books. As a parent, this is unexeptable to me.

      Several school districts in Florida have gone so far as to prohibit teachers from giving grades lower than a 50 because they don’t want kids to feel picked on or stupid. The state of our education in Florida is crumbling, and it has nothing to do with the excellent, overworked teachers, but the powers that be who dictate how teachers should teach.

      I have sat in classrooms. I have seen what teachers deal with every day, day in and day out. I know teachers who cry at the end of the day because some foul-mouthed kid called them horrible names or told them they were terrible people. I know teachers have to deal with fights and behavioral issues. I get it. I also feel the joy when teachers come across those special kids that want to learn. But for a teacher to tell a child NOT to read a book because they won’t get credit for it based on school curriculum guidelines and Lexile levels…I’m sorry, that is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard and is the basis for my post. No offense was intended toward teachers.


      1. Never mind my question. You answered this here. I would have been hopping mad if that ever happened to one of my kids.

        In our schools up here where the Yanks live, all books are given a numerical difficulty rating, and kids get credit for reading a certain number of points. If they reach different point levels, and test to prove they read the books, there are incentives. The harder the books, the more points, so it is a wiser use of their time to read harder books. Pretty sneaky.


  5. Very well written. I never limited my son. I read to him a lot when he was little and in 1st grade, he was reading Harry Potter. A lot of the words were beyond him but he refused to let the book defeat him. He also refused help from mom if he didn’t understand the word. He wanted to figure it out on his own. Because I had reading in my household and started him early, he was always above his grade level. I think it helps kids achieve more.


    1. Good for you and him. I didn’t want my mom helping me, either. I had to figure it out on my own. And I think they do achieve more when their reading skills are higher. Of course, I would never begrudge a child with reading problems or learning difficulties. That’s a whole different can of worms, but for average readers, I just think this approach is teaching our kids to be mentally lazy. Drives me batty.


  6. Hammer hits nail, Jenny. Thank you so much for sharing this on my blog. It made an excellent extension to the conversation.

    Interestingly enough, many of the authors you listed above were the same ones I explored as a youth. My most difficult reads were “War and Peace” and “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” I read both during tenth grade and both were disapproved of by my tenth grade English teacher for precisely this reason.



  7. I read a lot of “age-inappropriate” poetry as a child–Elliot, Yeats, Coleridge, Wilde, Millay–and I believe that’s a big part of what fostered my love for language. I didn’t always understand what I read, but the words were so beautiful.


    1. It just boggles my mind when I look at where our education is going in this country. I feel so bad for the really great teachers out there whose hands are tied by the school systems. In this case, it really is up to the parents to establish reading habits at an early age because our public schools aren’t providing what they need.


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