Booksellers, Publishers Decode Leveled Books for Early Readers

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Booksellers and publishing professionals on the ABC Children’s Institute panel “Understanding and Selling Early Readers and Leveled Books” delved into how booksellers can make sense of leveled reading designations to better help their young customers select books that are appropriate, fun, and conducive to learning.

Moderated by Elizabeth Bluemle, the co-owner of The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vermont, the June 23 panel included Sarah Cuadra, a teacher for the gifted and talented and the owner of The Storybook Garden in Weslaco, Texas; Susan Kusel, a librarian and a children’s bookseller at [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey; Kathy Faber, vice president of children’s sales at HarperCollins Children’s Books; and Annette Hughes, director of national accounts at Scholastic.

At HarperCollins Children’s Books, Faber said, a leveled book is created when an editor recognizes a manuscript with the familiar language patterns, like repetition, representative of leveled readers. The publisher has also taken well-loved characters from previous children’s series and devised new stories in the leveled reading format.

For Scholastic, Hughes said, mainly “what we are looking for is something that can deliver a really fun experience but in a very structured short time.” Faber agreed, saying, “The overall thing is to not make it a frustrating experience for the child.”

Booksellers who want to sell and recommend leveled books to their customers do face problems, however: for one, a lack of standardization in the different leveling systems used by publishers and the various early reader guidelines used in schools can make it difficult to parse the different level designations.

The Lexile Framework for Reading and the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System were created to help bring consistency to leveling for all books from all publishers. The Lexile measure of a book refers to its text difficulty only, in terms of word frequency and sentence length, and does not address the content of the book. Fountas & Pinnell (F&P), which assesses reading levels through eighth grade only, is based on broader assessment of text.

The F&P system, which assigns levels from A through Z (with A being beginning reading in kindergarten and Z representing competencies at the middle and secondary school level), considers sentence length, word length, complexity of letter-sound patterns, layout, structure and organization of story and plot, illustrations, and theme.

However these means of assessment can trip up parents, who often think the guidelines are written in stone. Cuadra said she sees adults pressuring children to read at a specific grade level based on standardized test results, even if the level of comprehension or the humor of the book may be beyond that child. It is important for kids to know that they can choose whatever book they want, she said. Hughes agreed, adding that although leveling is helpful, being overly strict about leveling can impede the growth of a healthy reader.

“I think we all share a desire to move away from strict interpretation of those levels and let kids find the books that they like. Even if they are tired and want to go down to the Pre-K level to read about sharks, they are still picking up a book,” said Hughes. “They are still having that great experience…We are looking at building readers.”

At The Flying Pig, Bluemle uses what she calls “the three word test.” If a child reads one page and there are three words on the page that he or she doesn’t know or can’t figure out from the story, then the book is probably going to be a struggle and not a fun read for the child.

When evaluating an early reader to purchase for [words], Kusel said that she is obsessed with what the page looks like. “I want to see the font and the size of the font and the layout of the page… Sometimes picture books can also be used as beginning readers, and you can see that right away when you open the book,” she explained.

Another hurdle for booksellers can be finding books that are designed for the earliest reading stages, since these books do not often receive Lexile or F&P designations and are mostly sold by educational publishers. Bluemle suggested booksellers use educational publishers licensed to sell to the trade to find phonics box sets, which often contain books at levels equivalent to A through D in the F&P system.

The three booksellers on the panel each organize their collections of leveled readers in different ways: Cuadra keeps her early reader collection organized by publisher; Bluemle utilizes spinners to showcase different series; and Kusel has created beginning, intermediate, and advanced sections, based on the system she has used in her career as a children’s librarian.

Bluemle said stores often shelve early reader books by publisher, but some will organize by level and, within that, alphabetize by author; others will shelve books together by series and alphabetize those series by author. The latter method looks attractive on the shelf, but can be difficult for customers looking for a single title who do not know what series it is part of, said Bluemle.

To learn more about leveled readers, there are numerous resources that booksellers can use. A chart from Learning A-Z illustrates how different leveling systems correlate to one another in terms of text complexity. Booksellers can also visit Scholastic Book Wizard, a search engine that shows books by multiple publishers and their leveling systems. Stores can also ask their publisher sales reps about their options, or visit publisher websites to download reading guides.

When ordering leveled readers, booksellers can make use of award lists such as those for the Association of Library Service for Children’s Theodor Seuss Geisel Award; the Maryland Library Association’s Blue Crab Young Reader Awards; and the Children and Young Adult Bloggers’ Literacy Awards, known as the CYBILS. Kusel also suggested consulting the Guessing Geisel blog.

As both a bookseller and an educator, Cuadra said she has found that it is important to know about the process of learning to read. “You don’t have to be an expert but at least understand the stages of reading,” she said.

Booksellers can find a local certified academic language therapist to explain the process to them or to present an informational night in-store for interested parents, Cuadra added.

To conclude, Faber said that publishing early readers and leveled books is above all about creating readers.

“At HarperCollins, we strive to create really fun stories with great characters that fit within these crazy requirements that are all over the place,” she said. “Ultimately, we just want to create readers: we want to create readers who love stories.”