Thinking about Book Levels and Young Readers

A colleague asked me about the conversations that I often have with primary grade teachers about moving young readers.  We have had to address (frequently), the problem of very young readers who can decode and demonstrate literal comprehension of just about anything you put in front of them.

As a school system, we have a “ceiling” in place that provides an upper limit of the level to which we will push a young reader.  Teachers are sorely tempted (thanks to high stakes testing, student performance based teacher-evaluations and the like) to push all students right to that ceiling.  There are a number of reasons why I think that is a poor idea:

As we move up the book levels, the content of the story becomes more mature.  The problems faced by the main character are more “grown up”.  At lower levels, the problems of the character reflect the problems being addressed by the young readers themselves.  At higher levels, the books are written for an older target audience and so the problems/issues are also reflective of those older readers.    I bring some controversial books to the table that are at levels P or Q ish — things where the main character faces more grown up problems — boyfriends, death, puberty etc.  I’m pretty clear with teachers that these are part and parcel of reading at these levels.  None of us want 6-7 year olds reading this — not because they can’t READ it, but because they haven’t lived long enough to do the thinking and processing that goes with these issues.  We as teachers DO NOT want to put these books into the hands of these babies — and if we place them at these reading levels, that’s what we do (there is NO screening out certain books — if we are saying that a child is ready for a particular level, part of what we’re saying is they’re ready for the content that occurs at that level.)  If we place first graders at Level M — they automatically become N, O and P in second grade — Can the teachers really see them handling these topics/issues in the next year?  Then don’t put them at M, because you give the next year’s teacher no where to go.
3.  Think about a bell curve — we’re saying that M is the tippy top of the bell curve —   are these kids really there?  What are we saying then?
4.  Finally, (most of my teachers are pretty on board by this point)  I take the cards with the behaviors to notice and support — we look at what is in an L and and M — Are these children really “all there” — One of the things that happens in first grade (across the universe) is that because so much of the work is about teaching kiddos to “get the words off the page” and establish literal comprehension — its easy to underestimate what above level readers need to do in comprehension.  Draw their attention to the deep work of comprehension at this level.
New thinking:
I’m beginning to look at the CCSS for grade 2 and 3 — since that is where the M benchmark lives (end of second grade, beginning of third grade), we should be expecting the reading skills outlined in the CCSS for that grade — Are these kids there?
So — does that help?? Or make it worse???