Should Books in School Libraries Be Organized by Reading Level?

Should Books in School Libraries Be Organized by Reading Level?

In this article in Knowledge Quest, Georgia librarian Susan Grigsby makes the case for not leveling books in school libraries – for example with Lexile numbers, AR levels, or colored dots. “I believe strongly in teaching independence in book selection,” she says, and creates personal bibliographies for her middle-school students by having them fill out surveys of their interests – mysteries, humor, fantasy, science fiction, action/adventure, historical fiction, romance, or realistic fiction – tell their specific non-fiction interests, and write the titles of books they really love. Grigsby also works with language arts teachers to organize monthly book talks to share books and other materials students might not pick up on their own. 

“To be sure, this commitment results in a lot of extra work for me,” says Grigsby, “but I would rather put the time into teaching independent self-selection than labeling or color-coding books on my shelves.” Technology came to the rescue when the district upgraded its online public access catalog (OPAC) and she taught students how to create customized lists of books based on interest. 

Why does Grigsby feel so strongly about not leveling books? First, because reading levels are “just one factor in a complicated equation,” she says. They don’t address a book’s maturity level and are a crutch in making good decisions about the appropriateness of a title. Second, because when students are interested in a book, they can push through material above their current reading level by using context clues, using deeper thinking, and looking up words in the dictionary – and when they aren’t interested, even an on-level book can seem too difficult. 

And third, students need to be able to navigate any library in the world, and most libraries won’t have leveled bookshelves. What students need outside the walls of school is the ability to know their interests, constantly stretch them, and find just the right book. “When we are able to set students free to find materials appropriate to their tasks, appropriate to their reading levels, and appropriate to their interests,” Grigsby concludes, “we are contributing to a wonderful story indeed.” 

“The Story Is More Important Than the Words: A Portrait of a Reader-Focused Library Program” by Susan Grigsby in Knowledge Quest, September/October 2014 (Vol. 43, #1, p. 22-28); Grigsby can be reached at

From the Marshall Memo #553

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