Building Your Child’s Library: Leveled Readers

Leveled Readers versus Leveling Books

I stumbled upon a strange practice while looking at a school curriculum website the other day. Apparently, classrooms are required to have a leveled reading library for students to check out books from. The student is assigned a level, based on one of three+ systems, and then they may choose books at their level for practicing. The children are given freedom to choose their own reading material, while still having books at an appropriate reading level.

Sounds good, right? Except, the books are not leveled in any logical way with regards to introducing phonics and sight words. So a child at a given level could be given a book containing phonics or other linguistic elements that have not yet been introduced, which causes difficulty in reading. The child is indirectly told, “You ought to be able to read this. You must be stupid if you make a mistake or don’t understand.” Simultaneously, the book could have trite, simplistic language that does not engage the student. (One of the criteria for many of the early levels is a “predictable plot.”)  In short, the vast majority of these books are twaddle meant to give the child an easy read, but that are unlikely to actually help the student advance in reading skill.

I do not think that a child will be harmed by being required to read the same stories as everyone else for their reading lessons. I also think that they do need leveled readers coordinated with the phonics and sight words being taught. It is unnecessary to level every single book in your classroom. The other books are for other purposes, such as teaching science or literature. If a child wants to look through a book, then let them. It cannot hurt them. If there is a word they do not understand, they will ask, and in being given the answer, they will learn and grow. Or perhaps they won’t ask, instead guarding their question until the answer can be found through their lessons or other activities. When a person finds the answer on their own, they grow even stronger than when they are given an answer. Insisting that students always choose books “at their level” robs them of this opportunity and leads to stunted intellectual growth.

Conversely, when a student selects a book that is “below their level,” they may be particularly intrigued by the illustrations, or want to read the same books as their classmates. A child who is told that they should never read a book that is too easy will miss out on an entire world of wonderful picture books and lyrical stories. What a horrible evil to rob children of such an opportunity because they are already fluent readers!

In summary, for reading aloud, practicing phonics, and learning how to decode words, a phonics-based leveled reading system is ideal. The selections in the series should be culturally engaging to the student(s), but not at the cost of reducing linguistic complexity and beauty.

Using Leveled Readers to Teach Reading

While a child should be exposed to language well above their reading level by being read to, for those first steps in decoding words it is of utmost importance that they be provided with books that they are capable of reading on their own. It is best to have the material in the books follow a systematic introduction of phonics and sight words. (Yes, you must use both!) You introduce a phonogram, you talk about the rules surrounding that phonogram, and then you let the child practice reading aloud. My very favorite series for this purpose is All About Reading, with the McGuffey Readers and Bob Books tying for a close second. The stories are engaging and the phonics well thought out for all three.

For detailed instruction in reading aloud, the McGuffey Readers are far superior to everything else. I am actually considering adding a learning stream for reading aloud, separate from the phonics/reading/spelling stream, or perhaps as a continuation of that stream. I have met many a child who can read, but who cannot read aloud. Monotone recitation with no or inappropriate pauses is painful to listen to. Completion of the McGuffey series should eliminate such issues.

The list below also includes a few additional series of readers that have enjoyable stories. These are the sort of thing that you just have laying around the house for a child to pick up as interest is sparked. I love books, and I don’t think that a child can ever have too many. Surround your children with books, and they will surprise you with what they know.

All About Learning Press

This is my favorite reading and spelling program. The woman who developed this is very thorough. She includes every rule and every exception for all of the ways that we spell in English. I have a friend who is using the spelling curriculum with her children and says that she is finally learning why we spell words the way we do. To accompany the reading curriculum, Marie Rippel wrote and curated a series of decodable readers. They are hard-cover books with wonderful illustrations and engaging stories. The language is easy, but not simplistic, which is a true gift to the child.

McGuffey Readers

The McGuffey Readers were very popular in the U.S. in the 1800s. I like that they put an emphasis on reading aloud with good pronunciation, diction, and rhythm. They combine phonics with sight words, a wise approach to learning how to read and spell in English. The stories in the early books are a bit trite, but you can only do so much with a phonics approach. These are for practicing reading aloud; exploring literature should be done through listening until a student is able to read independently. By the second reader, the selections are sufficiently engaging and include many classic works.

I have put links to the free versions of the revised edition eclectic readers on Google Books. You can purchase various versions of the books from many online sellers.

Bob Books

Bob Books were developed in the 1970s to provide children an engaging way to learn phonics. The books use simple line drawings with story lines centered around Mat and Sam, a circle and a triangle. I think the books look entertaining, but a friend of mine tried these with her very imaginative son and he was not interested. So maybe they are not for everyone, and it would be a good idea to borrow some from a friend or the library before taking the dive to purchase the entire set. For using these to teach reading, check out Teaching Reading with Bob Books by Brandy Vencel.

Free and Treadwell Reading-Literature Books

The stories in the Free and Treadwell Reading-Literature Books are enjoyable classic tales with beautiful color illustrations. Children and adults alike will be attracted to the selections in this series. Unfortunately, the books do not appear to follow any specific pattern for introducing a student to phonetic patterns and should thus be used after a phonics-based program. Teaching Reading with Bob Books uses this series after completing the Bob Books program. Another way to use these books would be to include them in your literature studies, rather than as books for learning to read.

I have provided links to the adult guide, primer, first, second, and third readers from The Baldwin Project. Their versions are also available as print books. I (finally) found all of the books on Google Books.

More Free Readers

Check out The Ultimate Guide to Free Graded Reader E-Books over at Contently Humble. Their list is AMAZING.

Pathway Readers

These are used by the Amish, and therefore have a very simple feel and stories that are agrarian rather than post-industrial. The core readers all have accompanying workbooks and teacher’s guides. I am drawn to them because of the way they feel when you hold them, as they have been published using older techniques that result in high-quality, durable books. The books can be found in many online stores, but to order directly from the publisher you must write to request a catalog:

Pathway Publishers
43632 CR 390
Bloomingdale, MI 49026

Pathway Publishers
10380 Carter Road
Aylmer, ON N5H 2R3

  • Learning through Sounds (K-2nd)
  • Working with Words 4-8 (4th-8th)
  • Before We Read (K)
  • Helping Yourself (K)
  • Let’s Read Pictures (K)
  • Stories to Tell (K)
  • Listen to the Birds (K)
  • Listen to the Farm (K)
  • My Outdoor Friends (K)
  • Runaway Sled (K)
  • The Shoe That Tattled (K)
  • First Steps (1st)
  • Days Go By (1st)
  • More Days Go By (1st)
  • Menno’s Ducks and Barbara’s Fears (1st-3rd)
  • Lizzie and Lizzie in Grade 1 (1st-3rd)
  • Midnight Test (1st-3rd)
  • Busy Times (2nd)
  • More Busy Times (2nd)
  • Climbing Higher (2nd)
  • Benjie and Becky Series (2nd-3rd)
  • New Friends (3rd)
  • More New Friends (3rd)
  • Between Heaven and Earth (3rd-6th)
  • Eli and the Purple Martins (3rd-6th)
  • The Lone Pine’s Secret (3rd-6th)
  • Twenty Stories for Children (3rd-12th)
  • The Sun Went Down in the Morning (3rd-6th)
  • Building Our Lives (4th)
  • Shagbark Hickory Series (4th-7th)
  • Appletree Creek Series (4th-10th)
  • Living Together (5th)
  • Step by Step (6th)
  • Seeking True Values (7th)
  • Our Heritage (8th)

Christian Light Education Readers

The CLE Readers are frequently used by the Mennonites, who are close relatives of the Amish. The stories retain many of the charming aspects of the Amish works, but take place in a society that has accepted post-industrial innovations. CLE also publishes many other children’s books, including titles that continue series from the Pathway collection.

  • I Wonder (1st)
  • Helping Hands and Happy Hearts (2nd)
  • Doors to Discovery (3rd)
  • Bridges Beyond (4th)
  • Open Windows (5th)
  • Calls to Courage (6th)
  • The Road Less Traveled (7th)
  • Where Roads Diverge (8th)


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