50th Post, Time for a Rant

I’ve tried to keep my posts somewhat emotionally-controlled in the past. But this is my 50TH POST! So screw it, I’m ranting.

But it’s about books, so don’t worry.

I have two younger half-sisters, one of whom just finished third grade (is a 4th grader now). Since I’ve been rereading the Harry Potters, I’ve been talking to the rest of my friends about when they read the series and how the books affected them as readers, and I decided my older little sister would really benefit from reading them.

The Arguments in Favor of this Movement (largely based off of conversations I’ve had with my fellow 14/15-year-old friends):

1. Fourth grade is the time when the HP books become really popular. Lots of kids will be reading them, and having gotten a head start in summer will be a conversation starter and a useful device in friend making. (Or she could just read them once the school year starts if anyone has a problem with being ahead of the curve, it’s the same idea.) This is an example of peer pressure benefiting the whole instead of turning it into druggie teens.

2. Since the series starts out young and not that dark or scary, little kids (if you call 4th graders “little”) can read the first books. Due to the long length of the books, most kids read the books over a long period of time, so that by the time they’ve gotten to the later, darker books, they are older and more mature and can handle it.

3. If you read Harry Potter after you have “grown out of” playing, you’ve missed out on a plethora of game opportunities. Most of my friends, including myself, played some version of wizarding duels as kids. My sister and I even worked it into larger, already existing games after we read them, just borrowing the spells. J.K. Rowling’s books give the reader the incredible ability to “learn” magic, because you are in the classroom as they learn the wording and motions required for each spell. It’s a game waiting to happen, and fourth graders are at the perfect age to take advantage of this. Again with the friendship building opportunities.

4. Harry Potter is a gateway book. In fourth grade, one of my friends was still reading those really tiny, cheesy books that you see in Scholastic book orders, that are really only age appropriate until at most second grade. Her brother forced her to read the Harry Potters, and she credits them as the books which got her interested in reading. Now, she is just as avid a reader as I am (which is pretty freakin’ avid). Most of my other friends, who read HP earlier, still credit it as one of the books that got them interested in reading.

There, look, I presented my arguments in a clear, logical fashion without getting too sarcastic or rude.

Now for the thing I’m actually ranting about.

This weekend, at dinner, I brought up that I thought it would be a good idea if my 4th grade sister read Harry Potter. We could read them together, I said, and I read them when I was way younger than you, so you’ll be able to handle it. They’re awesome books. I think she’d enjoy them.

On top of these reasons is the most important one for me: like one of my friends, my little sister is still reading books that I find are waaaayyyy below her maturity. She isn’t challenging herself, and her parents aren’t either. Since a large portion of my personality is based on what books I’ve read, I really wanted this sister to be interested in reading, so I could share some of my favorites from when I was her age, and we could bond over them. Also, I know she would benefit in school and in her future if she picked up a love of reading now. So far, any effort toward this has failed. So I’m hoping Harry Potter can have the same effect on her as it did my friend, inspiring her to go looking for bigger, more complex books, and really get into reading.

I’m not going to get into the fact that neither of her parents even touched my suggestion, clearly thinking their daughter too young to read the books (let alone the fact that I read them in SECOND GRADE). That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’m not opening here.

It was what my little sister said.

In the last weeks of the school year, all the third graders got to meet the fourth grade teachers. They talked about what to expect next year, because it is the first year of “upper grades.”

My sister shared this statement from a FOURTH GRADE teacher:

(paraphrased, of course, but I trust my sister to have gotten the gist of it, mainly because it didn’t strike her as pathetic and horrible, so she had no reason to exaggerate or reword it)

“I see some kids reading Harry Potter in my classroom and I think, ‘You should not be reading that. You aren’t ready.'”

I knew from previous conversations that the teacher speaking was the one my sister actually wanted to get next year. I’ve been in the position where adults (or just older people) harp on an adult that I feel loyalty to. It sucks A LOT. (A note to adults out there, please don’t put children through this.)

So I kept my burst of outrage to a minimum in her presence, but I couldn’t keep it in forever. Ergo, this rant.

“I see some kids reading Harry Potter in my classroom and I think, ‘You should not be reading that. You aren’t ready.'”

This is BS.

See my above reasons. If you’re at a 4th grade level, HP is perfect for you. If you aren’t reading at a 4th grade reading level, there is a good chance HP is the book that will get you there.

It is despicable for a fourth grade teacher to hold this opinion. I get it if you are a second grade teacher, it might freak you out to see a kid cracking open book six. But this is fourth grade, when everyone will be reading it anyway. Don’t act like only the “good students” should be reading a book they clearly enjoy.

My little sister added a clarifying comment:

 “No, I think it’s just for the bad kids. You know, the ones whose reading levels aren’t there yet.”

Ahh…reading levels. The bane of my elementary school existence.

Let me explain.

My school used the Advanced Reader program. I know her school uses a different program, but they all operate in similar ways.

It all starts with a vocabulary assessment. My school took this in the computer lab. Basically, there was a sentence with a blank in it and four word choices. You picked the word that made sense. If you got the question right, it gave you a harder question. It also saved a profile for you, so that when you took the test the next month, it started you at the difficulty that was appropriate for you.

Based on these test results, the computer spit out a reading level, a range of grade levels that you should be reading at (e.g. 4.3-6.5, middle of fourth grade through middle of sixth grade). Then you went on arbookfind.com and looked up whatever book you were reading. AR (Advanced Reader) was a program that reviewed the vocabulary used in books and gave them a grade level based on the author’s diction. The books you read were supposed to fall into the range given to you by the computer.

By fourth grade, I was testing at a high school reading level. By sixth grade, my range was something like 7.2-12.4, which made it almost impossible to read books at my level. But we’ll get back to that.

I don’t know what my sister’s reading level it, but I’ve gathered from conversations that it is on grade level, probably a little above it.

Here’s the thing: I hate reading levels. Everything about them.

Because here’s the attitude teachers take:

You should read books that are within you reading level.

Which often translates to:

Don’t read that book, it’s above you reading level.

I’ve literally had a teacher say to me, “You should know 99% of the words in a book you are reading.”

But how are you supposed to improve you reading level if you only read books inside of it? How are you supposed to learn new words if you aren’t reading new words? Reading levels create a culture of stagnation. Instead of driving kids to read whatever books interest them, no matter what age level they are written for, kids today are told that the only books they should read are the ones that are “appropriate for them.” Instead of challenging children to read books that will be difficult, teachers like the one quoted above are holding their students’ hands and pulling them away from the edge of what I can only assume they consider some form of moral damnation.

This pisses me off.

Reading is one of the most important things in my life. I credit it with most of my successes: I’m really smart. I have a really good vocabulary. I can figure out a word based on context clues alone. I can read an article with words I don’t know but still understand it, because I’ve always read things that were too hard for me.

I would not be myself if I had read the books the computer told me to read.

Kids should read books that sound interesting. If we try to tie them down and force feed them books that are deemed “right for them,” we kill a generation of would-be readers.

In second grade (I think), my teacher had bins of books, each categorized by the reading level they had been awarded. Reading at already a higher reading level than most of the books provided, I was forced to gag my way through How to Eat Fried Worms, easily the grossest book of my life–and I read half of Mary Roach’s Stiff, which is about cadavers.

In addition, I found AR’s ranking of books to be at best arbitrary and at worst nonsensical. Because it only analyzes books with a computer, it misses the other elements of a book that can increase or decrease the actually grade level a book can be read at, including plot content and the author’s use of “big” words.

For instance, in the Series of Unfortunate events, Lemony Snicket makes a point of using long, complex words, but then DEFINES THEM in a way that a small child would understand. That’s just part of his writing style. I could easily read them in first grade, because he made it readable to that age. But AR awards them sixth grade reading levels. This is an example of drastic overstating the actual reading level of a series, not accounting for an author’s use of words.

On the other end of the spectrum, Alice in Zombieland is given a 4.5 reading level. I read this book last year, and loved it. However, it is a dark, intense book–no matter what the title implies, it is not a lighthearted book. There are strong elements of death, danger, and sadness that I would not have been comfortable reading in fourth grade. The interest level given by AR (because it also tells you what ages of children would want to read this series) is MG+, Young Adult when translated out of stupid AR speak. The plot of this book is at a high school level. And yet, according to AR’s logic, a fourth grader would be fine reading it, and it would be pitiful for a high schooler to touch it. I can only imagine what the teacher whose words started this rant would say when confronted with this conundrum.

But back to Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s level is 5.5, with an interest level of MG (4-8 grade). Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’s is 7.2, with an interest level of MG+ (young adult). The series clearly matures as it progresses, so this isn’t an insane jump. I’m not sure the vocabulary is really that hard, but whatever the computer says. The point is, the interest level of the first book includes fourth grade. There is no reason a fourth grader shouldn’t read at least book one (and then see argument #2 above).

Reading is the best way to improve vocabulary. Seriously. And it’s fun.

We are living in a culture where high schoolers are carrying around SAT vocab prep books as freshmen (one of my friends does this). But if we had just encouraged children to read at a young age, and challenge themselves to read books that are maybe a little too hard, maybe a little too mature, we’d have this problem fixed before we ever needed to wallow away a summer at SAT bootcamp. Read whatever you want. Read books below you and above you. Read for the sake of reading and be surprised at how much more you understand about not just our language, but the world.

For parents out there, please trust your kids to pick out books, but also encourage them to challenge themselves. I feel like a lot of parents in elementary school are afraid of their kids maturing too quickly, and dissuade them from reading books that are “older,” especially if they have a teacher’s voice preaching reading levels at them in the background.

All I know is that if my mom had done that, I definitely wouldn’t have tested at a 12th grade reading level at any point in my life. And if I’d actually cared at all about AR reading levels when I was in elementary school, I wouldn’t have a blog dedicated to my love of books today.

12 thoughts on “50th Post, Time for a Rant

  1. This is wonderful rant!…. Why don’t you see if the LA Times would publish it on the OPED page. You may have to clean it up in a couple of places but it is right on and needs to be read by lots of parents.
    Grand Dad


  2. You go, girl! What a fantastic tirade against the limitations directed at kids by supposedly well meaning adults. Every teacher and parent/grandparent should read this! You hang in there for your little sisters — they need you, even though they or their parents might not know it!


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