Stuck on Reading, Not on Stickers: Transforming Students’ Reading Identities

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Labeling books by levels in elementary libraries—both in classrooms and in the media center—remains a common practice.  While advocates argue that this organizational system helps teachers and students locate books on a child’s reading level, these labels also pose risks to students’ identities as readers.  Somewhere along the line, as Kylene Beers states so eloquently in this blog, “the book los[es] the label and the child gain[s] it.”  In this way, mere stickers have the power to transform how students view themselves as readers—a transformation that may not serve them well in their life-long reading pursuits.

We (an elementary school librarian and a literacy coach) have partnered in the past few years to start a different transformation by helping kids see themselves as readers who can control their own destinies.  A big part of this journey has included transforming the culture of the library itself, which has been no easy task.  Teachers and students are accustomed to walking into the library and looking for green dots or yellow dots or whichever dots an assessment has told them they “need” to be reading right now to become better readers.  While our transformation is nowhere near complete, here are five strategies we have implemented to begin this difficult journey.

  1. Take down signs that define dot classification. This was a very simple first step—without the signs telling students what the dots meant, we began steering them away from using this identifier as the sole means of choosing their next read.  Furthermore, we left stickers on old books, but didn’t put them on new books.  This strategy was more practical than idealistic, since removing stickers that are already on books removes the spine label as well.  However, not labeling new books allows us to push back against the prevailing levelling culture.  In addition, we have re-located the Accelerated Reader (AR) stickers to inside the book instead of on the cover since, as the adage goes, we’re not supposed to judge books by their covers—or their AR points.
  2. Teach students how to choose books without depending on dots and levels. To do this, Katherine modeled the “I-PICK” strategy that The Sisters introduce in their book The Daily Five.  This mnemonic is displayed as a poster on the wall and as a flyer on the circulation desk to remind students how they should pick a book based on purpose, interest, comprehension, and knowing most of the words.  This strategy aligns with the classroom instruction many of the teachers use, and this consistency is key in shifting the culture of the school library as well.
  3. Include lessons about picking good-fit books in the library curriculum. Just as we teach students to use a library catalogue and research safely online, librarians can help students learn to pick up books and look inside them to choose books that will help them grow as life-long readers.  Instead of telling students that they can’t check out a book, Katherine asks students to read excerpts of the book to her before they check it out.  If students are struggling with a text independently, she makes sure that they will have someone (a family member, a friend, or a school employee) who will support them as they delve into the book.  This process allows students to take ownership in the book selection process instead of always depending on an adult to choose for them.
  4. Educate teachers too. Oftentimes, dots and levels are a safe and easy way to guide students to texts that teachers think will offer the right amount of challenge, which many teachers believe is important to growing readers (and, let’s face it, test scores).  Many teachers have been surprised at how much their readers grow when they are offered this kind of choice in the library; still others, however, aren’t ready to trust this new system, and that’s OK.  Change takes time.  Melissa will often incorporate professional development that helps teachers understand the significance of (and the research behind!) allowing students choice in their reading.
  5. Finally, Katherine has experimented with some new library layout options. She has incorporated biographies into Dewey nonfiction classifications; pulled all graphic novels into their own area (which encourages students to read not just popular comic books, but also nonfiction texts); and pulled popular fiction series into baskets (Magic Tree House, Galaxy Zack, Goosebumps, I Survived, Junie B. Jones, My Sister the Vampire) for students to find their favorite series reads quickly and easily.  Such re-arrangements remind kids to read not based on levels, but based on interests and “familiar friends” in books.

As in any case, transformation definitely takes time.  But if the places where we find adult readers–public libraries, book stores, online sources, and more—don’t have dots, don’t we have an ethical obligation to prepare students for this “real world” of reading?  We have a long way to go, but we are working hard to transform how students see themselves as readers.  Stickers should never have the power to take away a child’s identity as a reader.


Melissa Summer Wells (@mswells01) has served children in Spartanburg, S.C., as a 3rd grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and, most recently, a literacy coach. She completed her Ph.D. in Language and Literacy from the University of South Carolina in 2017. Her research interests include critical digital literacies in early childhood settings and bidirectional family learning communities. Wells is a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader, serves on the board of South Carolina ASCD, and was named to ILA’s “30 Under 30” list in 2016.

Katherine Malmquist has served children in the Upstate of S.C. as a 3rd grade teacher and a school library media specialist.  Katherine completed her Masters in Library Science at the University of South Carolina.  She is devoted to developing a love of reading in her school.  Much of her time is dedicated to creating authentic reading experiences for her students, and encouraging them to choose “good fit” books.

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