Blogger Intellectual Freedom Committee

Leveling and Labeling: An Interview with Pat Scales

Pat ScalesAs school districts across the country continue to adopt leveled reading programs like Accelerated Reader, school and public libraries are under increasing pressure to label library materials with leveling information. This can be a distressing proposition for many reasons, but it is particularly concerning from an intellectual freedom standpoint. What does it mean for young readers when they are limited to certain reading levels, and what might be the effect of having one’s reading ability stamped onto the cover a book for all to see?

Librarians want to support their local educators, parents, and children. So when does leveled reading begin to infringe on students’ intellectual freedom, and how can we help our communities understand these problems?

We asked Pat Scales, retired school librarian, past President of ALSC, and spokesperson for first amendment issues, to share some information on leveled reading systems, labeling, and their relationship to intellectual freedom.

Additional resources that you might find useful include Labeling and Rating Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights and Questions and Answers on Labeling and Rating Systems, both from ALA.org.

School Library Journal also offered a free webinar in September 2014, School Library Journal Webinar: Let’s Talk About Banned Books, which is archived and can still be viewed. Pat addressed many of these questions in more detail during her section of the webinar.

How do book leveling systems such as Accelerated Reader, Lexile and Action 100 limit intellectual freedom for children?

There are many troubling things about these leveling systems, but the systems don’t abridge freedom to read. It’s the practice of limiting students’ access to materials based on reading levels that infringes on students’ right to read. Unfortunately this is common practice in many school libraries, and some public libraries feel pressured to implement such restrictions.   Librarians serving children should evaluate how these systems are used and develop policies that promise free and open access to students of all ages.

Some school libraries are labeling their entire collections so that children can find books on their required reading levels quickly. What issues do you see with this?

Labeling is an unacceptable practice, and violates the spirit of the Library Bill of Rights. “Organizing collections by reading management program, level, ability, grade, or age level is another form of restricted access.” (Restricted Access to Library Materials: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights) A library promotes reading, but isn’t a reading classroom. Instead it should be a place where children discover the magic of story, and the power of information. Reading levels shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honor or a badge of shame. That is what happens when libraries are reduced to reading laboratories. Additional points:

  • Students may be able to handle books that are beyond their “tested reading level” if they are interested enough in the book. Chronological age and emotional maturity play a much greater role in what children choose to read than reading level. Gifted students are often expected to read far beyond their maturity level simply because they can read a text. There are documented censorship cases where elementary schools purchased books more appropriate for young adults all because the books had a higher reading level.
  • Students who need a quick overview on a topic may find it in an “easier” text, but may then be led to more difficult books on the subject.
  • Students should expect a certain amount of privacy when making their reading selections. If books are labeled with reading level stickers, whether on the cover or on the inside of the book, there is the possibility that other students take note of the labels, thus violating a student’s privacy.
  • Librarians are trained in collection development and reader guidance. Reading leveling systems preclude them for doing their job.

How should school and public librarians work together to ensure that children get access to the books they are required to read as well as the books they want to read?

Public librarians should ask to meet with school librarians or teachers in the spring when reading lists are likely developed for the following school year. Ask that schools share these lists to assure that public libraries have the books in the collection. Exchange email addresses so that the public library and schools can stay in touch regarding services. Sponsor a back to school program for teachers and parents (advertised on the public library and school websites) and include the following:

  • Encourage the group to share their favorite children’s books – whether from their childhood or ones they share with their students.
  • Ask adults to share their library experiences as a child. Take what they say and lead a discussion about best practices. How did their experience shape their view of libraries today?
  • Make sure that parents and teachers understand that a child shouldn’t be tested on every book they read. And, the point should be made that children don’t need to comprehend every nuance in a book to enjoy the story.
  • Invite readers (from the summer reading program) to share some of their favorite books.
  • Encourage older readers to suggest titles for younger readers.

Often librarians struggle on the front lines when parents refuse to let their children check out books not in their reading system or on their reading level. Do you have any suggestions for gentle ways that librarians can advocate for the child’s intellectual freedom while respecting the parents in the middle of a readers advisory or reference transaction?

  • Ask to speak with the parent in private and explain all the reasons that children read.
  • Suggest that the parent allow the child to take several books – variety of topics and reading levels.

What are some of the limitations of book rating websites such as Common Sense Media, The Literate Mother, and Facts on Fictions?

These sites aren’t really book review sites, and some of the people writing the entries don’t really know children’s books. The focus isn’t on the entire book as a work of literature. Instead they rate the content of books using emoticons or graphs – calling out issues related to sex, profanity, violence, and drinking and drugs. Some of the sites make specific reference (by page number) to what they view as troubling content.   This is a real threat to libraries and the patrons they serve. For example, a chaste kiss may be interpreted as having a lot of sex in the book. There are documented cases where books have been removed from libraries based on Common Sense Media reviews. The most troubling thing of all is that there are librarians who rely on these sites because they think knowing about “controversial content” protects the library. These aren’t selection tools. Don’t be sucked in by such a false sense of security. Instead take the time to get to know these sites, and it will become crystal clear that these people don’t know how to evaluate books.

While we know that librarians are the best resource for connecting kids with the right books, how can librarians let their communities know they are there to help? How should we be advocating for ourselves?

Find opportunities to speak to civic groups and tell the public library story. Share a little of the history of children’s programming in the local library, and make a connection between services offered in the past and those offered today. Civic groups tend to respond to statistics, but tell human interest stories as well. Perhaps a teen parent brought her baby to the public library to find books for him, and you worked with the teen parent to help her know how to interact with her child through story.

Also, be in touch with various agencies and organizations serving children and families and suggest books and materials that may help them with their work. These may include the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, a homeless shelter, Safe Houses, detention centers, the city or town’s parks and recreation system, arts councils, etc.

Consider a library blog that showcases public library programming.   Encourage parents to ask librarians reader guidance kinds of questions. For example, “My daughter loves the Harry Potter Books. What else what else might she like?” Respond with a specific answer, or simply ask the parent to bring the child to the public library so that librarians can guide her.

BIOGRAPHY: Pat Scales is a retired middle and high school librarian whose program Communicate Through Literature was featured on the Today Show and in various professional journals. She received the ALA/Grolier Award in 1997, and was featured in Library Journal’s first issue of Movers and Shakers in Libraries: People Who Are Shaping the Future of Libraries. Ms. Scales has served as chair of the prestigious Newbery, Caldecott, and Wilder Award Committees. She is a past President of the Association of Library Service for Children, a division of the American Library Association. Scales has been actively involved with ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee for a number of years, is a member of the Freedom to Read Foundation, serves as on the Council of Advisers of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and acts as a spokesperson for first amendment issues as they relate to children and young adults. She is the author of Teaching Banned Books: Twelve Guides for Young Readers, Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your School Library and Books Under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books. She writes a bi-monthly column, Scales on Censorship, for School Library Journal, a monthly column for the Random House website, curriculum guides on children’s and young adult books for a number of publishers, and is a regular contributor to Book Links magazine.

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