Some Ways to Outgrow Yourself as a Reader

“The sky has never been the limit.  We are our own limits.  Its’ then about breaking our personal limits and outgrowing ourselves to live our best lives.”  – author unknown

Recently I have decided to take on a new challenge– I have decided to read the biography of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.  Now, this is indeed a challenge for me because I tend to shy away from books that are, say, 600 or more pages.  It’s not that I don’t think I can read them, it’s…well, they’re just so long.  And the challenges of work, school, parenting two young daughters can sometimes make finding the time difficult.  But other than reading more books, there is one central goal I continue to pursue: and that goal is outgrowing myself as a reader– over, and over.  It means working to develop a sense of when I have, once again, let a cocoon envelop who I am as a reader, and then acting to do something about it– figuring out a way to burst forth in a way that is new, different, and (hopefully) better.

But how does one do such a thing as a reader?  Let’s come back to Steve Jobs for a moment…

Many don’t know that early in his career as a computer designer, Steve Jobs worked for a company called Atari.  As many of us remember, Atari was the company that created some of the most successful video games of all time.  Take for instance, Ms. PacMan (okay, yes, I have dated myself officially).  Ms. PacMan was a game in which a yellow protagonist zipped around a colorful maze eating light pellets while being chased by nefarious ghosts.  Ms. PacMan was a game that progressed by levels.  And as one became more experienced and proficient in each of the various levels (denoted by types of fruit, such as cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc.), one was able to advance to different levels of the game.  Each level became increasingly challenging, with the ghosts moving a trifle faster, “power pellets” lasting shorter lengths of time, mazes taking on ever-more complex configurations, etc.  It is true that several games, both before and after Ms. PacMan, challenge players to “master” certain levels of play before they were/are allowed to move on.  In each game, whether it be Ms. PacMan or Halo, Lumosity or World of Warcraft, users are presented a certain set of challenges that, in order for a complete experience to be gained, must be met.

Enter text levels.

Several years ago, researchers began devising a way to make sense of different “levels” of books.  Now, working to establish what are called “readability levels” is nothing new.  Different researchers for decades have been working to find ways to define how to measure text complexity (take Fry, for example).  One such research group in more recent years is a company called MetaMetrics.  A few years back, they invented something called “Lexiles”.  Lexiles measure text complexity by running a text through a computer program, which then generates a number.  The program principally measures two factors:  sentence length and vocabulary.  Although this can be helpful at times, one pitfall (among many) of looking at texts through only the lenses of Lexiles is that the following “sentences” would be assigned the same Lexile:

  • I went to the store to get bread.
  • Went I bread store to the.

Clearly, in this example, we can see the shortcomings of such a measure used in isolation.  To be fair, there are surely many positive arguments to be made on behalf of the Lexile system; however, the measure is what it is: a measure of sentence length and vocabulary.  Actual complexity of content of text is not measurable by Lexiles.  Take for example, John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  This book is assigned a Lexile of 680, which appears in the second and third grade band according to the expectations of the Common Core State Standards.  Most of us would likely agree that we would not want our second or third graders reading (or trying to read) The Grapes of Wrath!

So who is working to measure content complexity?

One such group of researchers looking into this question was the staff at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University.  These researchers wanted to look at levels of text as defined by the complexity of their content.  These levels are sometimes known as “Guided Reading Levels”, and some of the most respected researchers that have contributed to this work are Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.  If you are not familiar with these levels, they are essentially designed to assess and match readers to texts using an alphabetic system, A=kindergarten, Z=end of 8th grade.

The researchers from Columbia University wanted to know if different levels of books might present similar challenges– almost like a “level” of a video game might present certain levels of challenge.  In other words, how different is level W from level X?  Are there similarities?  How similar is level R to level S? And so on…

It turns out that after reading a hundred or so books at each level, researchers found that certain levels of books do, indeed, present similar challenges.  However, there are points at which challenges change, become more complex.  What follows here is a brief (far from comprehensive) synopsis of some of the findings of the Columbia research group. Each group of levels shown below, or “band of text” (band means a group of levels) as they are sometimes called, present a specific set of challenges to a reader.  These “bands” might also be referred to as “lenses for reading”, as they provide ways of comprehending text at a higher level than just reading for plot.  One thing we know about young adult literature (YA Lit) is that the stories are about so much more than the plot!  And if we want our young readers to outgrow themselves, one way we might do this is to focus their attention on these characteristics of their books.  The following information is geared toward typical 3rd through 8th graders:

N-O-P-Q level books

In these levels of books, readers MUST be active readers!  They must lean forward and do stuff mentally as they read.  They have to make much more of the book—it’s not all given to them.  Much more inference is required because the book is not going to do the work here.  Readers can’t sit back and “TV-watch” these books.  

In terms of plot structure, it is more complex than previously (say, in books below level N)– I wanted a bike, but I got a friend instead (which is what I needed/wanted anyway).  Plot structures follow a problem-resolution format, versus a problem-solution.  And there are multiple problems in these books.  There will be one main problem, but wrapped around the structure are larger, more worldly issues—like loss of dad who’s moved away.  Readers must become aware of this in this level.

Also, more figurative language appears in these books than previous levels.  Kids can decode the words, but might not get what it means (think about, “I guess we better head back to the drawing board”).  Just because readers can read the words, doesn’t mean it isn’t tricky!  So making sense out of the text now includes these phrases.

Characters in these books are not described directly; rather, readers must infer by creating and revising theories as they read.  Readers may get some information given to them, but they must be active to get more.  Oh, and characters will change in the book, although perhaps not dramatically.

Books at these levels include the Amber Brown series by Paula Danziger, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Stone Fox by John Gardiner, and the Bunnicula series, by James Howe.

R-S-T level books

Part of what readers must put together in these books will need to be inferred.  Thus, since the inference load is much higher, readers must stop and wonder, “What might putting all this together add up to?”  The role of setting plays a big, big role in these books.  The story generally doesn’t take place in familiar places like schools, neighborhoods, etc. like they did in the last band.  So readers must work to figure out stuff about the setting. Is the setting is symbolic? Is it perhaps “mirroring” character (meaning the setting and a character are alike in some way)?  Is the setting actually creating the problem?  Readers must become “setting detectives” because this work will pay off.  The setting will bear significance on the depth of understanding in the text.

In these levels, also, sometimes readers encounter full parts and passages that will mean something later; so the strategy is not to just ignore these parts and keep reading, but rather read on holding on to these parts so that they will make sense later.

Important, too, at this level is the introduction of symbolism.   I sometimes call it “baby symbolism” because the author continues to refer back to the same thing over and over (like the suitcase in Tiger Rising).  At this level, it is possible to get the symbolism “right”, as the interpretation of the symbols are meant to be somewhat obvious to readers as a vehicle for delivering a deeper theme or message.  

In terms of the characters, the role of minor characters (characters that are not the main character) becomes much more important at these levels. Readers cannot discount minor characters in these books because they probably will have some important bearing on the story.  They need to be attended to across the book as they come in and out of the plot.

Plot structures in these levels are layered, generally following problem-resolution; but now, the story could be told with two different perspectives or two different plot lines.  The way the book is organized around the plot is different now than previously, and more complicated.

Books at these levels include Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, The Twits, by Roald Dahl, and The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.

U-V-W level books
Readers need to be prepared for really studying setting to be ready for this level!  Again, the setting is purposeful and meant to bear on the significance of the meaning built into these books.  Also, it is typical that something big has happened before the story has even begun.  Think for example of the classic book Number the Stars about two young girls, one Jewish, one not, living in Denmark during World War II amidst a Nazi invasion.  If readers have no knowledge of the Holocaust, their understanding is severely impacted.

The reader’s stance at this level must be, “I am figuring it out, and I know I don’t know.”   Readers must recognize that they do not know this (main) character, and that that character is unreliable (which means readers will know things that the character  does not know).  In fact, readers should never feel they get this character with certainty!  Thus, readers must be constantly revising their theories about the people in the book.

Symbolism is going to be huge in these books.  Anything and everything could be (and probably is) symbolic (the setting, the characters, names, the weather, objects, etc.).

In terms of plot structure, it is hard to figure out what the main problem is!  Conflicts in these books manifest more like representations of big issues rather than big problems.  Readers must read interpretively, thinking about what issues are being addressed by the author and how the author is positioning readers to feel about those issues.  Think of Auggie in the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio and how issues of society’s treatment of those with physical deformities is portrayed.

Books at these levels include Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Tangerine by Edward Bloor.

X-Y-Z level books
To be successful at these levels, readers need to have both a curious and knowledgeable reader stance.  Readers need to be willing to engage in the “figuring-things-out” work while they are reading, because, at these levels, readers are the kinds of kids who like challenging books and do not want things spelled out for them so simply.

In X-Y-Z books, readers are expected to draw upon a wealth of knowledge about the world and other books.  In fantasy books, for example, readers need to bring with them a wealth of knowledge from mythology, fables, and/or other fantasy texts, as well as archetypes and classic story arcs.

Oftentimes, multiple genres and points of view are also characteristic of these types of books.  Multiple voices are heard across the story, and so, logically, perspectives overlap and, many times,  conflict with one another.  

Another notable characteristic of these upper level books is the passage of time becoming especially complex.  For example, sometimes entire chapters (not just passages) jump back in time, challenging the reader to construct a mental timeline for the story by configuring events and episodes in a puzzle-solving fashion.

Similar to the former band of text, the narrators of books at this level are oftentimes unreliable.  She or he will proclaim things that the reader is expected to realize are not as the character thinks or has stated.

Finally, there is the sometimes added challenge of how the dialogue in the story is written.  Some stories might contain regional vernacular, for example.  Characters will speak in this vernacular and use vocabulary from another time and place.

Books at these levels include The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and Hunger Games, by Suzanne Cooper.


Perhaps the Ms. PacMan metaphor fell short.  The point is that it is sometimes helpful to be aware of the different demands texts can place upon readers as they navigate their books.    As parents, mentors, relatives, and caregivers of our middle school students, I recommend we try on these “lenses” ourselves, seeing what opens up for us as we read a few books in the Young Adult genre.  It’s truly amazing how reading in these ways can pay off!  A few recent titles I have read and can recommend would be Home of the Brave by K.A. Applegate (level W) or Wonder by R.J. Palacio (level U) or One Crazy Summer (level T) by Rita Williams-Garcia.  You might also try a new writer, Tania Unsworth, whose first YA novel The One Safe Place I am finding to be riveting!

“Outgrowing ourselves” is a noble goal.  And outgrowing ourselves as readers, whatever our age, can be both challenging and exhilarating.  Many have written about the connection between learning something new and the release of the chemical “dopamine” in the brain.  The brain loves novelty!  And personally, I have found “new ways of reading” to have an exciting and worthwhile payoff.  Try it!  And let these new lenses spark new conversations with your young readers.

“The sky has never been the limit.  We are our own limits.  Its’ then about breaking our personal limits and outgrowing ourselves to live our best lives.”  – author unknown

Author: Lanny Ball

For more than 29 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a former co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting writing teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops,

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