Boy Reading

Multilevel Classes? Junk May Be the Answer

Every class is a multilevel class. The schedule may say students are all in level 1 and have been placed in the appropriate class, but reading levels are all over the place, or soon will be. When the spread becomes wide, how can we possibly reach each student? How can we challenge each of them in an appropriate way? How can we differentiate our instruction to reach each student? By letting students read junk.

I recently browsed through some books from my childhood. It convinced me that time spent reading “junk” is not always misspent—that lower quality books may be the way to differentiate and reach each student.

My Introduction to Junk Reading 

One day when I was in 7th grade my friend Rex excitedly told me about a book his older brother had let him read: Tarzan and The Ant Men, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He loaned the book to me when he was finished. I read it and I was hooked. I spent much of my paper route money the rest of that school year buying every Tarzan book I could get my hands on. There were over 20 books in the series. I managed to buy or borrow most of them. Other books in the action/adventure/sci-fi genre soon followed. I swapped books with Rex and two other friends, Larry and Glenn. We would talk about what we were reading at lunchtime in the cafeteria. I would carry those swapped books home in my trombone case.

Those books were “junk” reading. My mother quietly disapproved of them, my father openly so, grunting and asking why I couldn’t read something worthwhile like Tom Sawyer as he puffed on his pipe reading the newspaper. The Tarzan novels were not part of the school curriculum, but as a young teen inhaling anything written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I picked up some useful vocabulary that prepared me for high school and beyond.

Stephen Krashen makes this point in The Power of Reading, 2nd edition:

… vocabulary acquisition is distributed and incremental; that is, it is best done when encounters with words are spaced or spread out over time, and it happens a little at a time.” (p. 47-48)

Tarzan the Vocabulary Tutor?

It turns out that there was plenty of vocabulary to be acquired “a little at a time” in the junk I was reading. I skimmed a couple of the Tarzan books recently and kept track of uncommon words. Here are a few of them that seem higher than middle school level vocabulary to me:

baleful, cavil, chagrined, conciliate, cudgel, curtailment, effluvium, endeavoring, evinced, inculcating, ineradicably, invective, oftentimes, progenitors, promontory, preceptor, personification of noiseless stealth, propitiating, repletion, sobriquet, Stygian blackness, superinduced, thews, truculent, vagrant breeze, wont

The reading level of the Tarzan books was right for me at the time. Scholastic pegs most of them at grade level equivalent 8.7; Trajectory, a Flesch-Kincaid readability level of 9. The vocabulary above doesn’t seem like 8th or 9th grade level words to me. Even now my computer’s spell check does not recognize all of them. As an 7th grader, I doubt I would have known many of them. And I certainly would not have passed a vocabulary quiz if I were tested on them after reading.

I never discussed reading levels with my friends. Didn’t even know there was such a thing. We just read books that we liked. We talked about how cool they were and what we thought about them.

Skip It! You’ll Get It Later

But all of that vocabulary was in context and used in stories that I enjoyed. When I came upon one of those unknown words, I just skipped over it, because I wanted to see how Tarzan would get out of the mess this time. If you would have asked me if there were any words in those novels that I didn’t know, I would have said no. I didn’t realize that I didn’t know them, but those words were there in the back of my mind cooking, subconsciously marinating, waiting for further exposures to define them for me consciously.

I got better recognition of those unknown words and hundreds of others later. The assigned reading in high school was not difficult for me and I did well on high-stakes tests, thanks to the millions of words in low quality novels I had consumed starting in junior high.

In our classes students are at many different reading levels. No matter the name of the course, students are all over the place. Every class is a multilevel class. Even if students are all close in their second language reading level at the beginning of the term, they won’t stay bunched for long. The best way to differentiate so that all students can grow is by Extensive Reading (AKA Free Voluntary Reading or Self-Selected Reading): by letting them choose what they want to read. Even if it’s junk.

If we give kids access to books and time to read them, they will each acquire language and grow at their own rate.

Get my book on teaching reading (in paperback or digital) for more content, explanations, and reading assessments.

I say let them read junk!

What do you think?

What has your experience been like with reading or teaching reading?