Teaching's Made Easier with Age Labels.... Why Are British Authors Against It?

I’m throwing my humble hat into the labeling books for age appropriateness discussion ring. Lately, there’s been all this jabber about delegating age labels on children's stories and novels. The ruckus started across the pond when a few English blokes said, “Hey, can you help us find appropriate books for our kiddies?” As a licensed media specialist and teacher who was once censored from teaching a particular -more famous than famous British- novel, I am vehemently against censorship. However, I’ve a few opinions that lead me to side with the age appropriate labelers, especially when you consider my background working with struggling readers.

As a teacher, my time was limited. Very. I used several sources to scour for new and exciting materials. I would narrow the selections down by identifying stories that were recommended by peers and held topics of interest on the reading level of my particular students.

Once I made my initial selections, I would read the stories and choose the most appropriate ones for my students, which usually meant different books for my struggling readers, my average readers and my high achievers. Believe me - it would heave been MUCH easier to choose just one, but that’s not how good child-centered, needs-based teaching works.

The silly little label for age appropriateness, which the US publishers already put in our editions, was one less step in my crazy teaching life. Sure, I know how to perform a readability test on a story, and I was going to pre-read the whole thing anyway, but taking that step out of the equation made sorting to best choice so much easier. By knowing to look for the RL5 or Ages 8-12 label, my task was lessened and I could concentrate on planning lessons to meet the needs of my students.

The US readability labels are NOT interest labels and I’ll throw out the thought that adding interest labels wouldn’t be such a bad idea either. Those who argue content over readability level are in for another fight, as I believe the two go completely hand-in-hand. If you’ve spent the amount of frustrating time I’ve spent with struggling sixth and ninth grade readers, you’ll know where I’m coming from on this one. If she can’t read it comfortably, she can’t understand it (and I’m not talking about those readers who should be expanding their horizons, I’m representing for those poor souls who missed the reading joy along the way).

An example of why readability levels aren’t enough comes from one of my favorite books, The Giver. There’s a scene where the boy starts to have ‘feelings’ at night. The implication is there and many of my mature sixth graders giggled at the implication. But it was sixth grade and a letter had gone home to the parents stating the novel we would be reading and asking that they preview it before their child read it (humble opinion #2 - any teacher who doesn’t use this method is asking for trouble in today’s litigation-happy culture). I once saw a teacher trying to read The Giver with fourth graders. Its readability label is 4.5. Certainly that teacher never pre-viewed the book with its abstract themes on free will, not an easy discussion in the average fourth grade setting. Shoot… I only used it with the advanced sixth grade readers.

So what’s the big deal? I guess this new age-banding, as it’s called, is going to be something more than what we already do here in the US. I find it amazing that many parents and even some booksellers have no idea that most U.S. children’s literature has a readability label hidden either on the back flap or inside cover (click image to see it larger). Why can’t England just do that? Does it have to be this flashing NC17 sign on the book? The kids I know, and many adults too, have never even noticed the U.S. age labeling. It all seems like a bigger ruckus than it need be. Note to splendidly accented, make me swoon at the knees Englishmen: just put nondescript labels next to the copyright. No one will even notice.
In the interest of fair discussion, you can read the author Philip Pullman’s petition to stop age-banding: HERE. This is really difficult for me, as ten of my all-time favorite writers have signed!

There’s also a fair discussion over on Pop Goes The Library: Here

Meg Rosoff writes in a Guardian article, HERE, that she found out the hard way that, “just because you can read book doesn't mean you should.” She also makes a good point about parents not pre-viewing their child’s reading materials, something I find abhorent.
© 2007-2009 Cheryl Vanatti

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