Pardon me while I give my personal opinions on reading levels.
This is who I think reading levels are helpful for: parents when buying a book without their kid, teachers who want to make age appropriate judgement calls for teaching and librarians who make suggestions to kids.
Not necessarily for kids.
When I was 12 there were adult books and kid books. That was it. You chose by what interested you in the store or library. It was obvious that picture books were for a certain age –you could tell by the cover and the content. When you graduated beyond that you searched for book that intrigued you by cover, title and/or back cover copy. When you were curious or ready reading wise to move from kids books you did. Obviously my parents, like other parents kept me from reading things that were too sexually advanced but the store and library were pretty much open to explore. Then we started separating middle grade into YA into now New Adult. Not sure how it started. I remember Beau loving sci fi and reading things that would only be in the “adult area” now.
When they see reading levels kids may think: 1) I can’t read that because it above my level 2) I am encouraged to read that because it is above my level. 3) I can’t read that as it is below what my level should be. Or any number of limiting beliefs. It depends on the kid. Being limited may discourage a reader or challenge one. You have to judge by the kid. However I never picked up a book because it was above my level (or at or below) I simply picked up what interested me.
The last thing we want to do is discourage a reader. Let them read what interests them. I have a kid who reads a lot of fan fic and she is becoming very discerning in her choices as a result. She is also reading a lot for school. Reading The Scottish Play about Macbeth right now. (the actress in me will never completely go away. Those of us who have spent any time on the stage will not refer to that play by name only the character.) But she is READING for fun outside of school.
I walked into our oldest’s high school library to speak to the librarian and found myself confronted with my dad’s books with a giant YA on the spine. All I could think was that as a kid I would never walk around with a book that shouted YA on the spine. It was a sticker put there by the library. If you consider that a high school is for kids ages 9-12 all the books there are appropriate for a YA audience but if you label them as such you remove the chance that anyone will pick them up. Kids want to be cool and are actually very label conscious. I want to donate a set with the promise that they will never put those labels on them. Instead the librarian and the English teachers should be making suggestions if kids ask and even if they don’t. Honestly though, Dad’s covers are so great and compelling that a lot of kids would pick them up out of curiosity.
I understand wanting to be careful with sex or violence in books our kids read but level should never be a judgement for or against a book. Sometimes we love to read something that reminds us of our childhoods and sometimes we want to challenge our abilities. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the words “I never read a book until I read one of your dad’s.” He got letters all the time from people who had dyslexia or other learning issues and found his books compelling enough to read no matter how difficult it was for them to do. One of those was a friend of mine. We read The Walking Drum on a trip to France with mom and dad.
Encourage kids to read. That’s it. Head to the library. Tell them you need to approve what they choose but let them look and encourage them to read things that seem tough or things that are easy. Just keep them reading.
PS Thought of two other groups that like levels—publishers and bookstores so they know where to put them—which makes perfect sense. Not saying they aren’t important I just think they are marketed in the wrong way.