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Reading Levels: A Quick Guide to Determining if a Book Is Right for Your Reader

While I wrote an article titled Reading Levels: How I Assign Reading Levels to Books, How the Publishers Do It and How You Can Help Your Reader Find the Right Book at the Right Time that discusses how reading levels are determined by professionals and amateurs like myself, there is more on this subject to discuss. Determining the reading level of a book from the children's section is never easy, mostly because there are several different standardized methods of determining reading levels. Add to this the fact that knowing their children's reading level is most often the only tool a parent is armed with when exploring the bookstore, library, website, etc, and the job becomes even more difficult. While I think that knowing a child's reading level is a very valuable tool if your child is reading below grade level, I think that it is a secondary consideration when finding books for children reading above, especially well above, grade level because, in most cases, content appropriateness comes before the actual reading level of a book. Through my blog and work as a bookseller I encounter many parents with children in first or second grade who are reading at a sixth, seventh or eighth grade reading level. Yet, there are very few books written at these higher levels that are appropriate or even interesting to a six or seven year old. In my opinion, finding the right book for a reader is almost always more important than finding a book at the indicated reading level.

I know one seven-year-old who is reading at an eighth grade level but is currently completely engrossed by the Magic Tree House series, which is technically second grade reading level, and I think this is great. Just because the text that she is reading is not written at her optimal or highest reading ability doesn't mean that she isn't learning. While she may not exposed to an eighth grade vocabulary when reading a Magic Tree House book, there are many other important things that she is taking away from the book. Equally, a child struggling with reading or lagging in interest will benefit more from a book that grabs her interest and gives her a feeling of accomplishment when she finishes reading it and, in some cases, this book is one that is below her reading level.

When choosing a book for your child, or helping your child choose a book, what is most important, in my mind, is instilling a love of reading, a sense of adventure and a sense of curiosity. Beyond just reading a book, we want our children to have the ability to make connections between what they are reading and the world around them, to be able to put things in context and to be inspired to seek out new and different books to read and new and different subjects to learn about. 

If you are the parent of a child reading a few (or more) levels above his/her grade, please read How to Choose Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers, an article I wrote when I started my blog in 2008 and update often. My perspective and method comes from being a children's bookseller for almost 20 years and helping parents, mostly parents of children with reading levels beyond their years, find good books for their kids and it is the reason I started this blog.

What to Look for When Determining the Reading Level of a Book:

1) What the Publisher Says: On the back of the book, in the lower left or right corner, you will sometimes find a reading level indicator that will look something like this - RL2.2, most helpful, or this - RL ages 7 - 10, somewhat helpful.  RL 2.2 means that the reading level of the book is appropriate for children in the second month of their second grade school year.  Most of the books in the beginning reader series section are marked this way. However, these numbers and age ranges can be misleading.

*A note about reading levels: When I write reviews and assign reading levels to books, I am using my own experience as a parent, bookseller and reading tutor to determine what I think is the actual reading level of the book, despite what the publisher prints on the back. After writing several reviews I decided I should do a little fact checking. I came across an interesting article titled, Reading Levels of Children's Books:  How Can You Tell? which lists, with links, several different academic ways to determine the reading level of a text. I was curious, so I checked out three different methods myself using a book from The Lighthouse Family Series by Cynthia Rylant that I considered to be a high first grade reading level. For the Flesch-Kincaid Index I typed 30 sentences from three different parts of the book into my computer and relied on Microsoft Word to tell me the RL using this index. The book was deemed a 6.4 RL. Next, I used the SMOG Readability Formula, which also involves a sample of 30 sentences and a count of three syllable words within the sentences and then a little multiplying, dividing and adding to come up with a RL. This time I came up with a 7th grade RL.  For my third experiment, I went to the AR Bookfinder website run by Renaissance Learning, a for-profit company that makes and sells comprehension tests to schools based on almost every kid's book published. Renaissance Learning says that Rylant's book is a 3.8 reading level. Lexile, which, as best I can tell is a non-profit company, gives the book a 700L, which translates to a third grade reading level as well. Lexile levels start at 0 and go up to 2000. Just to give you a sense of their system, Hamlet is a 1390, Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy is 1620 and Dr Seuss's The Cat in the Hat is 260. Not really sure how helpful it is to know all this, especially when I ranked the book as a 1.5 RL, which leads me to this thought -

However you look at it, the RL of a book is only truly important when you have a new reader. Once your child is reading above a fourth grade level you need to worry more about content than RL - provided your children continue to choose books that are at or above their reading level. With new readers, you want to make sure your kids will be able to read what you give them. Books that are too challenging will cause them to lose interest in the book and possibly reading altogether. The best guideline I have found for determining if a book is the right reading level for your emerging reader, besides page count, is the 5 Finger Rule, listed below.

2) Page Number:  For emerging and chapter book readers, this is also a very useful indicator.  Most books written for a 2nd and 3rd grade reading level tend to be around 70 - 90 pages long. My article on Reading Levels, mentioned above, has a good breakdown of page counts and reading levels as well as links to reviews of books that are good examples of various reading levels. For readers not quite ready for traditional chapter books, but looking to move beyond leveled readers, I created a label I call Bridge Chapter Books, a genre that is expanding every day.

3)  FIVE FINGER RULE: Have your child read a page from a book you are considering buying.  If there are more than five words on a page that your child struggles to read, the book is probably too difficult.  If your child really wants to read the book, you might consider reading it out loud together, taking turns with the chapters. Kids do need to be challenged to improve their skills, but you also don't want to discourage them with something too difficult. It's a very fine line to walk, which is why, for the first year or so of reading chapter books, it's a good idea to have your child read a little bit of every book out loud to you. Also, when your children finish reading a book, ask them to tell you a little bit about the plot. Retention and comprehension are as important as decoding the words for beginning readers and you don't want to overlook this.

4) Third Grade Reading Level Books: For some reason, this is the hardest reading level to match books and readers. The reading abilities and maturity levels of third graders vary greatly, which adds to the difficulty of finding the right book. By my own methods, I have about 70 books that I have reviewed that I consider to be a 3rd Grade Reading Level. I use page number and content as my guide, sticking with books in the 150 - 200 page range with subjects that are more playful than serious. Many graphic novels are rated "3rd Grade RL" on my site. Then there are other standout titles, remarkable both for their stories and short page number, like the Nathaniel Fludd series by RL LaFevers, the wonderful dog story, SHEEP by Valerie Hobbs, Susan Schade and Jon Buller's superb Fog Mound Trilogy and Megan McDonald's delightful Sisters Club series, to name a few.

Once you head into the realm of 4th, 5th and 6th grade reading level books, the page number continues to be a good indicator of reading level. 4th grade books will be around 200 pages, 5th and up, over 250 pages.  JK Rowling's Harry Potter books have changed the world of children's books in so many ways, including the standard number of pages in a young adult book. 300 pages used to be considered long for a YA book fifteen years ago.  Now no one thinks twice about publishing a 500 page book for 10 year olds. The kids who tend to read the longer books are the ones who are already bookworms.  However, as JK Rowling proved, there are lots of 10 year olds willing to read 500+ pages.

And, when all else fails, feel free to email ( me and I'll be happy to help as best I can!


Anonymous said…
There is a typo in the title of this article. Determinng??
Tanya said…
Thanks for catching that typo!

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