READING LEVELS - AR, Lexile and Me, How the Professionals Determine Reading Levels

 How I assign reading levels to books, how the publishers do it, how schools do it and how you can help your reader find the right book at the right time
After recent emails and years of observing parents in the bookstore checking the back cover of books and trying to figure out the reading level (what does ages 8 - 11 or RL 2.4 really mean??) and now after three years working as an elementary school librarian and working with a population of students who are English Language Learners reading, mostly, below grade level, I have decided write a post attempting to explain what I know about reading levels from a reader's, parent's, bookseller's and librarian's perspective and how I use this knowledge to determine reading levels when reviewing a book. For those of you who would like tips for determining reading levels while perusing the bookstore or online yourself, you can find some basic guidelines in my article How to Tell the (Real) Reading Level (RL) of a Book. If you have children who are reading a few or several grade levels above their age, my article How to Choose Age Appropriate Books for Advanced Readers is also full of good guidelines and tips to use when selecting a book.

How I Determine (imprecisely) the Reading Level of a Book
Above all else, this has to be the most obvious and simple method to determining the reading level of a book that I have learned as a parent, bookseller, reading tutor and reader of kid's books: PAGE NUMBER AND FONT SIZE AS READING LEVEL INDICATOR for chapter books. Since 1st - 3rd grade tends to be the most important period for developing readers as well as the most difficult time for determining the reading level of a book, I tell parents to use the page-number-and-font-size-as-guide method in combination with the 5 FINGER method (have your child read a page of text - if there are more than 5 words your child is unable to read on the page, the book is probably too difficult.)

Page Number as Reading Level Guide:

1st grade reading level: 50 - 75 pages
The Andy Shane series by Jennifer Richard Jacobsen and Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa series by Erica Silverman are perfect examples of books written at this level. And, unlike other excellent books at this reading level, such as Frog and Toad, Poppleton and Houndsley and Catina, all of which are reviewed on my blog and can be found under the "Reading Level 1" label, these books happen to look like chapter books and not the larger format beginning reader books. The look of a book really matters to some kids - especially those who are a younger sibling and want to be like their big brother or sister. Also, you will notice that the font used in lower level books is somewhat larger than in higher reading level books.

2nd grade reading level: 75 - 125 pages
Horse Crazy series by Alison Lester, the Daisy Dawson series by Steve Voake and Megan McDonald's Stink series are good examples of a second grade reading level book. Recently, publishers have begun filling a niche that makes the jump from leveled readers to chapter books a bit easier. I have labeled these Bridge Chapter Books. More challenging that leveled readers, but not as dense and complex as a chapter book like Magic Tree House or Junie B. Jones, these books have more illustrations and a larger font size making them easy to spot and very fun to read.

3rd grade reading level books: 125 pages - 200 pages
MT Anderson's wacky Whales on Stilts and Julie Bowe's wonderful My Last Best Friend are perfect examples of books written at a third grade reading level. Plots become more complex in details, vocabulary and emotional depth. Again, font gets a little smaller.

4th grade reading level: 225 - 300 pages
Diana Lesczynzki's Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeliene L'Engle are good examples of books at a fourth grade reading level. The font size is now standard. Plots are complex and the number of characters and locations in the story increases.

5th grade reading level: 300 pages and up
Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass, The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd and The Time Travelers by Linda Buckley-Archer are great examples of books I have assigned a 5th grade reading level. The plots are more complex as are the interactions between characters and the circumstances they find themselves in. Often, books at this level begin to introduce realistic detailed portrayals of the lives of adults and child characters often find themselves in greater peril than in a book written at a lower reading level. In books written in the fantasy genre, suspense and violence often become part of the plot and, in reality based books, life events like divorce, betrayal and disappointment between characters will enter into the plots.

6th grade reading level: 300 pages and up
For me, the only real distinction between a 5th and a 6th grade reading level book is the appropriateness of the content. When I assign a book a 6th grade RL there are either vivid scenes of violence or intense personal interactions. I have only given a handful of books this rating. Deeper, the second in the stunning series by Brian Williams and Roderick Gordon, is an action packed book that, by its very nature involves violence. While this is a small part of the book, I feel like the descriptions and images are something young minds, no matter how sharp or capable of understanding the significance of, should be free from for a while longer. The same is true of Alison Lester's wonderful, emotionally wrenching book The Snow Pony in which a scene of brutality toward animals and a young man's drunken pass at a teenage girl along with her desperate escape seem like more than young readers should be exposed to, despite the book being just under 200 pages.

And, finally, I need to add that there will always be remarkable books under 200 pages that could be considered 3rd grade reading level but have the content of a 5th or 6th grade level book. I have created a category called short books - BIG IDEAS that includes books like Paul Fleischman's excellent Seedfolks which, at 102 pp has a handful of narrators, adults and children, including a pregnant teen who discusses her unhappiness with being pregnant and is clearly not a second grade reading level book.

For those of you who are interested in a more academic assessment of reading levels, the following is for you.

Professional Companies/Databases that Determine Reading Levels:
Renaissance Learning: Advanced Technology for Data Driven Schools (thank you, No Child Left Behind?) is a for profit company that specializes in computer proctored tests that, in the case of reading, determine how much of the text the child comprehended and retained. Teachers often use their Accelerated Reader program not only as a gauge of their students' abilities and growth, but as an incentive driven means to ensuring children are reading and reading at the appropriate level. Schools can buy tests individually or, recently they have had the option of paying a flat yearly fee to have access all of the tests. This company has tests for a vast number of books and is adding new tests almost as quickly as new books are published. To use their database and determine a reading level of a book click here. Although there is a specific formula used to determine grade levels that involves page number, number of syllables in words and other factors, I often find their assigned reading levels below what I would guess at. Also, content is rarely taken into consideration by this company when determining reading levels.. Here is an example: The Accelerated Reader grade level for the popular adult book that was recently made into a movie, The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is given a 4.7 reading level, the same as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time.

I have mixed feelings about Accelerated Reader program, both as a parent of children who have used it in the classroom and as a bookseller trying to help parents and children find books to read. From the position of children's bookseller, the program seems to do more to discourage creative, independent reading than nurture it. However, I think that the kids who are creative, independent readers don't really need this program to chart or grow their skills. What they need is an enthusiastic and well read adult who can talk about books with them and guide their tastes and interests when needed. It seems that the struggling and emergent readers benefit most from this program while the average and above average readers are often forced to read within the sometimes narrow parameters of the tests owned by the school and the appropriate determined reading level range. I have had parents ask me to find books for their child that are at a 4.7 reading level (this means 7 months into the 4th grade school year, which should represent a higher level of learning/difficulty than 4.0, the first month of the 4th grade school year), not a decimal below or above. Is it really necessary to be so rigid in adhering to the program? Unless the parents are armed with this information - reading levels and tests owned by the school - when they set foot in the bookstore, they are forced to rely on the school library alone for reading materials for their children. The library at the elementary school my children attended was and is very small and the budget for both books and librarians continues to shrink, thus making the collection of books to choose from not particularly inspirational.

The Lexile Framework for Reading: Matching readers with texts has been around longer than the Accelerated Reader program and is used in public schools in all 50 states as a means of measuring a student's ability and measuring the reading level of a book. Barnes and Noble has recently partnered with Lexile, both in the store and at to provide Lexile measures for books and search for books within a specific range. As described on their site, The Lexile Framework for Reading is used at the school level in all 50 states and by more than 150 publishers. A Lexile measure, which is represented by a number followed by the letter "L" (e.g., 850L), is a true measure of a child's reading ability that may not necessarily correlate with a grade level. The Lexile measure helps parents to select reading materials that match their child's individual needs and interests. Each year, tens of millions of Lexile measures are reported from reading assessments and programs, representing about half of U.S. students. More than 115,000 books and 80 million articles have Lexile measures, and these numbers continue to grow.

Lexile assigns a book a number from 0 to 2000 but does not report student ability or reading level of a book through grade levels, which I like. As their site states, "There are fundamental differences between Lexile measures and grade equivalents. The Lexile measure represents a student's level on a developmental scale of reading ability—the Lexile scale. In contrast, a grade equivalent represents a student's ability level in comparison to students who were in the specific test's norming group." However, they do provide the following charts:

GradeReader Measures, Mid-Year
25th percentile to 75th percentile (IQR)
1Up to 300L
2140L to 500L
3330L to 700L
4445L to 810L
5565L to 910L
6665L to 1000L
7735L to 1065L
8805L to 1100L
9855L to 1165L
10905L to 1195L
11 and 12940L to 1210L

Text Demand Study 2009
25th percentile to 75th percentile (IQR)
"Stretch" Text Measures
25th percentile to 75th percentile (IQR)
1230L to 420L220L to 500L
2450L to 570L450L to 620L
3600L to 730L550L to 790L
4640L to780L770L to 910L
5730L to 850L860L to 980L
6860L to 920L950L to 1040L
7880L to 960L1000L to 1090L
8900L to 1010L1040L to 1160L
9960L to 1110L1080L to 1230L
10920L to 1120L1110L to 1310L
11 and 121070L to 1220L1210L to 1360L

In my experience, the Lexile scores seem to be more appropriately matched to difficulty and content. Lexile gives Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife a score of 780, putting it at a roughly 7th grade reading level, rather than the Accelerated Reader program which scores it at a 4.7 grade/reading level. Interestingly, Lexile gives A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle a ranking of 740. Like the Accelerated Reader program, both score the books as being roughly equal in difficulty, despite one being an adult book and one written for children. I was curious to see if there were any contemporary or classic novels that scored a high ranking. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake scored a 1210. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy scored a 1240. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen a 1190. Bleak House by Dickens scored an 1180. Toni Morrison's Beloved scored an 870. Hamlet scored a 1390. Books by Nicholas Sparks, Erenst Hemingway and William Faulkner and Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code all scored around 850.Lexile tests for to determine a reader's range cannot be taken on line but must be administered by through state or reading agencies that are listed on their website.

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