Navigating Reading Levels Without Letting Them Sink You

A shelf of leveled Beginning Reader books
Each of these books is leveled under three different systems: the library’s, Accelerated Reader’s, and the publisher’s. And each publisher uses a different system. And that’s just the beginning… Image: Amy M. Weir

A couple of years ago I had a moment of ideological crisis. My then-second-grade son came home with a paper announcing that his class had done their DIBELS Reading Assessments at school, and my kid was reading at a third-grade level. Naturally, MY son reads a grade level ahead. The thought popped into my head before I realized how hypocritically smug it was. I’d always been on a professional crusade to expose Reading Levels as a crock. That very day at work, not two hours earlier, I’d printed out this article by Jon Scieszka on how to encourage reading, and hung it on the children’s reference desk.

“Do not tell them reading is magical, or good for them, or important, or something they better do for an hour before bedtime or goddammit they will end up like shiftless Uncle Dave who is always asking to borrow money,” Scieszka says.”…Do not refuse to get a book for them because it isn’t up to their reading level. Do not tell them (or me, or anyone) that they are ‘reluctant readers.’ …Promise there won’t be a quiz or a list of ten questions after the book.”

“THIS,” I proclaimed to my coworker. “Everyone who comes in here needs to read this!”

Two hours later, I sat there staring bemused at this paper from my son’s teacher, trying to reconcile my strong, long-held professional opinions with my parental desires for my children to do well in school.

It was a bit humbling. I’d been blinded by idealism. I wanted all my library patrons to just DROP all their worries about reading levels, to toss them aside as the nonsense they are, but it’s not so clear cut as all that in reality.

From a parent’s standpoint, now, I understand better where the reading level obsession is coming from. We DO want to challenge our kids’ reading skills without making reading too difficult. It’s good to hit that sweet spot with kids who are just learning to read. It was kind of cool that my son was getting poked to pick up something harder or more complicated to read than he’d be likely to choose on his own, and it’s important that not-as-proficient readers can practice their skills on a level they can succeed at.

But, as a children’s librarian dealing with the general public, there are still moments when the very concept of reading levels makes me want to scream.

I’ve had a few years now to absorb my mom-of-beginning-readers experience into my librarian experience, and now I think I can express myself in a balanced way. Here is what I, a librarian and mother, want you to know about reading levels when seeking out books for your own children.

What Do Reading Levels Even Mean?

Good question. The answer changes depending who’s done the leveling. Some people (and I used to be one myself) will use the term “Lexile Level” to refer to reading level in general, but the Lexile system  is only one method of leveling books. It analyzes the complexity of a text and gives it a rating between 200 and 1700 (or marks it with a code if the text doesn’t fit into the system’s parameters), which can be used to find just-right-to-read texts for someone who’s been tested with an official Lexile Reading Measure, but the numbers don’t correspond to age or grade level in any way, beyond that higher numbers equal more complex texts.

Oddly enough, very early readers are among the books that don’t even fall under the Lexile parameters, so it’s not likely that a student will be given an actual Lexile measure in early elementary school. Your school might use the Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Levels instead, which assign letters of the alphabet to each reading level, with A being the most basic and Z+ standing in for everything past elementary school level. Or maybe it uses the Pearson Developmental Reading Assessment, which assigns smaller numbers than the Lexile but the numbers still don’t correlate to anything more than higher=harder.

More likely you will see an actual age or grade number on a book itself, whether written very specifically as, say, 4.6 (“just right” for the average fourth grader in the sixth month of school), or as a range like Ages 8-12 or Grades 3-5. The specific numbers were determined through one of several mathematical readability tests (here’s a list with descriptions). The ranges may have been determined through tests, or they may be the publisher’s subjective recommendation.

At the same time, publishers with their own imprints for easy readers may develop their own level systems, which don’t always line up with other publishers’ systems. Random House’s “Step Into Reading” program boasts Levels 1-5, with Level 1, “Ready to Read,” recommended for preschool and kindergarten, and Level 5, “Ready for Chapters,” recommended for grades 2 through 4. Meanwhile, HarperCollins’ “I Can Read” series ranges from a level called “My VERY First” to “Level 4: Advanced Reading”— “Level 1” is actually the third level, which corresponds roughly to Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Level G and H, which corresponds roughly to late first/early second grade.

Meanwhile further, our library’s early reader section is sorted into three levels, into which I must sort books from these publishers using different systems, and which I must also label with a sticker color-coded to yet another system, Renaissance Learning’s ATOS Readability Formula, which the school district uses for its Accelerated Reader tests (which is a whole other issue I won’t get into now). Our cataloger gets a bit frustrated with me when he has to process the books in this section.

It doesn’t help tell publishers‘ systems apart, but this handy chart does show the general correlations between the most common testing levels.

So Why Bother?

It can be overwhelming to learn to read. There are certainly Matilda Wormwoods out there who jump from learning the letters to reading heavy tomes, but most people are not prodigies. Reading takes practice. If you’ve just started running or playing the piano, you don’t do marathons or “Rhapsody in Blue.” You jog a lap or play a scale. At the same time, if you want the marathons or the Gershwin, you have to build up to it, adding more laps and more complex songs as you master the easy stuff. Reading levels are a way to map out the steps you must take as you progress from sounding out letters to reading Infinite Jest.

So What’s the Problem?

You mean besides the inconsistencies between systems and the pitfalls always inherent when kids (or more often their parents) get hung up on their level label and start judging themselves or others for those labels?

First of all, the majority of leveling systems, for the sake of objectivity, use a combination of word length, sentence length, and sentence complexity in a series of equations to come up with their numbers. But these algorithms can only go so far. This became shockingly clear to me while I was marking the library’s collection with Accelerated Reader levels a few years back. I found at least one mind-numbingly inappropriate level designation a day, but within a few minutes, I marked two books with a fourth grade sticker that could not have been more extreme: Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

How? you ask. Easy: it’s math. Hemingway, with his short, simple sentences, scores at a much lower level than his content is actually appropriate for. And Seuss, while known for practically inventing the Actually-Entertaining-Beginning-Reader genre, likes inventing nonsense words and using run-on sentences. Leveling systems based entirely on numbers can’t make these distinctions. Easy readers about dinosaurs will consistently test in the fifth grade range just because the dinosaurs have long Latin names, even though kids who are dinosaur fanatics knew most of those words when they were three.

The Accelerated Reader system attempts to rectify this by also allowing users to search for books by “Interest Level” as well as “ATOS Book Level.”  We at the library put books into sections by relative interest level (leveled readers excepted), with baby board books on one end of the floor and Young Adult novels on the other end. But these distinctions aren’t made obvious to the average parent. They see “Level 2.5” on a book and assume it must be a book for second graders—which it probably is. But when a parent asks me, “Where are the blue dot (our color code for ATOS Level 2.*) books?” I will ask them more questions right back: is this child actually in 2nd grade or are they reading higher or lower? What kind of stories do they like? Do they even like reading yet? What do they like to do when they’re not reading? Then I can direct the parent not just to the blue dot books, but the right blue dot books.

And how do the parent and teacher know which level to look for, anyway? There are only two methods, complementing each other, to determine what specific level a student is reading at, and both are faulty by nature. First, the student reads some leveled passages and the teacher keeps tracks of errors and hesitations. Since the teacher is not likely a telepath, the student has to read out loud. READING OUT LOUD AND READING SILENTLY ARE TWO DIFFERENT SKILLS. Someone reading out loud can be hampered by speech impediments, shyness or public speaking fears, or even accent, causing “errors” in a passage that they could read perfectly well silently to themselves.

I mean, try it. Here’s a dare for you. There’s this great book that Accelerated Reader says is 2.1—first month of second grade. You’re all past that, right? So you can totally read it aloud, cold, with no errors? It’s by Dr. Seuss, and it’s called Fox in Socks.

Okay, that’s not fair of me. Passages used to test elementary students for reading level are not written to be tongue-twisters. But it still stands that reading aloud adds a level of difficulty, negligible for some people maybe but a good deal harder for others. That’s why many test designed to determine a student’s reading level also include comprehension questions on a silently-read passage. But that’s still evaluating a different skill. Yes, comprehension is an important part of reading. But answering test questions is a skill in and of itself, and it’s a skill that’s not required for reading.

Still, the tests allow teachers to get the basic idea of a student’s reading level. It’s only a problem when people forget to give leeway for testing errors. Your tested reading level is not a stone-carved prescription, and should not be used as such. It’s a guideline. A general estimate.

I wouldn’t have an issue with reading levels if people used them merely as general estimates. But too many people use them to restrict reading choice, instead. Sometimes a teacher will assign students to read books only at their level or the level immediately above. More often it’s a parent who says, “You can’t read that! It’s not at your level!” and makes the kid put a book back. And that’s when I make angry faces inside my head (while I cheerfully recommend “Maybe both books?” out loud).

The average adult reading material is written at a seventh-grade level. This article is written at a tenth-grade level, mostly because I can’t seem to stop using long words and run-on sentences. Last time I took a reading level placement test—when I started college—I found out I read at a “Grade 16+ level.” If I was required to read materials only at my level or above, I’d be stuck reading nothing but doctoral dissertations for the rest of my life.

This would be a shame. Some of my favorite books, that have touched my heart and/or funny bone as an adult, are written at Emergent Reader levels. Some of them can’t even be tested for reading level because they have no words at all. It takes talent and skill to craft a good children’s book, to make words so simple be so meaningful. Dissertations may be more complex, but they are not, usually, art.

What Should We Do About Reading Levels, Then?

Number one: DON’T STRESS. Because reading level is not an exact science, don’t treat it as one. Let it help you in a general direction.

The “five-finger rule” is a quick way children are often taught to find books on their level entirely on their own. Start reading a random page in the middle, and count on your fingers each time you hit a word you can’t read or don’t understand. Pass five, and it’s probably too hard. But one to five means the book is a just-right challenge. No problems? Then the book is at a comfortable level for you. You’ve mastered it. Your teacher might not let you use it for an assignment. BUT FOR GOSH SAKE DON’T TOSS IT SCORNFULLY AWAY.

If the teacher does assign a specific reading level, don’t let the restriction spread beyond the assignment. Think of it as having to pick a biography or science book for a particular book report. The specific level is the requirement of the assignment, not the requirement of reading in general. So you didn’t count any fingers doing a five-finger test? So the book has a red “First Grade” sticker and you’re supposed to find a yellow “Third Grade” book? Get both. Never, ever tell a kid they’re not allowed to read a book at all simply because it’s the wrong level. That’s how you kill the idea of reading for fun.

Let kids’ interests guide the way. If they really, really want to read a book and the reading level is too high? You may be surprised at what motivation can drive them to accomplish. Dinosaur names are no sweat for a dinosaur lover.

That’s not the same as reading a book with a content level that is too high. This is a common dilemma for kids who score unusually high on reading placement tests. What do you give an eight-year-old who reads at a seventh-grade level? The first thing I always want to ask is, does it matter? Obviously this kid has got this reading thing mastered, it’s not like they need to work on their decoding skills. If the school says, yes, all students must find a book on their reading level for this assignment, then we do need to seek out a book on a seventh-grade level with content appropriate for a second grader (classics like Little Women or Treasure Island come in handy at times like these). But if reading a book on their level is not actually required, let them read whatever they want. Okay, you might want to steer them away from some content, but you might be surprised: kids can be ready for more than you think. And when they’re not, they’re self-censoring, and will set aside a book that makes them too uncomfortable, frightened,  or confused, of their own free will.

But you want your advanced reader to be challenged, so their skills can grow? Rethink how to challenge them. Instead of focusing on reading level, focus on what they do with what they read, at any level.  Encourage them to create and expand on what they’ve read. Like take a wordless picture book and write a (worded) story to go with it. Retell a familiar story in a new setting. Write fanfiction. Write blurbs to encourage other kids to read favorite books. Learn how to write a carefully-thought-out-critical review.

Most importantly, never mistake Reading Level for Quality Level. Mo Willems’ There Is a Bird on Your Head! (ATOS Level 1.0) is nothing short of genius, and “Cookies” from Frog and Toad Together (HarperCollins “I Can Read” Level 2) is my favorite short story, period, at any reading level. You don’t learn to love words by refusing to read the ones that don’t challenge you enough. You learn to love words by reading, widely and without inhibition.

Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 10yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 8yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.