Making Sense of Book Reading Levels

Reading together

To encourage children to take an interest in reading, it's important to understand how to evaluate the reading levels of books. Books that are too easy are unlikely to hold a child's attention, while books that are too difficult can cause unnecessary frustration.

How Reading Levels Are Determined

In the United States, many elementary schools use the Accelerated Reader Program from Renaissance Learning to assign reading levels to books in their library. The company uses the ATOS Readability Formula for Books to evaluate assign reading levels. Some of the factors looked at in determining readability levels include average word length, average sentence length, and the average vocabulary grade level of words.

Other systems sometimes used to determine reading levels of books include:

  • Rigby Leveling System Comparison
  • Fry Readability Graph
  • Lexile Level
  • SMOG Readability Formula
  • Professional Achievement Testing
  • Schonell Reading Test

It is interesting to note that various reading level systems will often assign different age or grade level equivalents to the same title. Discrepancies most often occur in books for emergent readers or non-fiction titles for older children that require understanding specialized vocabulary. However, the assigned numbers should certainly be accurate enough to use as a starting point for selecting appropriate books.

Using Scholastic BookAlike

If you're confused by the systems used to determine the reading levels of books, one easy tool to simplify the process is the Scholastic BookAlike library recommendation wizard. Simply enter a title of a book your child is reading, then select whether you are looking for materials that are easier, at the same reading level, or more challenging. The tool will then provide a list of book recommendations, along with their interest level and grade level equivalents. If applicable, there will also be a link to where you can buy the book online.

Special Challenges

In most cases, the reading levels of books are indicated by a general grade or age level. This is a perfectly adequate system for children with average reading ability. If your child is reading significantly above or below grade level, however, choosing appropriate books becomes a bit more challenging.

Below Grade Level Reading Skills

Since reading levels are assigned based on average progress towards grade level standards, children who are struggling to master literacy skills often find the books that match their reading ability cover topics that are too "babyish" to be appealing. A child who is in the sixth grade, but only reads at a second grade level, is likely to have very different interests and attitudes than a typical second grade reader.

The best way to deal with finding books for children who read below grade level is to look for lists of high interest/low readability books. Sometimes referred to as hi-lo books, these are books that are written to address the topics likely to be of interest to older children and teens, but at a vocabulary level that is appropriate for a lower reading level.

Above Grade Level Reading Skills

Finding appropriate books for gifted and talented children can be a challenging task as well. Children who read well above grade level may be ready for books that use a more complex vocabulary and plot structure, but they aren't necessarily ready for books that deal with adult level themes. For example, most parents wouldn't want their eight year old to be reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou even if she is several years ahead of her peers in her reading ability.If you have a child who reads above grade level, you may wish to ask her teacher for reading recommendations. You can also review the LoveToKnow Children's Books article Chapter Books for Gifted Children for suggestions on selecting appropriate material for advanced readers.

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Making Sense of Book Reading Levels