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How to decipher reading levels

How to decipher reading levels

It can be daunting to help a child choose a “just right” book that allows them to read independently. It’s difficult to figure out if a book will work for your child. To simplify this process, most American elementary schools adopted a “reading level” system, meant to help students choose independent reading books.

But reading levels can quickly go from recommendation to mandate. That’s not good for readers, teachers, or parents! It’s time to demystify reading levels. Let’s explore how they are measured and what they can and can’t tell you about a child’s reading.

Determining Reading Levels

At most traditional American schools, elementary students have their reading progress measured by a benchmark. They may take a test on the computer or read aloud to a teacher who records their errors. The end result is a reading level meant to inform how the teacher will support the student’s reading growth.

There are three main ways to measure a student’s “reading level”: the Accelerated Reader system, the Fountas and Pinnell system, and the Lexile System. Here’s a quick breakdown of each leveling system:

Accelerated Reader: Also known as “AR,” this system measures reading level in terms of grade level. Students are given a reading level range, which represents the levels in which they can read independently and comprehend what they are reading. When choosing a book, students are often instructed to look for books in their “reading level range.” 

It’s simple to interpret a reading level: the first number represents the grade level, and the decimal represents the school year month. So if a book is leveled at 4.6, that means it is a good representation of what 4th graders should be able to read in their 6th month of the school year.

Fountas and Pinnell: Sometimes shortened to “F&P,” the Fountas and Pinnell system levels books on a scale from A-Z. Students are regularly tested to see if their reading level has improved. 

You can interpret the Fountas and Pinnell system by looking at a reading level chart. It will indicate what “letters” are on target for each grade level.

Lexile: This can be the most difficult reading level system to understand. Lexile levels represent a range of difficulty appropriate for each grade level. 

Lexile level ranges are measured using a bell curve. To use Lexile to see if a reader is on track for their grade level, look to the 50th percentile for that grade level. Students reading at or above that level are on track.

What To Do With This Information

If your child’s teacher shares their reading level with you, it’s important to know that this level is not binding! It is merely a guide that helps find books the child can read independently. Throughout a school year, a child’s reading level should increase as they become more skilled readers.

If possible, don’t talk about your child’s reading level with them at home. The reading level may feel limiting to the child. It can serve as a guide when browsing new books for them to try. But if the child is present at the bookstore or the library, you can have them read the first page aloud instead of looking up the reading level. 

More than anything, a reading level helps teachers determine who needs additional support or challenge to excel in school. It shouldn’t be a burden for young readers.

Helping struggling readers

For children reading below their grade level, reading can become a battle. It’s important to work hard to create positive associations with books and reading, regardless of a child’s skill level.

Reading aloud is a great tool to expose a struggling reader with grade-level material. You can read together, or the child can listen to audiobooks. This is an especially useful tool if the child follows along with the physical copy of the book. 

Sometimes struggling readers are embarrassed by the books they are able to read. If a 4th-grader is still reading at a 1st-grade level, they may hesitate to read 1st-grade books in front of their peers. That’s where high/low books come in. High/low books are high interest and low reading level books designed to engage reluctant readers. The books cover subjects struggling readers’ peers are interested in, preventing any embarrassment from reading “baby books.” There are many ways to find high/low books. Check with your school or public librarian for recommendations.

Supporting advanced readers

Advanced readers may be interested in reading more challenging books. Sometimes reading books written for older kids can expose gifted children to topics they are not emotionally prepared for. Try to preview books that are meant for children more than two years older than your child. If a book deals with a difficult topic, offer to read it aloud. You can also try a “buddy read,” where you each read the book independently and then discuss it.

Some advanced readers may choose to read books below their “reading level” because of the content. Many readers, young and old, enjoy reading about characters they can relate to. A 3rd-grader reading at a 6th-grade level might not be interested in reading about middle school. The content of a book should always take precedent over the reading level. If your child is interested, let them read it.

Always allow children to read books they enjoy, even if they are “too easy” based on their reading level. They are getting plenty of on-level reading opportunities at school. Any additional reading should be an opportunity to build a lifelong love of books. 

Remember that a reading level is merely a guide to support a child’s reading growth. It is not set in stone and shouldn’t be used solely to determine if a book is appropriate for a child. At home, allow your child the freedom to explore a variety of books. It makes reading more enjoyable and helps create a lifelong love of reading.

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