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100L, H, 4.6…OMG! Understanding Reading Levels

Did you know that the children’s collection at Calgary Public Library includes thousands of books? With so many options, it can be intimidating to choose books for your growing reader.

One way to choose reading material is based on a book’s reading level. Reading levels are common in a school setting but can be confusing for caregivers wondering how reading levels apply to their child’s learning-to-read journey.

What are reading levels?

Schools may use a variety of leveling systems to help guide the book choices children make when reading. “Leveled readers” allow students to be challenged enough by the book that they are growing as readers, but not so challenged that they have lost all meaning and enjoyment from it. Books organized by reading levels are a classroom tool, meant for schools and the school market. In some cases, leveled-readers series can only be purchased by schools and the rights are not available for public libraries.

Using leveled readers is just one way for students to experience books and to support the learning-to-read journey. Reading levels do not always align with a child’s age or ensure that a reader at that level will be personally interested in the topic.

“A level is a teacher’s tool, not a child’s label.” (Fountas and Pinnell)

There are several reading level book series you may come across, including these common systems:

Fountas and Pinnell is one of the most widely used leveled reader series in the classroom. This publisher assesses the text of a book on criteria including word count, high frequency words, and sentence complexity. There are 27 Fountas and Pinnell reading levels.

The Accelerated Reader (or AR) program was developed by Renaissance Learning, Inc. and uses quizzes to assess a reader’s skill. Their system of leveling books is called the ATOS® reading formula, which evaluates the text of a book based on average sentence length, average word length, vocabulary grade level, and number of words in the book. ATOS levels are numerical — the lower the ATOS® score, the easier the text should be.

The Lexile Framework measures both an individual’s reading ability and a text’s readability. The Lexile levels are based on reading comprehension tests taken by students across the United States. The Lexile ranges change when new test scores are reported. Generally, the lower the number, the simpler the text. The letters before the Lexile numbers are “Lexile codes,” two-letter designations to give more information about the book. For example, AD stands for Adult-Directed, which is for books meant to be read to children by an adult.

Publisher leveled readers are usually a series of books with their own system of leveling that vary from publisher to publisher. These books can be purchased at a bookstore or found at the Library and may also be used in a classroom. At Calgary Public Library, these books are called “X Books” or “Easy Readers.” For example, HarperCollins produces the popular “I Can Read!” series, which has six levels. The title Batman: Dino Dilemma is a level 2 reader, which the publisher says is geared towards kids who can read on their own but still need a little help.

Should I use reading levels at home?

While it may be helpful to understand what reading levels mean, recent best practice in education and public libraries is to focus on fostering a love for reading first. Children learn to love reading when they are allowed to read what they want and families read together often in English and/or in their home language. Public libraries have books published in a wide range of world languages.

Reading above or below the level that corresponds with the student’s grade or age is fine and often encouraged. A reader may be drawn to a challenging or “stretch” book if it’s about a particular topic that they enjoy. This is a great workout for their reading brain and an opportunity to share a good book together. A reader may also find it enjoyable and relaxing to read a book that is easier and familiar. Building positive associations with reading can help a child become a reader for life.

Tip to Try When Choosing A New Book:

  1. Have your child choose a book that they will enjoy.
  2. Invite them to read the second page.
  3. Together, hold up a finger for each word they are not sure of or do not know.
  4. If there are five or more words they did not know, consider an easier book.

If your child needs support to help them become a stronger reader, consult an education professional.

Where should I start?

The Library’s children’s collection complements kids that are learning to read and aims to support them by encouraging a love of reading. While the X Book or “Easy Reader” collection is targeted for kids learning to read, there are other collections that children enjoy, such as Z picture books, audio books, and nonfiction. Choose books with high interest characters, great illustrations, and humour to help keep readers engaged. An interested reader who is having fun is more likely to keep reading.

The most important thing to do is to encourage any reading. All reading is good reading, whether fiction, nonfiction, comic books, chapter books, audio books, or picture books. Library staff are happy to help recommend amazing stories that are a great fit for your growing reader, whether in print or digital format. See a list of staff recommendations of Easy Readers for every reader.

Easy readers and other collections are also available in digital format through OverDrive and TumbleBook Library, with audio options and accessibility features. Exploring a variety of formats helps children experience the joy of reading in different ways.

Additional Resources:

This blog post is published as part of The Kitchen Table Classroom: A Series to Support Learning from Home, a partnership with Edmonton Public Library. Visit our Programs page to register for the next live online workshop in the series, coming up in January.

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