How to Determine the Reading Level of a Book

Leveling the field

If you have a child in school, then you’ve probably heard the term “reading level.” Your child’s teacher may have mentioned it when discussing the importance of reading practice. It may have come up during a parent-teacher conference. But, what does “reading level” actually mean? Why does it matter? And, how can you easily determine reading level of a book that is a good match for his level of reading skill?

What is reading level?

Reading level is simply a way to identify how complex a book a child can read independently. You might be tempted to reason that if your child is in the second grade, then books that are labeled for second graders will be the perfect fit for him. That’s not necessarily true. In most classrooms today, students read at a wide range of different levels. Most schools administer reading assessments periodically to determine the reading comprehension level of each child.

Why does reading level matter?

Reading level matters for a few very simple reasons. If your child is reading a book that is too far above his current ability, then he will likely become frustrated and discouraged. On the other hand, if a book is too far below his reading level, it won’t challenge him enough. He won’t encounter new words or more complex sentences, and his reading skills simply won’t grow. A book that is too far below your child’s reading level might also simply be boring. The ideas and words won’t be complex enough to catch his interest or fire his imagination.

How is reading level measured?

A search of the Internet quickly reveals a dizzying array of reading-level systems with obscuring names like ATOS, Basal Equivalent and Fry Readability Graph. It’s enough to make your head spi!. Let’s take a look at some of the most commonly used readability systems.

  • Fountas-Pinnell Guided Reading Level – Sometimes referred to as Fountas and Pinnell, or even simply as Guided Reading Level, this reading-level system supports the guided reading program designed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. The level of individual books are classified by assessing a number of factors, including word repetitions, sentence length and complexity, and even the number of illustrations.
  • DRA – DRA refers to a standardized reading test called the Developmental Reading Assessment. This reading system assigns books different reading levels that correspond with the different scores that children can earn on the test. After taking the test, a child is assigned a letter/number score from A1 through 80. His teacher – or parents – can then find books with the same DRA score.
  • Lexile Framework for Reading – Called the Lexile measure or the Lexile level, this scoring system was developed by an educational research team funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Using test scores from a standardized reading test or from the Scholastic Reading Inventory test (SRI), this system converts those test scores into equivalent reading levels making it possible to match students with the reading material best suited for their growing abilities.
  • Grade Level Equivalent – Perhaps the easiest of the reading leveling systems to understand, Grade Level Equivalent measures a student’s reading level by comparing it to the expected reading level for each school year. Fourth graders in their first month of the school year whose reading skills are at that grade level would be given a reading level score of 4.1. This stands for fourth grade, first month of school. A struggling reader in the fourth grade would have a lower score, 3.6, for example. This would mean that this child was reading at a level usually expected of a third grader in the sixth month of the school year.

How can I determine my child’s reading level?

Measuring a child’s reading level is complex. Different systems measure different factors, including text complexity, word speed and even comprehension. Your child’s school will assess his reading level, most likely using a variety of methods and maybe even some good, old-fashioned teacher intuition. If you want to know your child’s reading level, your best bet is to simply ask his teacher.

How can I determine the reading level of a book?

Trying to find books that match your child’s reading level? Once again, the first step is to talk to his teacher. She will be able to offer many suggestions and may even have a reading list available. Another good resource is the school librarian. Books in the school library will already be sorted by reading level. The librarian should be able to point you to the right section.

Need more resources? Consider these:

  • Renaissance ATOS analyzer – This text wizard allows you to input text – or even upload a file – to see how it rates on the Advantage TASA Open Standard readability formula. You can input a sentence, an excerpt or an entire book. Renaissance also has a book finder where you can check to see if the level of the book you’re curious about is already on file. The book finder lets you search for both the ATOS score and the Lexile measure using a book’s title or author.
  • Scholastic’s Book Wizard – offers a Book Wizard that allows you to search through over 65,000 children’s books. Using a book’s title or author you can search using one of four different reading level systems. You can also filter results by genre, subject and grade level.
  • Lexile look up – The Lexile Framework for Reading website lets you look up books that match your child’s reading level. You can also look up the reading level of an individual book on the same page, using the book’s ISBN number or its title. Hint: the “Quick Book Search” tab is at the top right of the page.
  • Correlation chart – If you already know the reading level of a book under one of the leveling systems, but need to know what the same book would rate under another system, then use this correlation chart offered by the State of Washington’s public library system. Simply move down the column under the system that you already know until you find the right rating, then move across the page – left or right – to the correlating number in the column of the system you’re hoping to target.

Learning your child’s reading level and then finding books that match is a great idea! You’ll be able to keep him engaged and learning without overwhelming him with text that is too complex or with words that are simply beyond his ability.