Understanding Reading Levels

“Where can I find books for a first grader?” “I’m looking for level G books for my son.” Questions about reading levels are common, and for good reason: reading levels are complicated.

There are many different systems of reading levels. A couple of the most common are the Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Levels, which assign letter levels to books, and Lexile measures, which assign numbers. Different reading level systems use different measures to determine how difficult words and sentences are, so there is no direct equivalence between any two systems.

The Library has a Beginning Readers section where you can find levelled books for new readers, but each publisher uses their own levelling system. For example, a level 1 in the I Can Read! series is harder than a Penguin Young Readers level 1. And of course, there are other picture books and information books that are not labelled with a level, but that doesn’t mean that your child can’t read them!

Finding Book Level Information

In the Beginning Readers section, some publishers will include additional reading level information on the back of the book. For example, you will find Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Levels on the backs of the Penguin Young Readers and I Can Read! series, Lexile measures on World of Reading books, and grade levels on Scholastic Readers and Step Into Reading books.

There are online tools that can help find books at a specific level. For example, you can search by reading level in Scholastic’s Book Wizard and the Lexile Find a Book tool. The library catalogue even has an advanced search option for reading level where you can search by Lexile measure. 

Doing Your Own Level Test

When no reading level information is available, the Five Finger Test is a quick and easy way to find out if a book is too hard, too easy or just right.

Have your child open a book to a random page and read it. For each word they don’t know, hold up a finger. If they do not know 2-3 words on the page, this is a good level–not so hard that it will be frustrating, but it will still introduce new vocabulary. If there are five or more words on a page that they don’t know, the book will be a challenge.

The Five Finger Test only checks vocabulary. It is also helpful to check for comprehension. Ask your child to tell you about what they just read to see if they understand the book.

The Limits of Levels

It is important to keep in mind that reading levels and the Five Finger Test are only guides. In a Q&A with the creators of the Fountas and Pinnell system, they are clear that their system is only intended to be a tool for teachers. They have said that “when we restrict kids to reading on a specific level, we’re really restricting their opportunities,” and they emphasize the importance of choosing books based on interest.

Even if the words and sentences are at the right level, a book may not be a good match for a child’s age and interests. For example, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep has a Lexile measure of 760L, within the usual Lexile range for a third grader.  

Background knowledge will also affect a child’s ability to understand a book. If they already know a lot about the subject of a book, it will be easier to understand than a book with a lot of new information.

Motivation is key to advancing as a reader. Children can read beyond their level if the book interests them. If a book is much too difficult for your child to read independently but it gets them excited about reading, save that book to read together. Don’t rule out books below a child’s reading level either: they help build confidence, fluency, background knowledge and an enjoyment of reading.

Need Help?

Library staff at the Information Desk can help you find books that are both exciting for your child and at a good level. You can also find book suggestions for kids who are just starting on their reading journey in our Learning to Read booklist.

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