Public Service Announcement: Please Use Reading Levels Responsibly

I posted about this on a certain other social media the other day, but I was so bothered that I wanted to vent a little more.  While the boys were in the Lego Movie (which they loved), I decided to skip out and run errands.  I ended up at the Barnes and Noble next door, which was sort of interesting because I never go to big box book stores these days.

As I walked through the children’s section to see what they were promoting (which is the sort of dorky children’s book thing I like to do), I overheard a conversation between a mom and a daughter, who looked to be about ten years old.  The daughter was holding a copy of Scat by Carl Hiaasen and trying to tell the mom why it was the book she wanted to read next.  The mom was clearly about to buy a book, but she was dubious about this particular book.

“Tell me the level again.”

“It’s a 5.6.  But I can read it.”

The mom made unsure noises.  “No.  You’re only supposed to have a 5.5.”

Before I left the area, the mom had stuck Scat back on the shelf and had a pile of other books for the daughter to consider.  Meanwhile, the daughter was looking resigned.  They were going to get something, but it wasn’t going to be the book she wanted.

I’m not totally sure who’s to blame for what I hope we can all agree was a travesty of reading encouragement.  I suspect it’s not the mom, but rather a teacher or school that gave out rules or guidelines about what kids “should” be reading.  I’ve seen that some schools require students to read only books in a certain range and I think that’s what this was.

I used to find RL’s really annoying, but I’ve gotten to where I see that they can be helpful for parents who don’t have any context for children’s books or authors beyond just a few titles they remember from their own youth.  However, it makes me angry to see how they’re misused so terribly.  So, for your consideration, some guidelines on how to use reading levels responsibly.

Pleasure reading in a luxe grandparent bed.
Pleasure reading in a luxe grandparent bed.

1. Know what these numbers actually are.
There are several reading level systems.  RL levels are easy to understand and probably the ones that a parent is most likely to use.  The first number is the grade level, the second is the month of the grade.  So a RL 4.3 means it should be an appropriate book for a fourth grader in the third month of school.  Lexile and DRA levels are a little more complex and don’t correspond to grade or age.  Especially with Lexile levels, there’s a wider range of what is considered “appropriate” for each grade.  If you need to use those systems, then begin by looking up a few books you know well to see their numbers and get a feel for the scale.

The numbers are mostly determined by a computer.  That means they can be skewed or not follow common sense.  The computer doesn’t know that Of Mice and Men is a great work of literature, so it doesn’t mind giving it a lower Lexile score than Twilight.  The computer doesn’t know that the 6th book in the A to Z Mysteries chapter book series isn’t actually two and a half grade levels more difficult than the first book.  Special vocabulary, slang, fragment sentences, and more can all throw off the level.  And the level doesn’t always take into account things like the length of the book, the depth of the content, and the size of the text, all of which can matter a lot to a young reader’s ability to read a book.

If you’re looking at the levels, the best resource is the Book Wizard from Scholastic, which allows you to search and browse books by RL, DRA, Guided Reading, and Lexile levels.  It’s not always a great site to find a new book because nearly every American children’s book currently in print is listed there and the site won’t distinguish except by level.  But if you want to know the level of a particular book, it’s the best place to find it.

2. Interest level and adult directed labels can help you pick a read aloud, but otherwise ignore them.
Lexile has long had an “AD” label on their books.  This means that the book is “supposed” to be read aloud by an adult to a child.  Scholastic has added an “interest level” to their system.  It indicates the grade and age that a book “should” appeal to.  It can be useful to know that a book with a high RL can potentially appeal to younger kids.  In other words, the content or story is appropriate and interesting to younger listeners because then you know you can try it as a read aloud.  But take it with a grain of salt.  If a second grader isn’t interested in animal books, the interest level being right obviously isn’t going to change that.  And don’t discourage kids from reading “AD” books in their reading ability or interest level books that are supposedly below their age.  These designations are extremely subjective.

3. Treat it like an estimate – a very rough estimate.
Because these numbers are determined by a computer, there’s a margin of error.  Assume that any book might have a level that’s a good year (or a hundred points in Lexile or ten in the DRA) off.  Don’t get dogmatic about the numbers.  They’re very general.

4. Use it to know about what level your child is reading.
If you look up the RL or lexile level of a few books your child found challenging but enjoyable, then you’ve just found out what level they read at.  Then you can use that level to find other suggestions.

5. Give more weight to award winners and classics.
If a book is a Newbery winner or a well-known classic, then never worry if the level is “too low.”  These are books with meat to them beyond sentence structure or vocabulary.  These are almost always worth reading.

6. Give more weight to recommendations from real people.
An informed children’s librarian or your local bookstore children’s department will be able to give you better advice almost every time.  Another parent or another child at school who just read a good book and is passing it on word of mouth will also have better advice.  Trust the people, not the computer.

7. Remember that kids need lower level books for fluency.
While many parents dream that their children will progress constantly up, reading only the best quality books, the truth is that kids often find a stage and stick with it, reading comfortable books or returning to easier novels even when they’re technically capable of more.  The Lexile website talks about this as if it’s a terrible thing, saying children are “easily bored” by writing below their reading level.  But children often need to read to build their fluency and stamina as well as to solidify understanding of how story works and to gain information.  No one sits down to read for fun if they’re bored by a book.  Books that are “easy” can help with all of those things so children still learn from them.  In our house, we try to balance this by having one required reading book a month that is meant to stretch the kids a little, but not limiting pleasure reading.

8. Use it for suggesting books to kids, not making rulings on books kids find themselves.
Many parents don’t know what’s new or good to read out there, or hear vaguely about books but don’t know what the reading level is.  That’s what RL lists are made for.  From it, you get an estimate and know if the book is something that might be worth suggesting, buying, checking out, or strewing for your child.  But when a child has a book they want to read, don’t even bother.  If a book is too hard or so easy it’s boring, a child will naturally move on.  Let them figure it out on their own.

9 thoughts on “Public Service Announcement: Please Use Reading Levels Responsibly

  1. I’d never heard of this ratings system- how disheartening to hear that it’s being used to discourage any reading?! I read Nancy Drew in the 3rd grade, and reread Anne of Green Gables last year, at 35. I’d hate to think of anyone turning down someone whose interest in reading is piqued, especially over something so subjective!

  2. This is good to know, especially as I’m sure I’m going to run into these systems in the fall. Now I have the knowledge to back up my arguments when I say my child will be reading X or Y regardless of what she’s “supposed” to read. (On another note, when WordPress divides words between lines, there aren’t hyphens. It’s rather disconcerting.)

  3. I remember a 7th/8th grade teacher that had an extensive classroom library. Every book had a colored sticker (I think there were three or four different colors). If a student was on the developing end of the reading spectrum, they were allowed to read anything. But kids with a higher reading level were allowed to read only books “at their level” or higher (so none with say, green stickers.) And the most advanced readers were only allowed to read books with blue stickers. I recall feeling like I was missing out on some of the popular or fun choices. I get the idea; the more advanced readers weren’t supposed to take the easy road. Sure, she wasn’t keeping kids from stretching, but she was keeping kids from reading what they wanted in some cases. When we limit kids, we limit kids. (There’s the bumper sticker!)

  4. Interesting. Your point #7 is why I am OK with so called twaddle series. I don’t think they are harmful to developing a clove of reading in children. I read the Baby Sitters Club almost exclusively for a solid year when I was 6. They were easy enough to understand and enjoy, I didn’t know enough to know how predictable they were, and the author often threw in a few words I needed to look up to understand. Well meaning people often gave me much harder books, but I just wasn’t ready for say, Anne of Green Gables for a few more years.

  5. Great post – very useful. We had a kid over the other day who looked longingly at a book on our bookshelf and said, “I love that series, but my mom says I can only read books on or above my reading level. Sometimes I sneak one in at the library when I’m in school…” I thought that was rather depressing. I like your suggestion about having one assigned reading book a month to stretch them and not limiting pleasure reading.

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