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Reading Levels of Children's Books:
How Can You Tell?

by Carolyn K., director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page

Check out our Reading Lists! And for great subject lists, from Science to Cartoons, Science Fiction / Fantasy to Biographies, Early Readers to Mathematics and many more topics, plus special lists for Girls and Young Women and Teen Boys, try our popular Hot Topics! Reading Lists

"Where can I get information that would tell me the generally accepted 'grade level' for commonly-read elementary school books?" This question is often asked, and the answers can be confusing. Yes, answers. There are lots of different answers. I'll try to cover the common ones.

The easiest way to find the reading level of a children's paperback book is to turn it over. Many books include the reading level, in various forms. Some books might say RL3 for reading level 3, or RL:5.9 for reading level 5.9. Less specific designations might say 007-009 for ages 7 to 9, or 0812 for ages 8 to 12. These publishers designations are confusing, particularly when you pick up one copy of a Roald Dahl book in the bookstore and see it designated as 0812, and pick up another version of the very same book and see it designated as 0712. And reading levels are generally only printed on the paperback versions of books.

Some educational publishers suggested reading levels are notoriously high (reading level indicated is higher than content, vocabulary and length would indicate, or even higher than the same book in mass market publication), but you must also consider the use of the book: in school, the students not only read the books, but study content, discuss grammar and style, plot construction, and lots of other aspects of the book.  And some mass market publication reading levels (on the back cover of paperbacks) are notoriously low; the reading level indicated is appropriate for the vocabulary and length, but the content is far more mature.

Details on a few of the most popular means for determining "reading level":

bulletRigby Leveling System Comparison
bulletAccelerated Reader (AR)
bulletFry Readability Graph
bulletAssorted other methods, in brief
bulletLexile Level
bulletSMOG Readability Formula
bulletProfessional Achievement Testing
bulletFive-finger method
bulletSchonell Reading Test
And even more levels...
bulletJerry L. Johns Reading Inventory
bullet Fountas & Pinnell's levels
bulletReading Recovery Level
bulletDevelopmental Reading Assessment (DRA) levels
bulletQualitative Reading Inventory (QRI) level
bulletFlesch-Kincaid Index / Literacy Level (LL)
bullet Edit Central Style & Diction evaluation

While you're checking out reading levels, check out Hoagies' Page Reading Lists and Hoagies' Hot Topics! Recommended, a different sort of reading list, by topic first, and reading level second - you'll love it!

Rigby provides a Leveling Guide and Comparison Leveling Chart (requires Adobe Reader).  This guide and table compare various professionally used reading levels to grade and category (emergent, early, early fluent, etc.) levels.

Many schools use the Accelerated Reader Program (A.R.) from Renaissance Learning. Even if your school doesn't use the program, you can find their estimate of the reading level of many of the books in their program. By using their Advanced Search, you can find their estimate of the grade level of books, by title, by author, or by Accelerated Reader quiz number. Renaissance Learning also offer STAR Reading software, which tests the child's reading level in 15 minutes by requiring student to complete "cloze" sentences.

Renaissance Learning developed the ATOS (Advantage-TASA Open Standard) Readability Formula for Books, that the A.R. program uses to evaluate books.  For much more, read The ATOS Readabiltiy Formula for Books and How it Compares to Other Formulas.

Note: A.R. reading levels have been recently changed; many books, both easier and harder, now appear around grade level 4 and 5, from Amelia Bedelia to Harry Potter to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to the Redwall series; the points awarded for the book vary dramatically based on length and difficulty.  

For a list of A.R. books for grades K-12, visit the AR BookFinder.

For more on the controversy of AR programs, read Does Accelerated Reader Work? The (Lack of ) Experimental Evidence Supporting the Use of Accelerated Reader by Stephen D Krashen.  Krashen points out...

The results presented here strongly suggest that of the four aspects of AR, access to books, time devoted to reading, tests, and rewards, only the first two are supported by research. There is considerable evidence that providing access to books results in more reading and better reading and considerable evidence that providing time to read results in better reading. There is suggestive evidence that incentives do not promote additional reading in the long term. The AR research literature does nothing to change these conclusions.

Some school libraries use the Fry Readability Graph, now available from from Wikipedia, to determine age level for their books.  For a free online version, visit California State University's Online Fry Graph tool.

The Fry Readability Graph site includes instructions; basically you pick a random 100-word section of prose (not dialogue) from the book, and count the words. Take that 100-word section and count the number of sentences (using approximations for incomplete sentences, for instance if the sentence had 10 words, and you could only include the first 5 in your 100 words, then add .5 sentences to your total). Take the same 100-word section and count the number of syllables therein. Graph the number of sentences vs. the number of syllables to obtain the grade level.

While this sounds quite accurate, it doesn't account at all for content - some of the titles may be rated quite low, but contain details (horror, adolescent content) that you definitely don't want your 7-9 year old reading.

Note, too, that the Fry scale wasn't intended for, and doesn't work well on fiction, rating fictional works notoriously low. Fry was originally designed to rate texts and nonfiction works. If you use the scale to rate magazine and newspaper articles it is remarkably accurate.

There are other readability scales. The Dale-Chall and Spache readability tests look primarily at vocabulary. They compare the text to a list of standard vocabulary words and calculate the percentage of words that are not on that list to determine readability. Using these scales, a text with fairly simple to decode but uncommon words might give a false high readability.

The FOG Readability Formula, and Fry and Flesch also count sentence length and syllables. Short complex sentences with unusual short words would not boost readability.

There is also the DRP scale (Degrees of Reading Power) which attempts to figure readability and comprehendability. This is important because it is possible to write in way that uses common, short words in short sentences but still produces text that is difficult to read. "With his hat in hand, the man ran. Upon the step he lit." Easy to "read", more difficult to understand.

Another reading level scale is the Lexile Level.  Using the "Search" function on this site, you can determine the Lexile level for various books.  Lexile Measure is a number indicating the reading demand of the text in terms of the semantic difficulty (vocabulary) and syntactic complexity (sentence length).  The Lexile scale ranges from 200 to 1700 Lexiles, although actual Lexile measures can range from below zero to above 2000 Lexiles.

The SMOG (also called FOG) Readability Formula can be easily calculated for any book:

bulletPick 10 sentences from the beginning, middle, and end of the book. (total of 30 sentences)
bulletCircle all words of 3 or more syllables (polysyllabic), including repetitions of the same word, and count them.
bulletA sentence is defined as a string of words punctuated with a period (.), an exclamation point (!) or a question mark (?).
bulletHyphenated words are considered as one word.
bulletNumbers which are written out should also be considered, and if in numeric form in the text, they should be pronounced to determine if they are polysyllabic.
bulletProper nouns, if polysyllabic, should be counted, too.
bulletAbbreviations should be read as unabbreviated to determine if they are polysyllabic.
bulletTake the square root of the number of polysyllabic words (round to the nearest whole number).
bulletAdd three to the square root.
bulletThis result is the SMOG grade level of the book.

For a quick conversion table for SMOG Readability Formula, and additional rules for calculating the SMOG for shorter texts, including pamphlets, visit Assessing Reading Level.

To further confuse the issue of reading levels, when my child was professionally tested her oral reading level was reported at grade level 4.6, but her comprehension (after silent reading) was at grade level 6.6. Seems that she can't pronounce the words, but understands them and/or figures out their meaning from context. This has happened in other school-based reading achievement tests she has taken. Professionals may tell you this is impossible, but her comprehension in silent reading is grades higher than she can read out loud!

Probably the easiest ways to determine if a book is at an appropriate reading level for your child is the 'five finger rule.' Have the child begin reading a chapter, and put down one finger each time he struggles with a word. If he reaches the end of the page before you get to five fingers, the book is written at a comfortable level for independent reading.

That's what I like - an easy to use method that is hard to forget.

Schonell Reading Test On-line reading level test, complete with instructions for the tester. But be aware that this tests only the level of words that your child can sound out, not his or her comprehension level.

Some schools use the Basic Reading Inventory, previously known as the Jerry L. Johns Reading Inventory to evaluate a student's reading level.  This is an informal evaluation, based on the child's responses to short interesting reading passages at each grade level.

Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS) / The Continuum of Literacy Learning
This measure is said to be much stricter / report much lower grade levels than other reading level determinations.  The Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark comes in two levels: grades K-2 (levels A-N) and grades 3-8 (levels L-Z).  The assessment is directly correlated to the instructional material in The Continuum of Literacy Learning. Using the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark requires extensive professional development, as the child is measured on a variety of skills including instructional and independent reading abilities, plus "emphasis on thinking about the author's craft."

Schools may choose to subscribe to the F&P Text Level Gradient containing 46,282 books submitted by over 300 publishers. Learn more at Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Books.

The Reading Recovery Council of North America Reading Recovery is a highly effective short-term intervention of one-on-one tutoring for low-achieving first graders.  Reading recovery levels apply only to emergent and beginning readers.

Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) levels are determined by giving a K-8 assessment (Pearson).  Determines independent reading level and instructional path...

Qualitative Reading Inventory - 4, 4th Edition is a book-based teacher-given assessment of reading level, for students from K through high school.  "Comprehensive inventory focuses assessment on specific questions regarding word identification, fluency, and comprehension..."

Flesch-Kincaid Index of a text passage results in a Literacy Level (LL) score.  Flesch-Kincaid is a specific numeric calculation:

(0.39 x Average Number of words in sentences) + (11.8 x Average Number of syllables per word) - 15.59

Edit Central's Style & Diction evaluation offers six of the most common measures for a passage of text that you type (or cut-and-paste) in, including Flesch reading ease, Automated readability, Flesch-Kincaid grade-level, and Coleman-Liau, Gunning and FOG indices.  Click demo for some interesting results...

Enough already!  No wonder we're all confused about reading levels!

1999-2014 Carolyn K., director, Hoagies' Gifted Education Page

Last updated December 01, 2020

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