If you have an early reader in your family, you’ve probably already heard teachers talking about reading levels.
In America, reading levels after the emergent stage are generally referred to by grade level. You may hear parents bragging that their fourth grader reads at an eighth grade level, or expressing concern that their sixth grader prefers books at a fifth grade level. Your child’s school may use books’ grade levels to decide which books to assign for class, sort books in the school library, or assign points in reading challenges.
Teachers in the United Kingdom are more likely to use the Oxford Levels system to determine whether books are appropriate for a child’s reading level. This system also maps onto a child’s year group, but is usually discussed in more granular detail, with a twenty-point scale spanning the years between nursery school and year six.
The truth is that there are several different systems for “grading” books and a child’s overall reading ability. Books are assigned grades based on factors like the number of times words are repeated, the length and complexity of sentences, and even whether the book contains illustrations. These systems produce inexact results and rarely tend to include factors like whether the subject matter of the book is age-appropriate for a child.
While adults may think of reading first and foremost as a learning activity, children read because they enjoy the subject matter. A child who devours science fiction may still struggle with class work they find boring or difficult, even if the reading level is appropriate. Children who read books “above their level” may have difficulty dealing with subject matter intended for an older audience, even if they have no problems with reading comprehension. Many children will reread old favorites “below their level” for comfort or for the fun of seeing familiar characters.
If you are concerned that your child is not reading at the appropriate level, you can talk to their teacher for more insight into the problem. In some cases, a major mismatch between a child’s grade level and reading level can be a symptom of a learning disorder. However, it’s important to remember that in the average class, half of the students will be reading below grade level. A child reading slightly below grade level does not necessarily have a serious problem with reading comprehension.
If you have a reluctant reader or a child who’s falling below their expected reading level, try to make reading a fun activity for them, not a chore. Look for books featuring their favorite movie and television characters. Use activities like seek-and-find books to turn reading into a more interactive experience. Talk to your child about what they enjoy reading and try to find books that match their interests. Set time aside throughout the day, not just at bedtime, for reading with your family.