Choosing Books at the Right Reading Level

As a children’s librarian, I frequently work with parents who want advice on books that are the correct reading level for their kids. For the record, librarians like giving book recommendations, so if you are one of those parents, by all means continue asking those questions! But keep in mind that, for a personalized reading suggestion, we need a little more information than just your child’s age or grade level. Different children progress at different paces. And the child’s interests really do make a difference; most kids will have an easier time reading a book that they find interesting than one that they find boring.

As a librarian, the best way for me to make a good, individualized book recommendation is to ask the child (or the adult who is book-searching on the child’s behalf) questions about what books he or she has read recently and what he or she thought of them. At some point in the interaction, if the child seems interested in reading, I’m probably just going to hand a book to the child and ask if it looks good. But if the child isn’t there in person, that isn’t an option, and if the child isn’t a very enthusiastic reader, it’s up to me to find something that catches his or her interest, which often requires that it has to be at just the right reading level. It can’t be too overwhelming or too babyish, or else the reluctant reader will instinctively dislike it.

I know that a lot of parents and teachers are very concerned about finding books at the exact right level, so I’m offering a few tips for grownups on how to evaluate the reading level of a children’s book. Most of this information comes from personal experience, but I am also referring to the book From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Book by Kathleen T. Horning. This book is considered a definitive resource and was used in several of my graduate classes, but it’s not too technical for non-professionals, so I would recommend it to parents who are looking for such a resource. (My copy is the second edition, which is from 2010. I assume that the 1997 edition is just as good, but out-of-date in terms of the specific books it mentions.)

Choosing Books for Babies

There are benefits to reading aloud to even newborn babies, and it’s generally true that any books are better than no books, but it still is a good idea to keep in mind that babies get more out of baby books than “big kid” books. Because of the limitations of a baby’s eyesight, books with large, simple, brightly colored pictures are usually more appealing than realistic or highly nuanced art. Babies generally can’t comprehend plot, so concept books (i.e. books about colors, shapes, animals, or household objects) are more logical choices. Adults might not be particularly fascinated by a books where the text is a list of words rather than a story, but those types of books are age-appropriate for very young children and can help them build vocabulary and other verbal skills. Even at that age, rhymes and alliteration are great for building early literacy skills.

Board books are often the best choice for babies because, let’s face it, baby books are going to end up in baby mouths. It’s a great idea to let a young child handle his or her own books, but that doesn’t mean that a standard picture book is off-limits for babies. Plenty of picture books, like those by Byron Barton, are also great choices for babies.

Choosing Books for Toddlers

By the time a child is walking and running around, the length of the book becomes a major factor. If you are the parent or caregiver of the child in question, you know better than anyone else how long that child is able to sit and listen. For toddler storytimes, I typically use picture books (generally 32 pages long) that have about one sentence or phrase per page, but at home, you may be able to read longer books to your own toddler.

Bright, simple pictures are still preferable, and plots should be pretty simple. For example, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin are both good choices, and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is fine in terms of plot, although it’s a bit long. But most fairy tales are a bit too complex for most children younger than about three. A lot of toddlers already have certain topics they’re interested in, such as a favorite animal, a favorite color, a favorite food, trains, trucks, princesses, fairies, etc. It’s a smart idea for caregivers to cater to those interests when selecting books. Also, by the time a child is talking, it’s recommended to let them pick out their own reading materials, at least on occasion.

Choosing Books for Preschoolers

Just like every other age range, preschoolers exhibit a wide range of attention spans. As with toddlers, the parent or primary caregiver knows best, but in general, two or three sentences per page is a good average for that age range. The context also matters; bedtime stories for one or two children can often be longer than a book for a classroom or library storytime. Some preschool-aged children have a long attention span for books and can listen to books with multiple paragraphs per page, but it’s fine if your preschooler isn’t ready for that.

It’s fine and even beneficial to read books to a preschooler that contain unfamiliar words or somewhat complex sentence structure. Plots can also be more complicated than in books for toddlers. Rhyming and alliteration is still great; many of Dr. Seuss’s books are perfect for preschoolers. Most (although not all) picture books are age-appropriate. Again, it’s very good for kids at this age to pick their own books and/or their favorite subjects. Many preschoolers will have a favorite book that they want to read all the time, or a favorite character, and it’s fine for parents to cater to that interest.

Choosing Books for Beginning Readers

Some children start recognizing letters and sounding out words when they’re preschoolers; others are in kindergarten before they start reading on their own, and some kids are in first or second grade before they’re reading very fluently. For that range from advanced preschoolers to less advanced second graders, picture books are still a valid option, but levelled readers are ideal. Readers are generally smaller than picture books, often six and a half inches by nine inches, and have large text and controlled vocabulary suited for someone who is just learning how to read.

Unfortunately for parents, each publisher has their own system for delineating levels. I tend to think of these books as coming in three distinct levels. The easiest ones generally have sentences of no more than five monosyllabic words, with one sentence per page, very large text, and lots of blank space. A good example is the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems. The next level up has slightly smaller text and slightly longer sentences with some multi-syllable words, but still has no more than a few words per line. There can be multiple lines of text per page, but generally no more than four or five. Because of the controlled vocabulary and simple sentence structure, the language will sound stilted and repetitive. That’s the biggest difference between the second and third level. The most advanced of this category of books, such as Cynthia Rylant’s many titles, will have smaller pictures, several lines of text on most pages, more natural-sounding language, and perhaps even some unfamiliar vocabulary. However, there will still be pictures on every page, and the text size will be larger than an adult would consider normal. Text size is key; most children instinctively evaluate the reading level of a book by text size and will make judgements about whether a book is too “babyish”, too hard, or just right, largely based on that factor.

Choosing Books for Young Independent Readers

For many readers, the transition into chapter books is fairly gradual. Some kids are ready for chapter books as early as first grade; others aren’t comfortable at that level until about third grade. From Cover to Cover uses the term transitional books to refer to the easy chapter books that make a good intermediate step. At many libraries, some books of this type, such as the Nate the Great series, are shelved with the readers, while others, especially if they’re paperbacks, are with the chapter books. These books are still characterized by large text size, short sentences without long words, and pictures, but they often also have chapters. The text will be divided into paragraphs, but there will be large margins. Typically, there will be about fifteen lines per page, and sentences will be arranged into paragraphs.

Many books at this level come in long series. One of my favorite series to recommend to this age level is Mary Pope Osbourne’s Magic Tree House series. Other good choices include Ron Roy’s two mystery series, some of Jon Scieszka’s shorter chapter books, the American Girls books, and the extremely popular Rainbow Magic Fairy series by Daisy Meadows. Even at this age, picture books are fine. Reading longer books aloud, one chapter at a time, is a good idea, too.

Choosing Books for Older Independent Readers

By the time a child is in third or fourth grade, he or she will probably be comfortable reading a book with smaller text, less white space, and no pictures. Sentence structure will be still a bit more complex and varied, and vocabulary a bit more advanced, than in early chapter books, and the books will be longer. By this reading level, they will vary greatly in length; anything between about 120 and about 300 pages is in what I’d consider the normal range. As at other ages, third-through-fifth graders show a wide range of reading level and interest. If you’re an adult picking books for kids at that age, the number of pages and the size of the font are your quickest clue as to the reading level. (Even at that age, small text is intimidating to reluctant readers) If you have time to read the book for yourself in order to evaluate the level, watch for potentially unfamiliar vocabulary words and complexity of sentence structure, but also keep an eye out for metaphors, social commentary, and other intellectual factors that might mean the book is geared for advanced readers.

Choosing Books for Tweens and Teens

Frankly, my suggestion is that anyone older than about ten or eleven should always be allowed to choose their own reading materials, unless it’s an educational reading assignment or the book is being given to them as a gift. But if you are in a situation where you’re choosing a book for a preteen or teen, the topic and the likability of the protagonist are probably more important factors than the reading level. There are still plenty of tweens and teens who don’t like long books or books with small text, so that may or may not be a factor to keep in mind, but avid readers usually have no problem with big books by the time they’re in sixth or seventh grade. Intelligent high schoolers can generally read anything adults can read; in fact, books written for adult audiences are often no more advanced than YA books. That doesn’t mean that a teen will like just anything, but reading preference is not the same thing as reading level, and that’s a topic for a different time.

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