Like everything in early childhood, the ability to read doesn’t come all at once. With reading, children need to wiggle before they crawl, crawl before they walk and walk before they run — figuratively, that is. It’s natural to expect children around the same age to have similar reading skills, but the truth is that the ability to read comes to different kids at different rates. It’s irresponsible to expect a one-year-old to run a marathon; it is similarly reckless to expect a poor reader to consume a chapter book before they are ready.
That’s why many parents and teachers employ leveled reading systems in early education: Leveled books provide structured improvement in reading ability without overwhelming kids with complex language too soon. Still, there’s a bit more to know about reading levels before you apply them effectively in your classroom. This guide should provide that extra information to make your application of leveled reading smooth.
The Five Stages of Reading
Learning happens in different ways to different people; some like to learn hands-on in groups while others prefer to read or listen to information on their own before applying their knowledge. Similarly, not every child learns to read the same way — but many follow a similar path. That path has five stages and understanding them is key to understanding leveled reading systems.
Stage 1: The Emergent Pre-reader
During this stage, children are simply too young to truly read. However, they are gaining many of the skills they will need to master reading in the future. For example, one study found that children with more exposure to morphemes — the smallest unit of language — gained reading abilities faster and stronger than children who lacked similar language awareness. During this period, kids should have plenty of experience with sounds, words, images, concepts and stories through print materials and regular old talking.
Stage 2: The Novice Reader
While children should be exposed to written materials well before this period, by this stage, kids are ready to begin forming relationships between sounds, meanings and letters, which allows them to connect spoken and written words. This means not only do kids know what the spoken word “dog” means, but they are beginning to understand what the written letters D-O-G look and sound like . Most often, the stories read by kids in this phase are dominated by high-frequency words and phonically regular words — i.e. those that are used often and those that sound how they are spelled.
Stage 3: The Decoding Reader
This stage sounds exciting — because it is. Children breach the third stage when they are increasing their fluency in reading familiar stories and text. Kids should be able to add to their vocabulary, but they should be allowed to return to texts that they have often read, so they can further develop their skill.
Stage 4: The Fluent, Comprehending Reader
This is when reading starts to get interesting. Readers in this stage use reading to acquire new ideas, gain knowledge, experience feelings and more — not simply for the sake of improving reading skill. Because kids in this phase are competent and confident readers, they are able to gain more from the text than they did previously.
Stage 5: The Expert Reader
It’s important to note that not all readers reach this stage — in fact, many readers stall at earlier stages. Still, teachers’ goals should be to get every student to the expert level, where readers are engaging with advanced materials across disciplines to gain exposure to as much information and as many viewpoints as possible.
Different Level Systems
The goal of leveled books and leveled reading systems is to help teachers identify what kinds of texts are appropriate for which stage of reading — and to give students incentives to rank up through the levels by practicing and enhancing their reading skills.
There are three major level systems in use in schools or available to parents, and understanding the differences between them is valuable.
Lexile Level. This measure determines reading level by using vocabulary difficulty and sentence length, with less-complex books awarded a number closer to 200 and more complex books with numbers closer to 1700.
Guided Reading Level. A more comprehensive system, guided reading levels utilize vocabulary and sentence length as well as other features of a text that impact its readability, such as layout of text and images as well as complexity of ideas contained in the story. Teachers tend to prefer this system, which is a bit more subjective and thought to be more realistic for real-world readers.
Grade-level Equivalencies. The final system widely available provides rankings based on what grade a child should be in when engaging with the material. For example, a score of 1.5 indicates that the book is best for a first grader in the middle of the school year. If a student is performing as expected for their age group, a grade-level reading system works — but it can also be limiting for faster-than-average readers or overly challenging for those struggling.
Ultimately, children don’t need leveled books and materials to learn to read — but they certainly help keep teachers, parents and students organized and moving forward toward success. By experimenting with leveled reading, teachers can find a system that works for their classroom and kids.
Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, caregivers, educators, counselors, and therapists to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers. If you want Rachel to write for your business, offer behavioral or academic consultation, or speak at your facility about research-based strategies that support children, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.