Like everything in early childhood, the ability to read doesn’t come all at once.
With reading, children need to move 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 many children at different rates.
Just as it is unreasonable to expect a one-year-old to run a marathon; it is similarly impossible to expect a struggling reader to consume a chapter book before they are ready.
This is 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.
The goal of leveled books and leveled reading systems is to help teachers and parents 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.
What are the reading systems utilized to determine students’ levels?
There are three major level systems in use in schools or available to parents, and understanding the differences between them is valuable.
1. Lexile Level
This measure determines reading level by using vocabulary difficulty and sentence length.
Less-complex books are given a reading level closer to 200 and more complex books are closer to 1700.
2. Guided Reading Level
A more comprehensive system than Lexile, 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 the 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.
3. 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 grade-level equivalency 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 struggling readers.
How are leveled books useful?
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.
We can also make decisions about what level of books to get, based on which of the five stages of reading the learner is presently in.
What are 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
Children in Stage 2 are ready to begin forming relationships between sounds, meanings and letters, which allows them to connect spoken and written words.
For example, 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 (those that are used often) and phonetically regular words (those that sound how they are spelled).
Stage 3: The Decoding Reader
Children enter the third stage when they begin to blend sounds to make words. Children in Stage 3 are also learning to recognize some words simply by looking at them, without having to think about the sounds or sound out the words.
Children at this stage should be exposed to familiar and favorite books often as this will build their skills in this area. They should also be exposed to new reading materials to build their reading vocabulary.
Stage 4: The Fluent, Comprehending Reader
Readers in this stage use reading to acquire new ideas, gain knowledge, experience feelings, and more.
Students in this phase are competent and confident readers, so 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.
Rachel Wise is the author and founder of Education and Behavior. Rachel created Education and Behavior in 2014 for adults to have an easy way to access research-based information to support children in the areas of learning, behavior, and social-emotional development. As a survivor of abuse, neglect, and bullying, Rachel slipped through the cracks of her school and community. Education and Behavior hopes to play a role in preventing that from happening to other children. Rachel is also the author of Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children: A Guide for Parents and Teachers.
“Children do best when there is consistency within and across settings (i.e., home, school, community). Education and Behavior allows us to maintain that consistency.”