Leveled Reading Systems, Explained
Understanding the differences between leveled reading systems and choosing a system to use, plus how to make a leveled book list and what to do if a book isn't leveled
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
With many lettered and numbered leveled reading systems, it’s hard to know which one to choose and when to use it. Let’s cut through the confusion.
What Are the Differences Between Leveled Reading Systems?
Grade Level Equivalent
The Grade Level Equivalent indicates the readability of the text by grade. It is a reflection of the grade level at which a student reading on grade could read the book independently. For instance, a student who is in the first month of fourth grade and reading on-grade would be well matched to a book with a Reading Level of 4.1. Each grade level has a range of .1 to .9.
Guided Reading Level
Developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, the guided reading level system gives a more precise reading level for books. This detailed, alphabetic system has several levels within each grade level. For example, grade 2 is equivalent to guided reading levels J through M. This allows you to tailor your reading program more accurately to a wide range of reading abilities.
Each book is carefully evaluated prior to being leveled, and teacher input is taken into consideration in the leveling process. The Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Books website for subscribers includes a database of 18,000 leveled books, as well as suggestions for reading instruction, supporting materials, and teacher tips.
The Lexile Framework® for Reading
The Lexile Framework, an even finer numerical filter, assesses a book’s difficulty and helps match reader ability and text difficulty based on the numeric Lexile scale. This system from educational measurement company MetaMetrics targets books on the right reading level for the child’s ability. It is based on an algorithm that simultaneously measures vocabulary and sentence length.
The Lexile database includes prose only. Poems, plays, and songs are rated simply Non-Prose, or NP. If a book is best shared as a read-aloud, it is in the Adult Directed, or AD, category. A book is a Nonconforming Text, or NC, if its vocabulary and sentence length are complex compared to the subject matter. An NC book is one that is suitable for advanced readers who need age-appropriate material. Beginning Readers, or BR, are those books at a Lexile measure of zero or below.
The Lexile framework includes formative assessments, as opposed to summative assessments like chapter, unit, or statewide tests. Formative assessments are tests you give as you teach new material. The test results help you amplify your teaching, re-teach, and provide additional practice to solidify concepts and skills. There is a free database at Lexile.com.
Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) is a reading assessment tool intended to identify the independent reading level for students in grades K–8. Using the DRA numerical scale, you can measure reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension. Students are said to be near, at, or above grade level, below grade level, or significantly below grade level. Once you know the student’s DRA score, then you can match that score with books in the appropriate level.
Interest level indicates that students in these grades are the most likely to be engaged by the book's content and approach.
Sorting books by grade level is the most basic, understandable system. If you use a basal series to teach reading, you probably use this system. If you’re searching for science or social studies books for a unit of study, a grade level search is precise enough.
Reading Recovery is an intensive one-on-one remediation program designed to supplement reading instruction for students in grades K–2 who are slow to read. You can compare Reading Recovery and guided reading levels; Reading Recovery levels by themselves have limited usefulness.
Which Leveled Reading System Should I Use?
Now that you understand several commonly-used systems, which leveling system should you use? The answer is, it depends on:
A leveling system is not meaningful to young readers and may threaten older readers. I don’t mention levels to my second graders, although their reading books are all labeled. If I stress a student’s level, I’ll affect his or her self-esteem.
At any one time, I have students reading on four to six different levels. I teach them to choose just-right books carefully, and to meet their needs, I pre-select books across a range of levels.
Your reading methods and materials may suggest an appropriate leveling system. Because I teach guided reading, I use Fountas and Pinnell guided reading levels. When I download printable books from Reading A-Z, I convert their levels to the Fountas and Pinnell system when the two don’t match.
If I used a Lexile scale assessment program, I would use Lexile measures. If I taught reading using a basal series, I’d use grade levels. When I assess students with DRA, I use DRA levels. Our Reading Recovery teacher uses Reading Recovery levels.
To be consistent, my colleagues and I all use guided reading levels. This fosters positive, open communication. We all speak the same language.
Parents may remember grade leveled reading when they were kids. While I’m aware of each child’s precise level, parents may compare their child to other classmates, so I’m deliberately vague. The terms above grade level, on grade level, and below grade level inform parents without overwhelming them with information.
How Can I Make a Leveled Book List?
Scholastic’s Book Wizard allows teachers to search for books by level, but not all books are leveled for each leveling system.
If you want to create a leveled book list with books that are measured according to different systems, it helps to have a Reading Level Conversion Chart. This chart is only an approximate guide. DRA and guided reading are exactly equivalent, and the conversion chart is perfect for them. But a book’s Lexile measure does not always correspond neatly with its guided reading level. In fact, there can be wide variations. You’ll need to use judgment and read the books yourself before giving them to students.
Here is a Guided Reading Leveling Chart.
What Can I Do if a Book Is Not Leveled?
If you can’t find a level for a book, compare it to similar leveled books. Keep in mind that you will need to assess whether or not a book is developmentally appropriate for a given student or group. For example, just because a young student can read a book about the Holocaust does not mean the subject is appropriate for that student. Another example is a book written in dialect may be difficult for students to comprehend.
As you compare books, consider the following:
- Vocabulary and word choice
- Sentence length and complexity
- The length of the book
- Subject matter
- Repetition and predictability
- Picture support
- Age appropriateness and Interest level
How Much Do Reading Levels Matter?
Students will read beyond their level when they’re motivated by a topic, like dinosaurs or insects. Let it happen. That’s one way readers grow. My second graders read the entire Iditarod website because they were excited about the Iditarod sled dog race. On the other hand, sixth graders can be encouraged to read nonfiction picture books that are informative and accessible to older students.
Remember, Leveling Systems Are Guides
Observe your unique students, the subject matter, your colleagues, and parents. Be flexible and trust your judgment. A well-informed teacher who understands leveling systems and knows her students will make wise choices about books.