It can be confusing to know what chapter book reading level is right for your child.
When I started reviewing books I said to myself, “Oh, I’ll have to include reading levels! Because everyone will want to know that. And I’m a good reviewer…or I will be a good reviewer, once I stop using my kids’ quiet time to scroll through Instagram and start using it to actually type up book reviews. Reading level is a must.”
Reading Level Designations Aren’t Universal
Then I realized that most of the books I was reading to my kids it would not be that easy. The ones that had reading levels printed on the cover had different ways they reported the reading level. Some said the age, some the grade, some just a letter or a number. Most didn’t have a reading level assigned on the book at all.
A few quick Google searches later and I discovered 16 distinct reading level scales.
16! Are you kidding me?
And that was only for academics or librarians who would be rating the levels of books themselves. Some individual publishers have their own reading level distinctions that they assign more arbitrarily.
I decided in my fervor for providing a quality book review that I could use one of these scales to calculate the scores of the books we were reading myself. I chose one that was rated as being fairly accurate for fiction and pulled up the directions for how to calculate the reading level.
Scanning through the directions, my eye rested on the phrase, “Take the square root of the number of polysyllabic words,” and I noped right out of there.
I am great at math, but I don’t enjoy it. Life is too short to be taking square roots for a book review. My children’s quiet time is not long enough to spend any part of it doing math.
Also, I found out that scales like that tend to do a great job putting non-fiction at the appropriate level, but they aren’t so accurate at fiction. I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not reading a lot of non-fiction to my toddler. I gave up on doing math to set the reading level.
Publishers Assign Their Own Age Ranges
So, readability scores are kind of confusing and involve a lot of math. What about the reading levels that a publisher prints on the cover or spine of a book? Unfortunately, those are probably not the best for deciding what to read to your children, either.
For one thing, the same book can be recommended for different ages depending on who published that edition. You can be standing there in the book store (or if you are like me, scrolling on Amazon) and there will be this great classic book you’ve been meaning to read to your kids. There are two different covers because the book has been around for such a long time.
This is a good thing, because you love choices and it means that so many people are reading a book it merited another edition. However you turn over both options of the same book, and one says, “For ages 6-8” and the other says, “Level 2, 7-9.”
This is the same book, y’all. Same book. If released more than once, a book can have different reading levels assigned to it.
There’s another very big problem with reading levels. I have found that reading levels take into account vocabulary, sentence length, and sentence structure. What they don’t measure as well is story content.
So, even if a book is marked by the publisher or an online reading level calculator as being for ages 4 to 6, there could be content in there you would never want your child to read at that age. I mean, you could probably write a pretty scary horror story using very small vocabulary words and simple sentence structure.
Additionally, your child’s familiarity with aspects of the story affect their comprehension. For example, my children really tracked with The Little House in the Big Woods because we live in the woods and our freezer is full of venison.
Eloise in the City BLEW THEIR LITTLE MINDS. They literally could not comprehend the concept of a “taxi.” Seriously.
So, what your child’s life is like and what they are familiar with will affect what types of stories they can most easily picture as you are reading them out loud. They will more quickly comprehend stories they can picture. It is impossible to know how familiar your child will be with a story just from looking at the reading level.
So, what does this all mean? Should we give up reading entirely and let them play on the tablet all day, because OH MY WORD THAT IS ALL THEY WANT TO DO ANYWAY?
Yeah, we probably shouldn’t give up. For me, all of this means that I ignore reading levels when I am choosing books to read aloud.
3 Things to Consider To Choose A Book At Your Child’s Level:
1. Put more weight in sentence structure than vocabulary.
Vocabulary words that your kids don’t know you can explain fairly easily. Confusing sentence structure is more difficult to work around.
For example, The Detective Gordon Series does have many words that are unfamiliar to my preschooler. However, because of the simple sentence structure and short paragraphs, it is an accessible story.
I look for sentences that follow the noun-verb pattern. It doesn’t mean they have to be short sentences, it just means that it should be fairly easy to comprehend who is doing what.
A book can have lots of unfamiliar words and that doesn’t slow us down much. I consider a book at an appropriate level for my kids as long as the sentences make sense to them.
2. Look for books that give the messages you want your kids to hear.
You know your kids and what you want them to hear. Choose books that give the types of messages you want to fill your kids with.
To do this you might have to ignore what ages books are suggested for. I have found that by choosing books that are suggested for ages quite a bit older than my kids I have been able to expose them to more stories about bravery and personal strength.
You also know what you want to shelter your young kids from. This will look different for every family.
For example, I only read books where there is nothing romantic between anyone other than characters who are obviously adults. I have purposefully stayed away from anything that introduces the ideas of crushes or dating as adolescents. This is the right choice for our family.
I don’t tell you this because I think you should adopt the same policy, I tell you this because it is the perfect example of a concept that can be found in books at every reading level. If I want to avoid it, I have to pay more attention to content and less attention to what age group the book is marketed for.
3. Choose what you like to read.
Is there something I want to read to my children? I do it. Because life is short and I’ll do what I want.
Chronicles of Narnia to a two and four year old? Sign me up. War and Peace while they’re potty training? Not for me, but you do you.
You should read whatever you want to your kids. Who needs age recommendations when you know your kids best? Read what you like, and if you start a book and decide it is too advanced for your kids, just stop reading it and go on to another.
You know your kids. Age ranges can be a helpful starting place if you are trying to decide if a book is right for your kids. But you can’t trust them without a little more digging. The best person to decide if a book is right for your child is you!