How Do I Know if a Book Is at an Appropriate Reading Level for My Child?

Edward Wong The Educational Parenting Blog Leave a Comment

Read books before your child does to figure out how many words in each book are too hard for them to read without supervision.

Choosing books that are at an appropriate reading level for your child is very important.

When you ask your child to read a book and they are not able to read it, it can be discouraging to their self-esteem. It is therefore important you assign books that are not too hard. If a book is too hard, you can help them read it or read it to them instead, which fosters a greater love of reading and books.

As mentioned in my earlier post, it is fine for your child to read books that are “too easy” while reading on their own. However, when you set aside time to read with them, it is important to stretch your child’s abilities by also selecting some books that are not “too easy,” but instead lie just beyond their current comfort zone. Material that challenges them also allows them to build new skills, so that they can grow their reading skills.

Why you should assess every book for appropriate reading level

I recommend that you assess every book as you make them available for your child to read.

This does not mean your child cannot choose their own books while at the library. The purpose of assessing books for appropriate reading level is not to restrict access to certain books. Rather, the goal is simply to be aware of what level of support your child needs for each individual book that they encounter.

There are three natural categories of book difficulty:

  1. Books that are easy enough for your child to read on their own. This means all or almost all the words are within their ability to decode and identify from the letters or recognize immediately.
  2. Books that a child can read with your help. This means only one or two words on each page are beyond their ability to decode and identify from the letters.
  3. Books that you would need to read to your child. You might still let them read some words, but for your child to be able to enjoy and comprehend the text, you do most of the reading.

Books in category 1 are books that fall within your child’s “independent reading level”. Books in category 2 are books that fall within your child’s “supervised reading level”. All books that fall beyond these two levels are too hard for your child to read and belong in the third category—books you should read to them. Reading to your child is an important and valuable way to enhance their reading skills. However, it books in the first and second categories that will give your child the most practice. At first, almost every book will fall into the third category—especially if your child has not learned how to decode any unfamiliar words by completing a systematic phonics program. But with good instruction, no books will be beyond your child’s capability.

The Method

Part 1: Evaluating the Book

First, read the book all the way through. Consider whether your child is capable of decoding, or sounding out, all of the words in the book. This is not a simple consideration, as there are far more letter-sound relationships in English than there are letters in the alphabet. For instance, “sh” makes a sound that is different than the sounds that “s” an “h” make individually or when pronounced in quick succession. Luckily, if you take charge of explicitly teaching your child phonics, you will know how far they have come in understanding letter-sound relationships. After only a couple of phonics lessons with a child, I find I can predict with 85-90% accuracy which words in a book will be difficult.

Remember that your child has two different reading levels: their independent reading level and their supervised reading level (categories 1 and 2 above). Books at both levels will help your child learn to read, and it is important to alternate between them. For books at your child’s supervised reading level, simply let them read everything they can, and offer hints to help them to sound out words that they cannot. Remember not to jump in and help too soon, as children may pause for a moment before unfamiliar words that they are capable of decoding, and it is important to give them time to practice sounding words out on their own.

Part 2: Evaluating your own evaluations

The process of evaluating your child’s reading level does not stop after choosing the right book.  As adults, few of us consider the sheer number of phonemes that we know, and so identifying what letter-sound relationships your child might find difficult requires conscious effort. We frequently fall into various traps such as forgetting what it was like being an early reader, not noticing certain hard words, and not giving our children enough credit. In particular, there are two things you should pay close attention to:

False positives: you thought a word (or a letter combination) would be hard for your child to sound out, but it turned out to be easy for them. For example, in some words, such as “touch,” the letters “ou” make a short-u sound (like the vowel in “such” or “up”) instead of the “ow” sound (like in “mouth” or “sound”). You might expect this to be difficult for your child to decode, but then find that they recognize the word and adjust their pronunciation after sounding it out with the rules that they do know. Now you know that you can include words with this sound-letter relationship in their independent reading level. False positives also apply to broader patterns: if you consistently rate books as being at your child’s supervised reading level, but then find that they can decode all but one or two words in the book, then you know it’s time to raise your expectation for their independent reading level.

False negatives: you did not identify a word as being hard but it was hard. It is easy to miss unintuitive spellings in very common words, like “sh” sound that “ss” makes, and the “oo” that “ue” makes, in the familiar word “tissue.” As with false positives, false negatives also apply to broader patterns. If you often think books will be at a child’s independent reading level, but then find that they need help decoding many words, offer more supervised reading support.

We can detect our mistakes and the reasons for them by carefully observing our children as they read. I often say that should be allowed to read books that are within their capability levels alone, as an independent and intrinsically rewarding activity. But you can occasionally watch them doing this, or ask them to read to you, for the purposes of evaluation. Once you’ve observed your child reading on their own, or done some supervised reading with them and carefully considered their abilities, return to step 1 and repeat! This process is all about constant re-evaluation. With repetition, you will become an expert in no time.

Conclusion

Assessing what materials are the appropriate reading level for your child is a separate consideration from what topics your child is mature enough to handle. A child’s “reading level” does not correspond to the content of a given book, but rather the words in it, and whether that child knows how to decode, or sound out, all of those words. You should keep in mind two separate levels: materials that your child is capable of reading entirely independently, and those that they can read with your supervision (and minimal assistance). Determining these levels is an ongoing process that requires continuous re-evaluation as your child learns and grows.

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About the Author

Edward Wong

Edward Wong is a primary tutor and the Senior Designer at English Cosmos. He teaches children how to read, coaches parents on education in the home, and has been passionate about reading education since 2019. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Juris Doctor degree and qualified as a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA).

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