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Reading Levels: One Woman’s Opinion

While I originally prepared this as a presentation in 2015, my opinions remain the same!  Remember, they are opinions based on experience working with all kinds of readers.  Take what is valuable where you are and leave the rest behind!

I worked here at IndyPL from 1990 to 2000, the last eight years as the Manager of Literacy Services (director of Indy Reads). Besides working with many adults learning how to read, I have experience in writing for people who don’t have strong reading skills.

I worked for 12 years in seven center city Catholic schools either as a librarian or a grant administrator. I met all kinds of families who wanted to help their kids do better in school. During that time, we implemented Accelerated Reader in those seven schools. I have attended, and provided many hours of training on AR and student reading practice.

For the last six years, I’ve been back at IndyPL as the manager of the Shared System. I get to see all kinds of libraries, administrators, teachers, and reading programs.

I’ve listened to lots of arguments about reading levels and I am, honestly, tired of them. We can’t change the educational system, or the teacher’s motivation or lack thereof, or the parent’s need to control, or the child’s interest or lack thereof. We can only change our own knowledge and prepare ourselves to respond appropriately.


People have been trying to nail down a way to measure how readable text is since the 1920s. They used sentence length, word length, high frequency word lists, low frequency word lists. In the beginning, they wanted to make sure what they wrote could be read by people with limited reading skills. Advertisers, the military, the health care industry, fast food businesses and many others are interested in making sure their employees and customers can read and understand what they publish.

Today, in the field of education, readability or reading levels are measured by complex algorithms, huge lists of graded vocabulary, and are a high profit sales point for publishers, test makers and consultants. Renaissance Learning (the folks who bring you Accelerated Reader) publishes a 34 page guide to understanding how they assign the ATOS ((ATOS stands for Advantage/TASA Open Standard) level. Metametrics, Inc. publishes a two paragraph guide to how they assign a Lexile level.

P.S. Never, ever, ever rely on a publisher to supply you with a valid reading level.


Why is there so much talk about reading levels?

School administrators care – esp if pushing to raise school letter grade, test scores, prestige

Teachers care – most really do want their kids to succeed, but they also have to think about the administration and performance reviews

Parents care – seems like something they can control about their child’s education

Some students care – Scholastic study on reading frequency showed that kids who had been told their reading level tended to read more

…and if they read more, they do better in school, get better grades and higher test scores


Reading levels have the greatest benefit to the teacher and student.

The teacher has to know how to use them to guide students’ reading practice.

Student can use them to pick out books at a comfortable reading level.

Each student has a Zone of Proximal Development, like a band width of reading levels that won’t be too hard or

too easy, but just right. Lev Vygotsky, the psychologist who developed the term ZPD, said that you need to practice what you are learning in this zone, and the more practice you do, the better you get, until your Zone moves up a little higher. Teachers who use Accelerated Reader are watching that their students are reading in their zone. They are also looking at the quantity of their students’ reading and the quality of their reading.

Quantity is measured by points – how long a book is and how hard it is, while quality is measured by how well students do on the quiz about the book (I’ll say more about that in a minute).

Note that the importance of reading levels diminishes for the kids reading at higher reading levels. The quality and quantity of their practice continues to be important, and a really good teacher will make sure they are reading as many as they can of the books their peers will have read by graduation from high school or the start of college.

In short, you can’t be well read if you can’t read well. And you can’t read well if you don’t get enough practice.


Some schools, both elementary and high school, offer independent reading time during the school day. Sometimes called DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time, the 20 to 30 minutes can quickly become free time. (for ex., teacher grading papers, kid playing games on iPad, or finishing homework for next class)

Because every minute should count to a teacher, and does count in the long run, some schools use quizzing programs to make sure kids are reading.

In the best of all possible worlds, kids use DEAR time to read, they take quizzes on what they read, the teacher sees how they’re doing and follows up if he sees they aren’t reading much, if they’re getting bogged down, or if they’re taking a lazy way out.

The lazy way out? Shouldn’t everyone be able to read whatever they want to whenever they want to?

Remember my subtitle: One Woman’s Opinion. My opinion on this one is no, they shouldn’t. They’re at school, DEAR time was established by the school with a clear learning objective of developing reading skills. Teachers should be monitoring the activity in the classroom, and students should be reading books of their choosing within their ZPD, and some accountability should be built in. That might be through Accelerated Reader or Reading Counts, or it might be by asking students to write a summary of or reflection on what they read that day.

What’s wrong with homework? That’s reading, right? Remember my subtitle. My opinion is no, it’s not. It’s not what you would choose to read, it’s what your teacher assigned you to read (or write, or calculate). There are other times for homework.


You can get into all kinds of trouble with reading levels! Most of them have to do with “infidelity of implementation.” Teacher didn’t get trained, teacher doesn’t value or understand importance of reading practice, teacher has other “better” ideas about how to handle reading.

So you get teachers who say “you can’t read that, it’s too easy.” Or “you can’t read that, it’s too hard.” Or “everyone has to get 25 points this quarter or you flunk a reading test grade.”

Or “you’re reading at 10th grade reading level so I don’t want you to read anything below that.”

Let’s take those one at a time:

“It’s too easy” – Some kids need to practice more on books that are easy before they feel confident. The mantra is “longer before harder, shorter before easier.” So a kid stuck on Berenstain Bears might need a suggestion for a short chapter book like Magic Tree House – roughly the same reading level.

“It’s too hard!” – self esteem! Yeesh. Talk about “more comfortable level.” Try the five finger rule. look at what the student has read successfully in the past.

“Everyone has the same points goal” – in one class you have 26 kids. Some are really strong readers. Others are average. Some not average. Each of those has a different reading barometer. Some below average kids will tear through those points goals in no time because they’re hooked on a series. Some of those above average kids would rather read Instagram than a whole book. Setting the same points goal for the whole class is (remember the subtitle) just plain lazy.

“You’re reading at a tenth grade level; nothing below that.” – Look at YALSA’s college bound list. There’s an intro to philosophy graphic novel on that list written at just below a fifth grade level. Looking at just the number, the readability level, ignores the content. And it leaves out a huge body of work, such as the 10 or 12 titles on the YALSA college bound list, let alone some other classics such as Flowers for Algernon (5.8, 910 L) or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (4.0, 600 L) or The Hate U Give (3.9, 590 L)


We have all seen them. they heard their child’s reading level and they are either devastated or euphoric. They grab ahold of that number and want a book to fix their kid, or to guarantee their admission to Harvard.

What do you do?

Be prepared. Understand reading levels, and accountability, and reading quizzes, and the parent’s need to control something – anything – to help their child succeed.

Be supportive. “I’ve talked with lots of parents in your shoes.” “I think it’s great you care enough about your child’s success to come and find just the right book for them.”

Be thoughtful. “I wonder if the teacher understood that setting your child’s minimum reading level so high meant he was cutting out most of the books on the college reading lists. I’m sure he wouldn’t have done that on purpose. Would you like a copy of the list to show him?”
OR
“I wonder why the teacher did that. I bet they could read lots of shorter books that would be more comfortable and get the practice the teacher wants them to get.”

Be bountiful. Since the kid isn’t there, send home a variety. Include a reading list or a website for the parent. Maybe find a book for them at your library – use the subject heading “Reading–Parent participation.”

Be welcoming. Invite them to come back if you haven’t found the right book for their kid. Encourage them to call if they have any questions.


Find out more about ATOS and Lexile levels here

Conversion chart for ATOS and Lexile

Conversion chart for ATOS and Guided Reading (Fountas and Pinnell)

Conversion chart for ATOS and Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) Levels

Conversion chart for ATOS and Reading Recovery

Conversion chart for Lexile to Grade Levels


Look up AR or Lexile level plus subject lists, award lists and series lists.  I wish library catalogs worked as well as AR Book Finder!

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