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Reading Levels Explained: What They Are & How They Are Assessed

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When your child is first learning to read, reading levels are an important tool for helping them move forward without the struggle. But did you know even older readers can benefit from being matched with the appropriate reading level?

In this article, we’ll discuss how reading levels are used and how your child’s level is determined. With the right reading materials, your child can master reading and enjoy it for years to come!

What are reading levels?

Reading levels are a detailed way to pair your child’s reading ability with books they can successfully read and understand

Reading levels are an effective way to measure a child’s reading progress. If your child is primarily reading books at or just above their determined reading level, they are more likely to find reading enjoyable. 

As parents, we’ve all seen how reading can become frustrating. If a beginner reader tries to read a book that is far beyond their abilities, they may simply decide that reading is just too hard. And this frustration can create an overall dislike of reading and books. This is what leveled reading strives to avoid.

How is your child’s reading level assessed? 

There are several different methods for measuring your child’s reading skills and classifying the books they will read. 

We’ll be discussing the four most popular leveling systems in the next sections. Read on for the details on the GRL, DRA, AR and Lexile reading level measurements.

Guided reading levels (GRL) explained

Guided reading levels, or GRL, are based on the reading levels system developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. For this reason, you’ll also often see GRL called Fountas & Pinnell

This system classifies reading levels alphabetically from A to Z, with A corresponding to the earliest readers and Z falling in line with texts at or above an eighth grade level. 

Books are grouped into the appropriate level based on the following considerations:

  • Word repetition
  • Sentence length
  • Total word count
  • Sentence complexity
  • Number of different words
  • Inclusion of supportive illustrations
  • Amount of high-frequency (or most common) words

Because several GRL levels fall into each grade level, this is a precise way to classify reading materials. Not all second graders read at one level. But when second grade is split between levels I, J, K, L and M, more children will be able to find the right books to keep their motivation and confidence high.

Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA)

The DRA, or Developmental Reading Assessment, helps identify how well students are reading independently. 

This system matches the child with books on a numbered reading scale from 1 to 80 (it actually starts with A, but then all other levels are numbered. Confusing — yes, but unless your child is at the very beginning of reading, look for a number).

Your child’s score on the assessment is based on how well they perform against grade-level standards. The DRA looks at your child’s reading ability in three areas.

  • Reading fluency
  • Reading accuracy
  • Reading comprehension

Like GRL, the different grade levels contain several DRA levels. For example, second grade includes DRA levels 18 to 28. Once your child’s reading level is determined, they will be paired with leveled books to help them progress and improve.

Child sitting by a window, independently reading at her own reading level.

Lexile measurement 

The Lexile framework for reading is a measurement system that includes two different measures — both a student assessment and a system for measuring book levels. Your child’s Lexile reading measure is determined from a school or state-wide test that checks for reading comprehension.

A Lexile reader measurement can fall between BR for beginning readers (which is below 0L), to above 2000L. Your child’s reading level can then be paired with books using their Lexile text measurement. 

Over one million books, websites and other texts have received a Lexile text measure. Lexile recommends choosing books or texts for your child that fall between 100L below to 50L above their reading measure. This is deemed your child’s reading comprehension sweet spot. 

Don’t know where your child falls? Talk to their teacher to see if their school uses the Lexile assessment. If so, they can provide you with your child’s most current measure.

The Lexile framework is great for pairing more advanced readers with books that are still age-appropriate. If your child is reading above their level in the third grade, you don’t necessarily want them reading books with themes meant for seventh graders. Ask their teacher or use the Lexile website to discover age-appropriate books that will still hold their interest.

Accelerated Reader (AR) Levels

Your child’s Accelerated Reader (or AR) level is determined from a computerized test. After reading a book of their choosing, your child takes an online test on the book to measure their reading comprehension and earn points.

Based on the test score, your child’s teacher or librarian can help recommend more books to match your child’s level. If they struggled with their last book, easier options will be given. If they had zero trouble understanding the book, they’ll be encouraged to choose more difficult texts moving forward. 

The AR reading levels fall on a numeric scale that closely correspond with expected grade levels. A second grader in the fourth month of the school year will, on average, be reading books at level 2.4. A fourth grader in the first month of the year will average level 4.1, and so on.

Reading level correlation chart 

We’ve discussed several different reading measures, but how do they correspond with expected grade levels? And how does each measure relate to the others? 

Use this handy chart from Reading A-Z to see how your child’s reading level fits into the different systems. Or check out the one below from Traci Clausen.

Reading level correlation chart from Traci Clausen.

Reading level FAQs

1. How can I find level-appropriate books for my child? 

First, ask their teacher or the school’s librarian for recommendations. They know your child’s interest and reading ability better than any computer resource. They will also be up to date on children’s books, including what is on level but also age-appropriate for your child.

There are some great resources online for finding leveled readers your child will love:

2. How can I help my child improve their reading?

The short answer — encourage them to keep reading, whether they’re using books or online programs

The more exposure they have to books, the better. Just be sure to choose book topics that lineup with their interests. Does your second grader love dragons? Try a simple fantasy chapter book. Does your fourth grader adore lemurs? Look for children’s non-fiction books about the creatures of Madagascar. If it’s something they’re interested in, they’ll be excited to read and learn.

If it’s a struggle to get your child to pick up a book, don’t stress! There’s reading to be found everywhere. Instead of arguing over reading time, invite your child to play an online game. Role-playing games (and even those online mini-games) require a good amount of reading. Or choose educational language arts games like Prodigy English. Games keep learning fun, and when your child loves learning and reading, they’ll be set for life!  

3. What should I do if my child is struggling with reading?

First off, take a deep breath. There is so much pressure on both kids and parents to be reading earlier and earlier. It’s okay if your kindergartener isn’t reading yet. If your third grader is reading at a second grade level, they’ll catch up. Your primary role as a parent is to encourage them to keep trying, and keep their confidence and joy of reading top of mind.

To help encourage young or struggling readers, match them with books they are excited to read. Take them to your local library and let them choose the books that call to them.

If a book is beyond their level, but they just have to have it, let them enjoy it. It may be just the challenge they need, or they may simply enjoy the pictures. If it’s too tricky, let them know that you’re available to help. Your child is never too old to enjoy a read-aloud.

And don’t forget the reading that happens every day. Have them help you read the recipe for tonight’s dinner. Or ask them to show you their newest video game. Listen as they explain the characters and stories. Reading comprehension presents itself in a variety of ways outside of books and standardized testing. 

Above all, remember your child is learning so much more than their reading level score can show. Reading levels can be a great tool, but they are not the only measure of your child’s reading ability. Follow your child’s lead, take the pressure off and watch them grow into reading in their own way. 

Two kids reading a book together at an age-appropriate reading level.

Reading games and activities can help supplement coursework

Reading can be so much fun! It’s too easy to get caught up in grade levels, whether your child is “ahead” or “behind”. All of this can make us lose track of the magic a good story holds.

Bring some of that magic back with fun reading games and activities your kids will love. There are so many ways to read, explore and learn together. 

Explore a fun, game-based learning adventure with Prodigy English. While kids play, they'll explore a world of their very own, gathering resources and earning rewards. Every skill-building question they answer gives them more energy to get creative and keep learning!

Sign up for a free parent account today to track and motivate their learning.

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