How do reading levels work, and how do you offer age-appropriate reading material when your child's reading skills don't quite align with their developmental stage? Here's how!

You want your child to enjoy reading and maybe, just maybe, pick up a book all on their own from time to time. You probably already know that letting your child choose their own books, graphic novels and reading material will help they buy in to reading time more readily.

How do you offer age-appropriate reading material for a child whose reading skills don’t quite align with the ‘recommended reading level’ for their developmental stage?

What Are Recommended Reading Levels?

There are various ranking systems used to categorize children’s reading material by developmental level. Grade and age recommendations are sometimes also used to develop ‘reading levels,’ although these may be informed by the maturity of the book’s content and not difficulty level alone. In schools, two commonly used systems to determine a child’s reading level are Guided Reading and Developmental Reading Assessment.

In Guided Reading, levels are defined by letters of the alphabet, with A being the easiest. Teachers use the levels to choose appropriate books for each child according to factors such as text length, vocabulary, narrative complexity and even physical features of the book itself.

For those using Developmental Reading Assessment, reading levels are organized numerically from A through 80, with ‘A’ representing a base skill level under 1, 2, 3 and so on. Teachers use leveled readers and scoring frameworks to evaluate speed, fluency and accuracy. 

What Is the Right Reading Level For My Child’s Age?

It’s important to note that grades, along with reading levels, are broad systems which don’t always “fit” perfectly together in a diagnostic sense, or for each child at every time. 

For general reference, Guided Reading levels are intended to align with school grades as follows:

Kindergarten: A – C

1st Grade: C – I

2nd Grade: I – M

3rd Grade: M – P

4th Grade: P – S

5th Grade: S – V

6th Grade: V – Y

While Developmental Reading Assessment levels are purported to correspond with grade level as such:

Kindergarten: A – 4

1st Grade: 4 – 16

2nd Grade: 16 – 24

3rd Grade: 24 – 38

4th Grade: 38 – 40

5th Grade: 40 – 50

6th Grade: 50 – 60

7th & 8th Grade: 60 – 80

To determine your child’s reading level and whether it is appropriate for their age or grade, we recommend reaching out for a completely personalized 1:1 Comprehensive Literacy Assessment.

It’s crucial to have a thorough understanding of your child’s current reading strengths and opportunities for growth and for the management of dyslexia and other disabilities. Once you, your child, and your child’s teacher understand the baseline and the path ahead, you’ll be empowered to help them reach reading expectations with science-based tools and strategies.

Will Challenging Books Negatively Impact My Child’s Attitudes Toward Reading?

When choosing a book for your favourite reader, remember that comprehension is just as important as technical skill. (If we are trying to engage children and help them find pleasure and motivation in reading, comprehension may even be more important than technical skill, in fact.)

Reading material that is too far advanced for your child’s understanding of the world can raise some tricky discussion topics, not to mention it risks losing their attention when they struggle to make personal meaning or identify with the characters. However, books that are too easy can be just as demotivating and even ineffectual.

If your child decodes and understands a book without effort, they aren’t being challenged to tackle new vocabulary, sentence structure, and narrative complexity which will hone their skills. While we all hate to see our kids struggle, remember that skill development comes from meeting challenges which lie just outside our current abilities and knowledge.

According to renowned Literacy Educator, Timothy Shanahan: “Whatever the relationship may be between being asked to read difficult text and affect, motivation, attitude, or behavior, it is not straightforward. There are many student, text, and task variables that play a role in all of this, and none of them consistently impacts motivation or engagement.”

How To Choose Books When Your Child’s Reading Level Doesn’t Match Their Grade

Research indicates that challenging texts are more beneficial for developing reading skills for children who have already learned the ropes of decoding and phonics. For readers in Grade 2 and beyond, choose a text which seems appropriate for their age and emotional maturity while offering rich vocabulary and some challenge to their reading skills.

For readers who are still working on developing their decoding skills, reading at or near the level of skill is likely best. If your child is in Kindergarten or Grade 1, or if they are older and experiencing a decoding disability like dyslexia, choose books at or near their “instructional level.”

Scholastic offers a handy book search tool you can use to find the reading level of a book you’re considering for your child; access it here.

If your child has decoding skills well below that which is expected for their age, you likely know how tricky it can be to find literature that interests them without frustrating them. For older kids who are reading at a level below their age, consider reading options like graphic novels, magazines and instructional books that might offer a less overwhelming quantity of text but a higher reading comprehension level. Or choose a few book options at a just-challenging-enough level for your child and let them have the final say on which book is read next. As with many parenting challenges, sharing decision-making responsibility with your child can help prevent frustration and increase buy-in.

Be Cautious When Using Reading Levels

While reading levels are common, it’s important to be cautious when relying on reading levels as a barometer for your child’s functional reading skills and level.  Levelled readers don’t allow us to break out and evaluate specific skills like decoding, reading speed, fluency or comprehension.

Especially in the younger years, when kids are likely reading a small sample of texts — and, as we parents know, love repeating said texts night after night — memorization can be mistaken for skill. Beginning readers are often ‘promoted’ to the next book level after they have learned to ‘read’ the book at home and then ‘read’ it to their teachers.  At The Reading School, we often find that children cannot read as well as their ‘reading level’ because they have learned to rely overly on the repetition of words, the lay out of the text and the informative pictures.

Reading challenges surely lie ahead for your child, but they can be opportunities for growth and pride when they fit your child’s needs. Consider it your role to provide the right next challenge as you select books for them. Consider it our role to help you find the right next challenge; inquire about a 1:1 Functional Literacy Assessment here.


What’s your experience with reading levels and levelled texts? How have you navigated and chosen appropriate reading material for your child?

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