Leveled Reading Systems
Unraveling the Mystery
By Ruth Manna
With many lettered and numbered leveled reading systems it’s hard to know which one to choose and when to use it. Let’s cut through the confusion.
What are the differences among leveled reading systems?
Sorting books by grade level is the most basic, understandable system. If you use a basal series to teach reading, you probably use this system. If you’re searching for science or social studies books for a unit of study, a grade level search is precise enough.
Guided Reading Level
Developed by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, the guided reading level system gives a more precise reading level for books. This more detailed, alphabetic system has several levels within each grade level. For example, grade 2 is equivalent to guided reading levels J through M. This allows you to tailor your reading program more accurately to a wide range of reading abilities. Each book is carefully evaluated prior to being leveled and teacher input is taken into consideration in the leveling process. The Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Books Web site for subscribers includes a database of 18,000 leveled books as well as suggestions for reading instruction, supporting materials and teacher tips.
The Lexile framework, an even finer numerical filter, assesses a book’s difficulty and helps match reader ability and text difficulty based on the numeric Lexile scale. This system from educational measurement company, MetaMetrics, targets books on the right reading level for the child’s ability. This system is based on an algorithm that simultaneously measures vocabulary and sentence length.. The Lexile database includes prose only. Poems, plays and songs are rated simply Non-Prose or NP. If a book is best shared as a read-aloud it is in the Adult Directed or AD category. A book is a Nonconforming Text or NC if its vocabulary and sentence length are complex compared to the subject matter. An NC book is one that is suitable for advanced readers who need age-appropriate materials. Beginning Readers or BR are those books at Lexile level zero or below. The Lexile system includes formative assessments as opposed to summative assessments like chapter, unit or state-wide tests. Formative assessments are tests you give as you teach new material. The test results help you amplify your teaching, re-teach and provide additional practice to solidify concepts and skills. There is a free database at Lexile.com .
Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) is a reading assessment tool intended to identify the independent reading level for students in grades K-8. Using the DRA numerical scale you can measure reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension. Students are said to be near, at or above grade level, below grade level and significantly below grade level. Once you know the student’s DRA score, then you can match that score with books in the appropriate level.
Reading Recovery is an intensive one-on-one remediation program designed to supplement reading instruction for students in grades K-2 who are slow to read. You can see on the conversion chart that, at most, second grade level readers would use this scale. The conversion chart will help you compare Reading Recovery and guided reading levels. Reading Recovery levels by themselves have limited usefulness.
Now that you understand several commonly-used systems, which leveling system should you use?
The answer is it depends on:
A leveling system is not meaningful to young readers and may threaten older readers. I don’t mention levels to my second graders although their reading books are all labeled. If I stress a student’s level I’ll affect his or her self-esteem. At any one time I have students reading on four to six different levels. I teach them to choose just-right books carefully, and to meet their needs, I pre-select books across a range of levels.
Your reading methods and materials may suggest an appropriate leveling system. Because I teach guided reading, I use Fountas and Pinnell guided reading levels. When I download printable books from Reading A-Z I convert their levels to the Fountas and Pinnell system when the two don’t match. If I used a Lexile assessment program I would use Lexiles. If I taught reading using a basal series, I’d use grade levels. When I assess students with DRA, I use DRA levels. Our Reading Recovery teacher uses Reading Recovery levels.
To be consistent, my colleagues and I all use guided reading levels. This fosters positive, open communication. We all speak the same language.
Parents may remember grade leveled reading when they were kids. While I’m aware of each child’s precise level, parents may compare their child to other classmates, so I’m deliberately vague. The terms above grade level, on grade level and below grade level inform parents without overwhelming them with information.
How can I make a leveled book list?
Scholastic’s Teacher Book Wizard allows teachers to search for books by level, but not all books are leveled for each leveling system. If you want to create a leveled book list with books that are measured according to different systems, it helps to have a Reading Level Conversion Chart. This chart is only an approximate guide. DRA and guided reading are exactly equivalent and the conversion chart is perfect for them. But a book’s Lexile level does not always correspond neatly with its guided reading level. In fact, there can be wide variations. You’ll need to use judgment and read the books yourself before giving them to students.
Reading Level Conversion Chart
What can I do if a book is not leveled?
If you can’t find a level for a book, compare it to similar, leveled books. Keep in mind you will need to assess whether or not a book is developmentally appropriate for a given student or group. For example, just because a young student can read a book about the Holocaust does not mean the subject is appropriate for that student. Another example is a book written in dialect may be difficult for students to comprehend.
As you compare consider the following:
Vocabulary, word choice
Sentence length and complexity
Length of book
Age appropriateness/Interest level
How much do levels matter?
Students will read beyond their level when they’re motivated by a topic like dinosaurs or insects. Let it happen. That’s one way readers grow. My second graders read the entire Iditarod Web site because they were excited about the Iditarod sled dog race. On the other hand, sixth graders can be encouraged to read nonfiction picture books which are informative and accessible to older students.
Remember, leveling systems are guides.
Observe your unique students, the subject matter, your colleagues and parents. Be flexible and trust your judgment. A well-informed teacher who understands leveling systems and knows her students will make wise choices about books.