Most schools use some type of leveled readers. Publishers create books based on certain sight words, phonics patterns, font size, and even space between words and sentences. These books are used in the classroom and allow teachers to gradually increase complexity for students based on informal observations during guided or small group reading time.
An overwhelming majority of parents that I talk to aren't aware of the process or what each particular level means. It oftentimes can cause a lot of stress if parents and students think they "aren't reading at the correct level" for their grade.
Here are the ten considerations for leveling books:
- Genre/Form: Genre is the type of text and refers to a system by which fiction and nonfiction texts are classified. Form is the format in which a genre may be presented. Forms and genres have characteristic features.
- Text Structure: Structure is the way the text is organized and presented. The structure of most fiction and biographical texts is narrative, arranged primarily in chronological sequence. Factual texts are organized categorically or topically and may have sections with headings. Writers of factual texts use several underlying structural patterns to provide information to readers. The most important are description; chronological sequence; comparison and contrast; cause and effect; and problem and solution. The presence of these structures, especially in combination, can increase the challenge for readers.
- Content: Content refers to the subject matter of the text-the concepts that are important to understand. In fiction, content may be related to the setting or to the kinds of problems characters have. In factual texts, content refers to the topic of focus. Content is considered in relation to the prior experience of readers.
- Themes and Ideas: These are big ideas that are communicated by the writer. Ideas may be concrete and accessible or complex and abstract. A text may have multiple themes or a main theme and several supporting themes.
- Language and Literary Features: Written language is qualitatively different from spoken language. Fiction writers use dialogue, figurative language, and other kinds of literary structures such as character, setting, and plot. Factual writers use description and technical language. In hybrid texts you may find a wide range of literary language.
- Sentence Complexity: Meaning is mapped onto the syntax of language. Texts with simpler, more natural sentences are easier to process. Sentences with embedded and conjoined clauses make a text more difficult.
- Vocabulary: Vocabulary refers to words and their meanings. The more known vocabulary words in a text, the easier a text will be. The individual's reading and vocabulary refer to words that she understands.
- Words: This category refers to recognizing and solving the printed words in the text. The challenge in a text partly depends on the number and the difficulty of the words that the reader must solve by recognizing them or decoding them. Having a great many of the same high-frequency words makes a text more accessible to readers.
- Illustrations: Drawings, paintings, or photographs accompany the text and add meaning and enjoyment. In factual texts, illustrations also include graphics that provide a great deal of information that readers must integrate with the text. Illustrations are an integral part of a high quality text. Increasingly, fiction texts include a range of graphics, including labels, heading, subheadings, sidebars, photos and legends, charts and graphs. After grade one, texts may include graphic texts that communicate information or a story in a sequence of pictures and words.
- Book and Print Features: Book and print features are the physical aspects of the text-what readers cope with in terms of length, size, and layout. Book and print features also include tools like the table of contents, glossary, pronunciation guides, indexes, sidebars, and a variety of graphic features in graphic texts that communicate how the text is read.
I.C. Fountas and G.S. Pinnell. 2011. The Continuum of Literacy Learning, Grades PreK-8, Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
As you can see, there are various aspects that go into leveling a book and attemtping to ensure that it is age and developmentally appropriate. Here are the rough expectations for levels according to each grade.
Here are some questions to ask your child's teacher at conferences or after receiving the child's "level":
What specific behaviors does my child struggle with? Is it decoding words (using letter sounds to figure out an unknown word)? Is it omitting or inserting extra words? Is it fluency (reading the words without sounding choppy)? Do they attempt to figure out a word or wait for the teacher to tell them? Is comprehending the story hindering them from moving to the next level?
Strategic behaviors: Because these strategic actions happen inside of each reader’s head, they are not directly observable. We can only hypothesize about the ways in which each reader is becoming increasingly proficient by noticing behavioral evidence of these systems of strategic actions at work. (Fountas & Pinnell)
Notes to consider: Reading research is constantly changing and teachers/schools are pivoting in order to give the best instruction to students. Critics have completely strayed away from the Fountas and Pinnell text leveling system (or other leveling systems) due to various reasons and turning to using strictly decodable books (books where the child can sound out every word-think of "See Sam run. I can run to the bus." etc). These can be very helpful to studnets that are learning to read iin order to practice specific phonics patterns that are being explicitly taught in class.
At the end of the day, leveled books are, what I consider, "real life" books that a child would check out in a library or buy in a book store. As a reading specialist, my view is that it is very important to expose children to a variety of texts and teach them specific ways to approach these texts. I've noticed in my years of working with students that they are much more resilient than we think and will surprise us if we empower them to believe they can attack a text that may appear to be difficult. Leveled readers provide a system for teachers to use their professional judgement and support as needed in order for each child to feel success with reading.
A caution for students with specific learning differences & dyslexia: If these texts are not utilized appropriately, they can be very frustrating to a child struggling with even the most basic phonics skills. As teachers and parents, we must accommodate, advocate, and provide support in order for the child to be successful; otherwise, this completely deflate the child and cause stress, avoidance, and lack of desire to read at all.