What Is a ‘Just Right’ Book?
Reading Levels Explained

by Melissa Taylor

Photo credit: BLOOM image/Getty Images

Kids need to read books that they can both decode (read the words) and comprehend (understand the meaning). Teachers call this a “just right” book, or a book that is at the child’s instructional level.

Let me explain what that means.

A just right book at a child’s instructional level is a book that stretches the child just a bit — not so much as to make him frustrated but enough to continue his growth as a reader. This child would make an error on about one word out of twenty.

If this is the goal, you’re probably wondering how can you tell if a book your child wants to read is at her instructional level?

You can help your child do the Five Finger Test to figure out if the book is just right.

The Five Finger Test

  1. When your child finds a book he wants to read, have him flip to a page in the middle of the book. (One with the same amount of text as the other pages.)
  2. Ask your child to read the page — out loud so you can help.
  3. From a closed fist, hold up a finger each time your child misses a word. She can do this on her own eventually.
  4. No fingers means that the book is an independent level — it’s easy for her to read and perfectly fine for part of her reading diet. One to five fingers means the book is at an instructional level — BINGO! — just right for her to grow as a reader. Six or more fingers means the book is at a challenge or frustration level and not recommended because the child won’t be able to comprehend the text.

Reading Levels Explained

Thankfully, the Five Finger Test is a quick and easy way to find a just right book. However, teachers and tests will give you something more specific, either a number or letter representing your child’s reading level.

These rating systems are a bit harder to use for book selection purposes, but it’s possible, so let’s take a look at each one.

  • DRA
    Most schools refer to a lower elementary child’s DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) score, which also matches a corresponding reading level of books. Book lists for DRA levels are available online.
  • Guided Reading Levels 
    The Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System uses letters of the alphabet to indicate reading level — “A” for the most beginning kindergarten reader and “Z” for advanced readers around 7th or 8th grade. These book lists can be found on various websites.
  • QRI Grade Level Rating
    For older elementary students, the QRI (Qualitative Reading Inventory) assessment is given to assess grade level reading in both fiction and nonfiction. These scores don’t match up to specific books but are helpful to use as a guideline when asking for book recommendations and looking at the publisher’s reading levels.
  • Publisher’s Grade Equivalent Rating
    All publishers have their own system for evaluating reading levels. They indicate a grade level number such as 2.5 for the middle of 2nd grade. The confusing thing is that each publisher has its own system for evaluating and assigning a grade level. Use these as a starting point, not the be-all, end-all for reading level, since they are not normed.
  • Lexile 
    The Lexile Measure indicates the complexity of text and assigns it a score from 0L to 2000L; it also measures the student’s actual reading ability. Students take an SRI test or a standardized reading test to get their Lexile number. To find books using the Lexile measurement, go to the Lexile site or the Scholastic site.