Rethinking Reading Levels: Some Practical Advice from the Experts

by Laura Lambert

Photo credit: Sean Gallup / Staff, Getty Images News / Getty Images

The other day, my 9-year-old daughter brought home I Am Malala. She was beaming. She knew she was an “R” reader, but she had a “Z” book — and this was a very big deal.

We read the book aloud one night and she stumbled through a lot of it — from the Pakistani place names to the numerous $2, multi-syllabic words. For most of this year, she’s rarely finished the books she’s started — and I was trying very hard (yet still probably failing) not to drag this one down by over-correcting.

But it didn’t matter — she tore through the book. She wanted to read it aloud. She wanted to talk about it. And I thought, how does my solidly 4th grade reader hoover up this 8th grade book and yet struggle so much with what’s she’s “supposed” to be reading?

That same week, I stumbled across a post in Psychology Today, “Three Myths About ‘Reading Levels’.” One line that I particularly loved: “While texts stay the same from day to day, readers do not.” It was exactly the type of reframing, with respect to reading levels, that I needed — so I reached out to the authors — Nancy Flanagan Knapp, Ph.D., and Paula Schwanenflugel, Ph.D., both of the University of Georgia and co-authors of The Psychology of Reading — to thank them, and learn more.

Your Psychology Today post popped up in my Facebook feed exactly when I needed to read it — so, first, thank you for reading my mind! Can you tell me a little bit about how you work and write together?

Nancy Knapp: We tend to alternate [writing the blogs]. I write about more on the socio-cultural, motivational side of things. Paula writes about the cognitive side of things.

Paula Schwanenflugel: The reason Nancy and I collaborate so well is that her expertise in the area of reading and mine are not exactly overlapping. We don’t necessarily agree on everything.

What prompted this particular article?

NK: I work with teachers and librarians a lot, and I’m seeing such a misunderstanding in schools of how reading levels work.

My librarians are looking at policies where they have to tell kids, “You can’t have that book for your required reading because it’s not on your level.” Some teachers don’t want them to check out any books at all that aren’t on their level.

Somehow, somewhere, somebody got the idea we can measure these things exactly — and that it’s terribly important that they always read at or above their grade level.

PS: Reading fluency is what most of my work has been about in the last 20 years — and the levels do have some utility. I’d like to stress, some… There’s more to reading than fluency.

My daughter was so proud to be reading a book several levels up — and I was just excited that she was so motivated. How do we talk to our kids about levels and what they really mean?

PS: You can tell her that, as she reads more difficult texts, there’s more meat to them. That’s what happening. There’s a lot more there to like.

NK: The Harry Potter books are so well written, so well put together, they are actually easier to read than you would think from their “official” reading level.

PS: They’re not doing artificial things that make it easier for kids, like chopping sentences up to get the reading level down. You lose all the connective tissue — and you end up with a book that’s harder because it’s disconnected.

Do you have additional advice for kids (or parents) who are maybe struggling with their “level”?

NK: I think one of the things that was important for me to say in the post was the last myth. [Myth #3: Readers should (almost always) read texts very near their reading level.]

Basically, kids can still really benefit from reading books below their “reading level.”  They gain confidence and fluency and a love of reading — think about when you read a murder mystery or something like that, that is below your adult reading level, but still lots of fun.

Kids can also get a lot from reading something harder, that maybe they don’t get completely. I remember doing that as a kid. I read A Christmas Carol by Dickens for the first time when I was pretty young. I got the general drift, but I didn’t understand everything in the story at all. But as I got older, I would reread it and every time discover things that I hadn’t understood before.

Good readers reread.


This interviewed has been edited for length and clarity.