Nuts and Bolts of Book Leveling

By Linda Cornwell

In Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley’s delightful book, Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind , Miss Malarkey is determined to turn her students into book lovers. One by one, she lures them into the wonderful world of reading by finding the right book for each student. Miss Malarkey understands that by pairing students with books that are both appealing AND appropriate to their reading level, the task of reading becomes more enjoyable and attractive to her students.

Research demonstrates that matching books to students helps them become better readers (Mesmer, 2008, p.1). An appropriate match can mean the difference between a student becoming a confident, skilled reader or a frustrated, struggling reader. Furthermore, the use of leveled books offers teachers a more personalized and precise means of supporting readers, eliminating the one-size-fits-all approach to reading instruction. Thus, leveled books have become an essential tool in matching books to readers, and teachers often rely on a system of leveled books to match students with just right books.

A leveling system is a framework that guides the sequencing of books. The system assigns a level to a book based on its text difficulty, so that the books within a specific level present similar challenges. Text difficulty builds from one level to the next, supporting students as they progress toward becoming proficient readers. Unlike readability formulas that focus on units of measures, leveling systems focus on such factors as complexity of concepts, syntax and language; length of text; amount of text on a page; size and placement of text; and amount of contextual supports. As a result, leveling systems tend to be descriptive and qualitative rather than quantitative.

Good teachers know that matching readers to appropriate books is a delicate balancing act, and they consider multiple factors when matching students to texts.Here are five key points to remember when using leveled texts.

1) Consider both the text and the reader.
Every book is different and so is every reader. To successfully match a reader to text, the teacher must connect information about the reader with information about the text. Because students come to reading with varying abilities, knowledge, and interests, finding the right book for each student can be a daunting task. Further complicating this task is the current explosion in children’s literature. With over 10,000 books published annually, even experienced teachers find it impossible to stay current with children’s literature.

A great resource to assist teachers in matching books to students is Scholastic’s Book Wizard. Built on a database of more than 50,000 fiction and nonfiction books from all publishers, this dynamic on-line tool helps teachers find books for any content or grade level. And it’s easy to use. Teachers can search by title, author, genre, keyword, or one of four leveling systems: Guided Reading, Lexile, DRA, or Grade Level Equivalent.

2) Know that the book’s level does not guarantee its quality.
While students need to read books matched to their reading level, they also need to read books that are meaningful and inviting. Like any quality text, a leveled book should engage readers with appealing content, language, and design. This means that leveled books should be selected on both their accessibility and engaging qualities.(Hoffaman, Roser, & Sailors, 2004, p. 116).

3) Keep in mind that no leveling system is successful at all times.
Neither readability formulas nor leveling systems consider the interests, motivations, experiences, knowledge, skill level, and socio-cultural identity of the reader in determining a book’s appropriateness. What the reader brings to the text and the reader’s interaction with the text will influence how difficult the text is to read for the reader. One advantage to using Scholastic’s Book Wizard is that teachers can search the data base by subject or student interest as well as reading level.

4) Remember that all leveling systems are not equal, and equivalency charts do not correspond neatly.
All text levels are approximations, and there is no specific rule for determining them. Thus, trying to compare levels from different leveling systems can be confusing. The primary differences among leveling systems lie in their instructional design, their criteria for identifying text difficulty and the way in which they identify difficulty (Dzaldov & Peterson, 2008, p. 222).

Since leveling systems vary, teachers have turned to equivalency charts in an effort to correlate different leveling systems to each other. While these charts can provide insights into the relationships among leveling systems, the reading levels do not always correspond neatly, and the equivalencies reported may be inconsistent and inaccurate.

5) Note that not every text used in the classroom needs to be given a level.
Children who are learning to read must be exposed to a wide variety of texts to understand what reading is all about. When students' reading diets are restricted to leveled texts, their reading parameters are narrowed, their growth as readers is handicapped, and they end up with an artificial perspective of what reading is about. Learning to handle varying text types is necessary if readers are to develop strategies to comprehend all kinds of texts. To become competent, confident readers – those who not only know how to read but who also choose to read – students require multiple opportunities to apply their skills and strategies in books they can read and want to read.

Dzaldov, B.S. & Peterson, S. (2005). "Book leveling and readers." Reading Teacher, 59, pp 222-229.

Hoffaman, J.V., Roser, N.L., & Sailors, M. (2004). “Leveled texts for beginning readers: A primer, a test, and a quest.” In J. Hoffman & D. Schallert (Eds.), The texts in the elementary classroom (pp113-124). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Mesmer, H. A., (2008). Tools for matching readers to texts: research-based practices. New York: Guilford Press.