Text structure is an often overlooked aspect that can determine the difficulty of a book. “You will want to look at text structure,” says Klein. “Are there captions? Are there definitions? Is there an index? Is there a layout that’s difficult?”
Text structure can mean various things in fiction and informational text. Unique layouts — like twirling the text around the page — can actually make things more difficult for a reader to comprehend, and can add to the difficulty of a book.
“Parents should be aware of text structure and features,” says Klein. “For instance, how the book is written, how long the chapters are, and how many different demands are on the reader.” The more difficult the layout and structures are, the more likely children are to miss essential information (such as captions) if they’re unfamiliar with them or don’t have the necessary background knowledge.
The next thing you should keep an eye out for is the content and theme of books. “Take into consideration, are the big ideas too much beyond the age range?” says Klein. “Content, theme, and language play big roles. One example is the simile, ‘A cloud is like a cotton ball.’” When the words are simple, it can become substantially more difficult to determine levels because of the use of simile, a more complex (and abstract) reading device.
How sentences are structured can also make a huge difference in the way children read. The who/what/when/where/why/how can make all the difference in complexity and comprehension.
“When sentences are flipped, it makes the book more complex,” says Klein. For example, each of the below sentences are of varying levels of difficulty:
I went to the playground after school with my mom.
After school, I went to the playground with my mom.
With my mom, I went to the playground after school.
Time order (as seen in the above examples, i.e, ‘after school’ placement) can also make sentences harder, and aren’t easy for younger children to understand, which can challenge both striving readers and English learners alike.
The amount of vocabulary that your child knows by a certain grade also affects their reading levels when choosing books. One rule of thumb to consider is that phrases and words with multiple meanings are introduced in second grade and up.
Up to 2,000 multi-meaning words are introduced in first grade, while 8,000 are introduced in second grade — which is where many children can and do fall behind. This fall-back greatly affects their overall reading comprehension. It is important to keep in contact with your child’s teacher about their vocabulary and how to improve it if they’re falling behind.
Illustrations are an often overlooked factor in determining the difficulty of books. “Illustrations are not what we read — we read print, but illustrations add information,” says Klein. “Sizing and proportions can add to the difficulty level. Illustrations can be global, and can’t always give kids relative sizes of things.”
For example, when a book shows illustrations of giants, they may be smaller or larger within the context of the illustration, which can often confuse readers.
Above all, parents should remember that reading levels are meant to help guide parents and are not a firm structure — sometimes, children may be between levels, or have higher reading comprehension but poor vocabulary, etc. “Levels are more about books, but not about kids,” says Klein. “They vary. They’re a guide, not a rule.”
The most important aspects are the subjects your child is interested in and their willingness to read.
“Interest and fun matter most,” says Klein. “Children may want to read harder books when they have the background knowledge and high interest."
Always encourage your child: Read to them and with them as often as possible. When choosing books, maturity levels matter as well. Your child may be bored by subject matter they cannot relate to due to the fact that they read at a lower reading level. This can often determine children labeling themselves as “not readers.” In reality, they just need books at their reading level, and books that match their age and maturity.
Once you’re able to find what piques your child’s interest at the appropriate reading level for their needs, they will become more interested in reading on their own — which will have positive effects on their reading level.
To get started with books at your child’s reading level, shop the best guided reading level books below! You can find all books and activities at The Scholastic Store.
For more tips on finding books at the right level for your child, visit our guide on reading levels for kids. It's full of helpful insights and resources, including a reading guide for ages 6-7 and a reading guide for ages 8-10.