The Reading Levels Debate

About a decade ago, a debate was sparked about the legitimacy of reading levels. Leveled reading is still common in a school environment, even though there is little evidence that proves grouping children by reading level has any benefit.

“I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate student learning by placing kids in the right levels of text. Of course, guided reading and leveled books are so widely used it would make sense that there would be lots of evidence as to their efficacy. Except that there is not.” – Timothy Shanahan

Many educators are shifting their practices to align with the science of reading. This means adopting evidence-based teaching practices. Currently, reading levels do not have sufficient research to back up their efficacy.

What are reading levels?

Reading levels were devised as a way to determine the reading skills a learner has. Most often used in a school setting, they measure comprehension and fluency by testing vocabulary, phoneme awareness, decoding skills and more. By determining the learner’s reading level, the theory purports an educator can match them with reading material appropriate for their current skill set. Reading levels are also used to measure reading progress. The goal is to have the learner reading at or just above their level to maintain progress and reading enjoyment.

“Teachers use reading levels to understand what a student knows and what they need to work on. They might also be used to assemble kids into small reading groups.” – We Are Teachers

To use reading levels effectively, you must assess both the reader and the reading material. Many of the leveling systems use complex formulas (often proprietary) to assess books’ readability. This is an attractive system that saves time for teachers and parents when selecting books for emerging readers.

Common reading level systems

Lexile Framework

The Lexile Framework for reading places both readers and texts on the same measurement scale. A Lexile reader measure describes the learner’s reading ability. For a reading challenge, select books at 100L below to 50L above their reported Lexile measure. The measures are a number between 100 and 1600 and an “L” and a range from OL for beginning readers and texts and 1600L and above for advanced readers and texts. The video below explains further.


“Although Lexiles have greatly improved readability assessment (shrinking standard errors of measurement and improving the amount of comprehension variance that can be explained by text difficulty), and yet we are in no better shape than before since there are no studies indicating that if you teach students at particular Lexile levels more learning will accrue.” –  Timothy Shanahan

Fountas and Pinnell system

The Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) system has 27 reading levels, starting at A for students in Kindergarten and going up to Z+ for students in High School and above. The system does not offer much transparency about its formula for leveling materials. Many have pointed out that the materials’ levels are inconsistent. Books at the same level will vary in their complexity. Additionally, F&P strategies are largely based on the whole language approach rather than teaching decoding.

“It’s a complex, proprietary system with a scientific veneer.” – Mark Seidenberg

Many of these reading level systems claim to be backed by research. But when one digs a little deeper, the claims appear shallow. More and more research is showing that students benefit from reading well above their assigned level. Another issue is that these systems are not simply publishing books at different levels of complexity, but are selling a program to teachers.

“… students have a lot to gain by reading books above or below their assigned level. Reading a book above their level may require more interaction with a teacher or librarian who can support, scaffold, and explain a book as the student progresses.” – Wayne D’Orio

Does that mean we should discard reading levels altogether? Having a collection of books with varying complexity is certainly a good thing. The books that have come out of a system still hold value and can be used with learners. Also, assessing books for readability is, indeed, helpful guidance. Rather than depending on a leveled system as a teaching strategy, educators can teach with the leveled books using other evidence-based methods. Reading levels and measures should not be the only method for selecting reading material for your learners. Consider the learner’s background knowledge, interests and motivations. Also think about the complexity of the text such as the style, theme, quality and imagery. The level assigned a book is simply a tool, not a rule.

Check out the resources below for more about the debate regarding reading levels.


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