Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Determine the Reading Level of a Book at a Glance: Always Relevant Information

My old blog, a literacy education focused blog called LiteraBuss, has some posts that still draw many viewers, even though I haven't posted in two years to it. I've noticed in my discussions on reddit and other forums that there are many people out there still looking for ways to determine the reading level of a book if they can't find it easily online. There was a popular post I made in 2008 that is just as relevant today. I am re-posting it here, and have updated the dead links contained in that page. So without further delay, here is the text of How to Determine the Reading Level of a Book at a Glance.

I've done some posts in the past about determining the reading level of children/adolescent/young adult books, but they usually involve referring to some type of chart, or searching around on Amazon.com or another book site to find the reading level according to a formula.

This post is about how to quickly determine if the book is appropriate for a student (or your own child, whatever the case may be for you) just by using information you gathered from the book itself. Many children's books very obviously list this information right on the front cover. DK Readers for example have the level as a number, as well as who it is appropriate for. Scholastic books sometimes have the appropriate reader level listed near the bar code, many of the short leveled reader books that are used in elementary classrooms list the level, along with the skills that the book works on, right on the front or back cover.

So, beyond books that list the level somewhere, which is a trend we're seeing more recently, how can you find the level of a book that doesn't have this information anywhere on it? The skill of finding the level of a book on your own takes some practice, but once you have rated enough books on your own, the better you get (that's right, it's the ol' "practice makes perfect" thing).

There are many methods that teachers have been using in their own classroom to determine if a book is an appropriate book for that certain child. Leveling a book on the spot is usually done to see if it fits a certain child.

The "five finger rule" is a mainstay that you'll hear about anywhere you go. Basically, open the book up to a random page, and have the student read that page. Every time they miscue (pass a word or miss it), hold up a finger. If they miss five on that page, it's not a good book for them. This method has served many teachers well for a very long time.

The reason the methods like the "5 finger rule" have been around and continue to be used is because they apply book leveling to the individual child, which only makes sense. All the book levels in the world won't do you any good if that child can't pick up the book and read it.

Variations of the five finger rule include:

  • Vocabulary picking: Go through one chapter of the book (roughly 5 pages) and see if you can find more than 20 words that could be given for vocabulary. That is, 20 words that the student won't know. If you can do it, this isn't a good book for that child to read.
  • Check back: Go ahead and give the child this book. After two chapters (depending on the length), check their understanding of the book. This should be fairly obvious, but will only work if you have an understanding of the book.

There's millions of different ways to check, at a glance, if a child should read a certain book. The examples I have given so far mainly gravitate around fluency. But comprehension should not be ignored, because, ultimately, it is what matters most.

Now, the school district I work for has always been interested in fluency. How fast can a child read versus how many mistakes they make over time, that's the basic formula for fluency. So, just because a child can read 160 words per minute (which is excellent for any child under the age of 14), does that make them a good reader? Of course not. With the focus on fluency, many students have learned to become what we call "word callers." They know the words and can read them quickly. The main problem, however, is a disconnect between fluency and comprehension. I've also had students who read 65 words per minute (considered slow or deficient in intermediate grades), but comprehends on an advanced level. So speed isn't the best way to go.

When I sit down to determine if a child should be reading a certain book, I want to know if they can handle the structure and words of the story, but I also want to know if they understand the content. Take me for example. I'm working on a doctorate, so in theory, I am one of the highest educated people on the planet. This means that I should be able to pick up any book written in my language and read it for comprehension. Yes, I could pick up any book and read it, but understand it? That's a different story. If I read a book on bio-chemistry, I'd probably actually comprehend less than half, and this is a cultural/situational comprehension issue with reading.

Students who don't know a thing about the Holocaust are going to struggle reading about it, because the background knowledge isn't there. Take this into account as well. Comprehension checks done on the fly only work if you, the instructor, have a rudimentary understanding of the book you're trying to scrutinize. If it's a classroom read aloud, you can lay some background for the students, but if it's an individual reader, you probably don't have the time to do this, so make sure it's appropriate in terms of fluency, comprehension, content, and will hold the interest of the child.

Wow, that's a lot to take in. But this is what good literacy instruction involves, good, appropriate, individualized literacy instruction. Many issues must be taken into account when determining the level of a book for a child. Is the child fluent without comprehension, or vice versa? Is there an English Language Learner (ELL) issue in play that must be addressed? Is there a lack of background knowledge on the topic? These are just a few questions you need to ask yourself.

Now this is all well and good, but what if you came here searching for how to level books because you want to level an entire library for later use? This isn't hard, because you obviously have the internet (or you wouldn't be reading this). Scholastic has a Teacher Book Wizard that lists levels of many books out there. I did a post back in April titled How They Determine the Reading Level of A Book, and it offers some resources, including some comparison charts to interpret book levels done through different leveling systems and/or formulas.

Finally, if you are on your own, you can involve a little intuitive guesswork. I've done this before. If you can't find any information about the book online through some Google detective work, then read a few pages of the book, compare it to other books of similar levels, and guess at it.

Some basic formulas (along with their link to Wikipedia) that are used to determine the reading level of a book include:

I hope that this information can be of service to you. Please let me know if it was, or if there are things you're trying to find out or understand that I didn't touch on here.

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