Not long after children start learning to read, parents begin learning about levelled books.

Books for early readers are ‘levelled’ in a variety of ways to show what books would be best for your children at any given point as their reading ability grows.

One of the most common systems of book levelling is called the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) tool for Grades K-8 used in many Ontario schools, which uses numbers 1 through 80 to divide books.

Another popular approach is the Fontis and Pinnel system, which uses the letters A through Z.

“The system that is used depends on the school system,” says David Booth, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, who specializes in literacy, arts, and education. “But the way they are levelled doesn’t really matter; what matters is what you are doing with the books.”

The levels provide ‘scaffolded’ resources for students to work up through as they learn to read, says James Coulter, a literacy expert with the Toronto District School Board.

Levelling is based on aspects of formatting (i.e., number of words/sentences per page, amount of white space, presence of pictures/graphics), level of vocabulary, sophistication of language features, and the nature of the content, Coulter says.

Levelling is different from readability formulae (those RL 4.5 that you sometimes find on the back of novels) and Lexiling that are primarily focused on word-sentence count and do not deal with the content of the book, he says.

Teachers sometimes use these systems to explain to parents which stage their child is at with their reading.  When children are at or beyond the level expected, parents may breathe a sigh of relief, while those who are told their child is not at the grade level expected may become concerned.

Here is a comparative chart of the three most common measurement scales for early readers

But Booth, who taught in the classroom for 15 years and is Chair of Literacy at North Bay’s Nipissing University, says teachers and parents alike should not get too caught up in the levels.

“The levels were designed as teacher tools… they are teacher tools, not children tools,” he says. If a child isn’t at a level that is expected, it’s important to not overreact, and never tell the child this fact, he
says. “You just say, ‘he could be a little higher, so let’s see if we can give him some instruction and get him to a higher level,’” he says.

Coulter advises parents to take their cue from the child's teacher. “If the teacher is concerned, then parents might want to pursue what supports or interventions would best support their child and get them up to level,” he says. “Children are individuals and, as such, are unique in how they develop. Some children take longer to pick up reading, but parents should monitor their child’s progress in the primary grades and deal with any issues before a gap forms and widens through the grades.”

With so many different levelling systems, parents can get confused trying to find the right books for their children at home to match what they are doing at school.

“This can be a bit of a pain,” says Coulter. “Teachers often have access to ‘equivalency charts’ that include the different levelling systems.  However, parents should remember that levelling is largely an instructional tool and that many levelled books are written for the purpose of levelled reading programs and aren't always as rich as ‘trade’ books that you would find in the library or book store.”

Teachers might send levelled books home with your child to read, but it is always a good idea to teach children how to choose a ‘just-right’ text on their own, he says.

The idea of levelling books came out of a program called Reading Recovery for Grade 1 students struggling with reading, he says. “They would get one-on-one tutoring in reading for four months to help them catch up.”

The idea was to break reading progress up into small steps so that teachers could find the right level for a child to use while learning, he says. This allows the child to feel a sense of progress and accomplishment as they move up through the levels, says Booth.

“If he can read it, then I can help him learn about reading,” he says. “If he’s having difficulty reading it I can’t instruct him to be a better reader. I can’t point things out to him about how the letters go together and why a word is in bold and things like that. So that’s the origin of it.”

The levels are helpful for a teacher who is trying to instruct a child, but are not a reason for parents to get
too worried, he says.

“They are for me to be able to instruct the child,” he says, “and also to guide them in choosing a book when they go to independent reading. For some kids what has happened is that they have missed steps. What we want to do then is to go back and make sure we have not missed any steps.”

But it’s crucial that children are able to choose books based on interest too, says Larry Swartz, professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

“To say that they should only read a book according to their level doesn’t match my own philosophy,” he says. “This system dismisses volumes and volumes of children’s literature.”