What I Mean When I Talk About Age Ranges and Reading Levels

by Tom B.

Charlie Cook's Favorite Book

Is that book appropriate for a child to read? What about a pirate? Should I be worried about an alien being offended by the content within?

I’ve started to get some questions from readers about how I cite “age ranges” for certain kids’ books and whether or not, when I talk about “age ranges,” if I’m actually talking about “reading levels.” I understand how the distinction between the two can be confusing, so I’m going to try to clear things up a bit.

(Note to Readers: There is a 95% chance that, in the act of trying to “clear things up,” I will, in fact, make things “infinitely more confusing.” The best thing to do is probably just sit back and enjoy watching me dig myself into a hole.)

So, when I list the “age range” in one of my book reviews, what exactly am I talking about? In my interpretation of “age range,” I’m talking about whether or not the material in the book is appropriate for a child of that age. When I state a certain age range – let’s say “3 and older” – I’m saying “it should be fine to READ THIS BOOK to any kid who’s three years old or older.” (And I’m also implying that it’s OK for your child to browse the book on their own.)

Since I have a five-year-old kid, almost every book I’ve profiled on the blog, in my opinion, is appropriate for any other five-year-old and most should be fine for any kid younger than five too. The only books that I’ve written about so far that I wouldn’t share with my own daughter right now are the books I’ve labeled “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” (that should’ve been insanely self-explanatory).

However, don’t think that “age range” means the same thing as “reading level.” To me, “reading levels” are all about independent reading. A reading level is an estimation of “a child this age should be able to read the text of this book on their own without much help.” While most of the books I’ve profiled fall within my daughter’s “age range” – i.e. the material is appropriate for her – far, far less fall into her “reading level” – i.e. she’d be able to read the entire book on her own.

Is that clear?

In my opinion, age ranges are fairly easy to identify. It’s basically you, as a parent, asking yourself, “When do I think my kid would be old enough for me to read this book to them?” But, to me, reading levels are much, much harder to calculate. Maybe it’s because my daughter is relatively new to independent reading, but I’m not much good yet at looking at a book and estimating whether or not my kid will have trouble with the vocabulary.


Lexiles - A solid resource for figuring out a book's reading level

Fortunately, there are much, much smarter people in the world than I, so I wanted to point parents towards a resource that could be pretty valuable to them in terms of estimating a book’s reading level – Lexile.com

If you haven’t heard of Lexiles before, go talk to a librarian. In my experience, most are very familiar with Lexiles and really appreciate how the “Lexile Framework for Reading” tries to quantify the previously unquantifiable. Here’s how they describe themselves:

The idea behind The Lexile Framework for Reading is simple: if we know how well a student can read and how hard a specific book is to comprehend, we can predict how well that student will likely understand the book.

They assign a grade – called a Lexile Measure – to each book and that grade can tell teachers or parents how hard or easy it should be for their student or child to read that book, based on their individual reading level. Here’s a video where they attempt to describe Lexiles better than I can:

It’s a hard concept to grasp, but, once you start playing around with it, it’s a very cool resource to use when you have questions about the reading level of specific books that you might want to share with your kid. You can just type in the title in the search bar, find the book in question, and they provide you with a lot of information on that title. Yes, it’s technical, but it can be damn useful, IF you can get your head around the system.

Also, just FYI, Common Sense Media – a non-profit I’ve mentioned before on the blog – also provide book reviews where they try to gage and rate the level and appropriateness of books for children. I think their hearts are in the right place and you probably can glean some useful information from their assessments, but I take issue with some of the criteria they use to “measure” a book.

In their book reviews, CSM ranks things like “violence & scariness” and “language – which I’m OK with – but then they start trying to measure things like “Educational value”, “Positive messages”, and “Positive role models”, which seems ridiculous to me. As criteria, those elements seem either a). completely ephemeral (How do you measure educational value?), or b). completely irrelevant.  The idea of a person trying to rate the range of a book’s “positive message” – “Oh, I don’t think the positive message is strong enough in this one. I’ll just give it a 4.” – is just silly and subjective and I don’t see how that would be useful to a parent. But, like I said, other parents might find CSM’s ratings useful. I’m just an old crank with qualms about their assessment criteria.

Common Sense Media

Can you really rate these thing? And, if someone tries to do so, is that really useful to a parent?

Readers, just know that, when I talk about age range, I’m mostly talking about appropriateness. I will always try to give a heads-up if a book might freak out readers of a certain age or if there are elements that certain kids might not be ready for (death, dismemberment, etc). But, in terms of reading levels, ignore any advice I give you – I’m a rank amateur – and ask a professional. You can try out Lexiles or, if you want my real recommendation, go ask the librarian in the children’s section at your local library. They’ve got Library SCIENCE degrees. They’re technically LIBRARY SCIENTISTS. Force them to use their vast science powers for your own welfare and reap the benefit of their years of schooling.

So, did I make the age range issue more clear or less clear? (Please keep my good intentions and sweet, ignorant nature in mind before you answer.)

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