Ruminations On Reading Levels

Ruminate. Excogitate. Contemplate. Chew the cud. Each of these words means to think about or to mull over. However, some of these words are more sophisticated and erudite than the others. Their use would result in an increased reading level of the text in which they were included.

There are many different ways to calculate reading level. You may be familiar with the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels in Word. When I ran the previous paragraph through spell/grammar check, it came out as a 4.7 grade level. I fiddled around a bit with that intro paragraph and changed it to the following.

Ruminate, excogitate, contemplate, and chew the cud: each of these words means to think about or to mull over. However, some of these words are more sophisticated and erudite than the others, and their use would result in an increased reading level of the text in which they were included.

When I ran this paragraph through Word’s spell/grammar check, it came out as 11.6. If you look at the two paragraphs, you will notice that I used the exact same words. The only thing that changed was the sentence structure. Amazingly, the reading level jumped seven grades. There are many different ways to calculate reading levels, but most of them center on length and complexity of words and sentences, not actual content or theme.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I ran across this article, American High School Students Are Reading Books at 5th Grade Appropriate Levels, which features a slide show revealing that The Hunger Games is written at a 5.3 grade level, Of Mice and Men weighs in at 4.5, and To Kill a Mockingbird registers at a level of 5.6. The latter two books are classics, and some believe Hunger Games will become a classic. Most would agree that the content of these books is not appropriate for fourth and fifth graders, but that the themes are important for older students to explore and discuss as they approach adulthood. Focusing on the reading level instead of the content is misleading. The headline insinuates that high school students are reading drivel, even though time honored classics are included on the list.

Curious, I used the Book Wizard tool on the Scholastic site to double check the statistics. While The Hunger Games still came up as 5.3, both Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird were listed at a 8.1 reading level. I began typing in random titles of well known middle grade novels my sons and I have enjoyed. The Lightning Thief showed up as 4.7, Al Capone Does My Shirts 4.7,  Redwall 7.8, Phantom Toll Booth 5.4,  A Wrinkle in Time 5.8, A Single Shard 6.8, Rules 4.5, Hatchet 6.3, The White Giraffe 5.7, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid 5.3.

So what does all this mean, and why does it matter? It matters when kids are kept to a reading list that is based on grade levels, which as you can see don’t always line up with content level. It matters when parents or teachers judge a book to be less worthy because the reading level seems low, even though the message is rich and timeless. Reading levels can measure length of words; they cannot measure beauty of language. They can count words in sentences, but they cannot count the number of children a story may touch.

Another thing to consider with children’s fiction is that it is usually told in a child’s voice. In order to be authentic, the main character probably isn’t going to sound like Thoreau or Hemingway. Sentences may be short, especially if there is a lot of dialogue and action. In the case of free verse novels such as Out of the Dust, reading level 5.1, the sentences will be fragmented. Contemporary fiction reflects contemporary times. When is the last time you mailed a letter written with the complexity and flair of an Austen novel?

I am not saying that children shouldn’t be challenged, and I fully understand the need to increase reading comprehension and vocabulary. However, I’m not sure if choosing books based on a number calculated by a computer is the way to do it.  I also know, all too sadly, that school systems need a way to sort and measure what is learned. My point in bringing all this up is that when it comes to choosing books for young students, we need to look beyond reading levels.

There is great value in stories. Children gain insight into other cultures, eras, and lives. These things help form them into more well-rounded and empathetic people. Books are windows to places they might otherwise never get to go and people they might never meet.

Although adhering to reading levels may be necessary in some situations, it should not be the only gauge by which we measure the worth of the book. I am no reading specialist or expert; however, I have watched my son grow from reading a steady diet of Geronimo Stilton, Warriors, and Wimpy Kid books to asking for a volume of Phillis Wheatley poetry.

After you’ve had a chance to ruminate and chew the cud on this topic, please leave a comment and tell us what you think.

*Image courtesy of

Lill Pluta