Making Sense of Reading Levels: A Basic Guide

Looking for books to help your child begin to recognize letters and simple words? Has your child's teacher recommended that you find books at Level 1, or 1.5, or C or 200? Learning to identify books at the right level for your beginning reader can be confusing. Here's a basic guide to get you started.

What Do Reading Levels Mean?

One thing that makes finding books at the right level especially difficult is that schools rely on a variety of systems to decide what reading level to assign to a particular book, and to a particular student. The main systems are:

  • Lexile: uses a range that starts with BR (Beginning Reader) and then goes from 1 - 2000. For example, the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr. has a Lexile level of 200L.
  • DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment): uses a range that starts with A1 (for the most basic beginning reader books), and then goes from 1-80. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has a DRA level of 3-4.
  • Guided Reading (also called Fountas & Pinell): uses a range of letters from A to Z. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has a Guided Reading Level of D.
  • Accelerated Reader: uses a number that corresponds to a grade level and month of the school year. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? has a reading level of 1.5, meaning that it matches the targeted reading level of a student in the fifth month of first grade. You may also see a listing called AR Pts. Some schools require students to take quizzes provided by Accelerated Reader to demonstrate that they read and understood a particular book, which will allow them to earn points based on the book's difficulty. Accelerated Reader also assigns books one of four Interest Level (IL) ratingsThese are:     
    • LG for Lower Grades (grades K-3)
    • MG for Middle Grades (grades 4-6)
    • MG+ for upper Middle Grades (grades 6-8)
    • UG for Upper Grades (grades 9-12).

To make matters even more confusing, children's book publishers often use their own leveling systems, so a Level 1 book from one publisher might be at a much more challenging reading level than a Level 1 book by a different publisher.

How Are Reading Levels Determined?

The important thing to know about reading levels is that they all rely on a lot of the same factors to indicate how appropriate a book is for kids at different stages on their reading journey. The most basic books for beginning readers have:

  • Very few words per page
  • Repeated phrases or sentences
  • Commonly used words
  • Short sentences
  • Pictures that reinforce the text

As books become more complex, the number of words per page increases, the sentences get longer, the same words are repeated less often, there are fewer pictures and the vocabulary becomes harder and more unusual. All the reading level systems mentioned above use these characteristics to decide what level to assign to a book.

How Do I Find a Book at the Right Level?

Pre-Reading Books

If your child is just beginning to show an interest in reading, you may want to start them off with some basic pre-reading books. These are usually very small, short paperback books like Bob Books (which focus on different letter sounds) or I Can Read Phonics. In our libraries, these are often shelved together at the end of the easy reader (JE, which stands for Juvenile Easy) section.

There are also some fun pre-reading series in our JE sections like the Cat the Cat books by Mo Willems and the Adventures of Otto books by Todd Milgrim, which use repeated sentence structures and helpful illustrations for kids who are new to reading on their own. Here are some similar books, recommended by the staff of the South San Francisco Public Libraries: Fountas and Pinnell Levels A - D | San Mateo County Libraries | BiblioCommons.

Other Reading Levels

If your child is already learning to read in school, a great place to start is to ask them what books they have already read and enjoyed. You can look up those book titles on Novelist K-8 Plus. Each book listing includes the Lexile and Accelerated Reading levels. You can also click on Title Read-Alikes to see a list of similar books. Once you have an idea of the Lexile level range that works best for your child, you can use the Advanced Search page to search books in our catalog by Reading Level (for example 300L to 325L). 

If your child has been assigned a Guided Reading or DRA level at school, you can use this chart from, opens a new window to find their recommended Lexile level. If your child's school uses Accelerated Reader, you can use the Accelerated Reader Bookfinder, opens a new window to search for books by Interest Level and Reading Level.

Whatever reading level your child has been assigned, be sure to look for books that interest them, without focusing too much on matching the reading level exactly. Kids will often stretch themselves to read a book at a higher level if it's something they want to read. And books that are below their reading level still provide a great opportunity to build their reading skills and confidence, making them more likely to want to pursue more challenging books later on.

Our San Mateo County Libraries staff are happy to help you and your child find a selection of fun books at the right level. You can stop by any of our 13 locations or contact us by email (via our Get in Touch form), phone (1-833-YES-SMCL), or text (650-851-0147).