What Does Reading on Grade Level Mean?

child reading a grade level book at homeEvery week, Lexercise therapists talk with parents who are concerned that their child is reading “below grade level.” In most cases, the child’s teacher has told the parents that the child struggles to keep up. Even when parents observe their child’s reading difficulties, they may not understand the meaning of grade level reading or what can be done to help the child improve.

Is Reading at Grade Level Important?

Reading is a complex activity; it is not a single thing. Consider the differences in reading: 

  • a food ingredients label
  • a pharmacy insert
  • a bus schedule
  • a ballot initiative
  • an owner’s manual for a car or appliance
  • an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) publication
  • a workplace policy manual
  • a news article
  • an opinion article
  • a poem
  • a book 

Further, within each of these examples, the difficulty level can vary widely. Just as some books are more complex than others, some food labels are more complex than others. 

Attempts to capture reading difficulty levels have typically focused on passages or books. Over the years, different readability formulas have been developed to index the difficulty level of passages. These formulas count elements like word length (number of syllables, number of letters), word frequency, and sentence length. But, even with all the diligent counting, there is no agreed-upon standard for indexing the difficulty of reading a written passage.

Reading on Grade Level: What Does it Mean?

Grade level reading is defined as the average passage difficulty level (as measured by one of the many readability formulas) that most students at a specific grade level can read with understanding. Again: grade level reading is what most students at a grade level can read. If this definition seems circular, it is! 

Another big problem with using “grade level” as a meaningful measure of reading is that there is huge overlap across grades in the difficulty level of passages that students can read and understand. 

For example, see the graph below. The purple area under the first/left curve represents the reading scores of average 3rd graders and the teal area under the second/right curve represents the reading scores of average 5th graders. The overlapped area in the middle shows that an average 3rd grader and an average 5th grader could have the same score! 

graphic showing how children from different grades can be on the same reading level

We are used to thinking about grade level reading as a single number, such as, “My child is reading at a 3rd-grade level.” But it would be more accurate to think of reading level as a range. For example:

  • Early elementary (grades K-3) reading level
  • Late elementary (grades 4-5) reading level
  • Middle school (grades 6-8) reading level
  • Early secondary (grades 9-10) reading level
  • Late secondary (grades 11-12) reading level

In a future post, we will explore an alternative to grade level that might be a more meaningful way to profile reading skills. Subscribe to our blog below so that you don’t miss out!

If your child is a struggling reader or you have been told your child is reading below grade level, Lexercise can help. Lexercise identifies and treats dyslexia and other learning difficulties with online reading, writing, and spelling therapy. Children who complete the Lexercise program improve 3 grade levels on average! Learn more on the Lexercise website, or contact us today.

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.