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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Reading Levels

Something Just Hit Me — Perhaps You Can Help Me Think This Through

Have you been following this conflict in England over adding ages and grades to kids books? Publishers feel (probably correctly) that parents want it. Many famous kids authors are against it, feeling — I believe — that is both confining to readers and false to the books. Well I have a different set of questions about age levels, looking at them from the POV of nonfiction.

Many different systems are used to evaluate reading levels — from the very broad and approximate evaluation that an author makes, which a publisher then takes into considering in judging a proposal, to the ages and grades that are listed on books, to those that go through actual testing such as Lexile counts. But I wonder if there is a way in which at least those seat-of-the-pants approximate ages and grades misunderstand nonfiction reading. Becuase in nonfiction a good part of the draw, the appeal, is the content, the information. We all know of the preschooler who can read and pronounce long dinosaur names. Or the elementary school kid who reads the (generally 8th grade level) Times sports section. But I am wondering if, more generally, we need to come up with a different set of criteria for the reading levels of nonfiction.

Here’s what I mean: in nonfiction the difficulty of the individual words may not make such a big difference. Readers motivated to read about Storms or Asteroids or Frogs come to the book knowing they will find things they did not already know. Unlike a novel where you want to be enveloped, taken into a world, in nonfiction you are exploring, so you expect to meet the unexpected. Unfamiliar vocabulary is cool — it gives you the reader new knowledge. Design matters — open, appealing, spacious. The balance of the specific and the abstract matters. The ability to find explanations for unfamiliar terms matters. But I just wonder if we have built our ages and grades around fiction (as well as state standards) and not really investigated what makes nonfiction engaging and useful to readers at different age levels.

Am I right?


  1. Marc:
    As a teacher and librarian, I would agree with the idea that nonfiction is very different reading and thus does not hold to the traditional standards of reading levels of fiction books. I think most educators would agree with you. I know that one thing I have to be careful about is selecting books, nonfiction, that does not visually offend the reader. By that I mean choosing a really neat nonfiction picture book,for example The Wall, that a high school would not be willing to read on their own because…well, it is too babyish, at least in appearance. See the cover.

    That fact that nonfiction is attractive to various levels of readers due to interest and discovery is what makes it different and appeals to readers of the subject not the reading lexile. I still think we need some kind of generic reading level recommendation…but not to its exclusivity in evaluation.