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What are "Guided Reading Levels" or "DRA Levels"?  Here's a short explanation for parents:

To break the daunting task of learning to read into smaller, developmental steps, schools and teachers use leveling systems to describe where children are at on the reading spectrum and what books are most appropriate for each step in the process. There are several different systems in use across the country. We've decided to focus on two of the most popular ones:

  • Guided Reading Levels (also sometimes called Fountas and Pinnell after the two women who created the system)
  • DRA Levels (short for Developmental Reading Assessment)
If your child's school uses either one of these systems, here's how it works:
(1) children are given a reading level based on ability

Your child's teacher will regularly read with your child to determine three important components of literacy:

  1. accuracy -- what percentage of words they can read correctly
    (The ideal range is 90-95% of words read correctly. If a child reads more than 95 out of every 100 words correctly, the book may be too easy and the child may be ready to move up to the next level (assuming they do well on fluency and comprehension).  Conversely, if the child reads less than 90 out of every 100 words correctly, the book may be too difficult. Teachers call this "frustration level", for obvious reasons.)
  2. fluency -- how many words they read per minute
    (The ideal range varies by reading level. Note: This is less important at the early stages (A-E). In fact, many districts do not consider reading speed/fluency until level F.)
  3. comprehension -- how well do they understand what they have just read
    (The depth of understanding required varies according to reading level -- from simply recalling the facts of the story in the lower levels to more in-depth discussions and insights at the upper levels.)

Once the 'test' is given, the teacher will then use the above criteria to determine which Guided Reading Level or DRA Level best fits your child's current reading ability.

  • Guided Reading Levels range from A to Z, with children generally starting at A in Kindergarten and, ideally, progressing through the levels of the alphabet to level Z by middle school.
  • DRA Levels range from A to 70, with children generally starting at A in Kindergarten and, ideally, progressing through the levels up to 70 by middle school.  (Note: after level A, the system switches over to numbers. Only even numbers are used, and some numbers are skipped. Not sure why).

How often these test are given varies per child. Once a month is a good range, but children who seem to be ready are often tested earlier so that they don't stay on one level if they are ready for a more challenging one. And sometimes, with holidays and events and how busy a classroom can get, tests can be given at intervals longer than a month. varies. 

(2) Books are given a reading level as well.

Then, in addition to determining children's reading levels, books are leveled as well.  There are many, many factors that go into how books are leveled. The important thing to know is that the reading level for many popular children's books have been determined, using the same A-Z Guided Reading Levels system or A-70 DRA Levels system.

The result of all this leveling... children can be given books that exactly match their current reading ability. 

This 'leveling' is crucial to reading success because

  • if books are too hard, kids can easily get frustrated and confused. Text structures might be too complex. Unfamiliar types of spelling patterns, punctuation, or words can cause children to question what they already "know".  Comprehension definitely suffers.
  • if books are too easy, the lack of challenge and interest often means kids don't make the progress they should...and they can eventually find reading boring.

Children who read books that 'fit' their current guided reading level (teachers call these "good fit books") make much greater improvements in reading ability and reading enjoyment! Daily reading of on-level books is crucial for reading success!

Hopefully this brief explanation has been more helpful than confusing. One last note: We encourage parents to keep in mind that learning to read is a long process that can include leaps and bounds at one point and slow and steady progress at other points. Progress is what we are all shooting for, and half the battle with reading is whether the student thinks he or she is successful at reading.  Keeping a positive, encouraging, and upbeat tone is truly an important part of a child's literacy success.