A parent recently asked me how to tell what her daughter's book level was. I wondered why she wanted to know. It seemed to me like one of the joys of being a parent and not a teacher is that you don't have to concern yourself with leveling. You can just read. But of course she just wanted to know how to help her daughter choose books in the book store or library. I feel like when I was little we just picked out books that looked interesting, and flipped through a few pages to see if they felt about right. Now so many books seem to be slotted into a hierarchy.
Now as a former teacher and a consultant who works with teachers all over the country, I'm familiar enough with book levels to know that it's a Babel of different systems. Is your child a G? a 17? A 1.8? And even when publishers claim to use a system, the person whose job it is to level the books may have different ideas than the person who has that job at another publisher. There is just not a lot of consistency out there. So my first answer is to ignore anything you see on a book that has to do with a level. If you're not convinced, try this. Go to your local book store. Go to one with a good children's book section. Pick three "I Can Read" level 3 books and look inside. Do they all seem to be the same? Maybe, but maybe not, depending on the titles. OK, now try a "Ready Reader" level 3. Is it the same? Try another imprint or another level. Once you start looking you'll see. It's meaningless.
So how do teachers know? Well, hopefully your child's school has chosen a system and everybody uses it. (Resource Room or Reading Recovery teachers may use another system. They're allowed.) These systems take into account things like number of words per page, font size and spacing, picture size and relevance, number of multisyllabic words, complex sentences, repetition, inflected endings (like -ed), and clarity of story, to name just a few things. But the other thing teachers use is their particular experience. They have read a million children's books and have watched children learning to read them They know what is going to be tricky and how to help. They also know what is appropriate to expect at what levels and when it's time to teach a given strategy. They know how to tell what sorts of strategies your child already uses to decode and understand what he reads. It's pretty impressive, actually.
This is just not feasible for a parent, nor is it necessarily desirable. School reading and home reading are different. As a parent you do not always have to teach something new. You can function more as a coach, partner, cheerleader, or audience. So back to the level question. How do you help your child choose books well? Try this:
Take your child to the book store/library. Start with a few books that seem about right. If they are pretty short (anything up to a Frog and Toad type book) read a few pages and then say, "Oooh, this looks good. It seems to be about x." X being a brief teaser that gives a little information but tantalizes the young reader into wanting to find out more. If you see any obviously hard words ahead of time, include these in your introduction. Like this: "Oh, and the farmer's daughter also tries to help pull up that pesky turnip." Then hand it over. Does it feel good? Is your child reading along with a bit of confidence and some fluency? Not stumbling over too many words? Only needing a bit of help and only once every, say 10-20 words? Understanding what she reads? Able to tell back what she just read? Good! Get that book!
If not, you need to get something a little less challenging. You cannot even hint that this might be disappointing, though. Instead, try to make it seem like the best luck in the world. Like this: "Oh, phew, I was hoping we could spend some time reading these cool 'Brand New Readers' (or some other book that is more appropriate than the one you just tried)! They are so-o-o-o-o good and there are so many characters we can get to know! What LUCK!"
(These are lovely books, by the way. Brand New Readers is an imprint of Candlewick Press. I have nothing to do with this publisher and will not profit from the sale of their books, but I do like them.)
I guess what I think is important for parents to know is not what level your child reads, but whether your child enjoys reading and feels successful at it. If it feels like torture, it is. Make it stop now. The quickest way into higher level books is by spending quality time in books that feel comfortable.