The Three Reading Levels –A Little Background Knowledge

Bear with me folks, I’m putting on my teacher hat today because I think it is helpful if parents (and students) understand the three reading levels. In fact, for many years, one of my initial lessons was on these reading levels. I wanted the kids to realize that everyone has three levels of reading and that they are text dependent. I would haul in a bunch of books and magazines to demonstrate that even teachers have three reading levels and cannot read everything with a high level of comprehension. When students grasp that, they are more likely to feel comfortable choosing books that work for them, rather than choosing books that are too difficult just to impress their classmates. Hopefully,this explanation will be beneficial as you support your child’s reading this year. Here goes…


When someone is able to read text easily with appropriate accuracy (few miscues) and strong comprehension, they are reading on their independent reading level. For example, most  best sellers that I read are on my independent reading level. The vocabulary is within my grasp, the subject matter is interesting (because I’ve selected the text) and I usually have no trouble comprehending the story. Additionally, because of my training and experience as a Reading specialist, professional literature is well within my grasp.

Take a minute to think of some texts that are on YOUR independent reading level. These might include current magazines and books, articles about hobbies you enjoy, or work-related text. If you can read the text easily, know the meaning of most of the words, and understand what you are reading, these materials are on your independent reading level.


All of us encounter text that is a bit tricky for us to read. Each year around this time, Fantasy Football magazines show up in my home. My husband is an avid football fan. Although most of these magazines could be read and understood by many fifth and sixth grade students, for me, Fantasy Football magazines are on my Instructional Level. I am not a football fan. I have very little background knowledge to bring to the text, and in order to really understand an article, I would probably need to rely on my husband to walk me through the football magazine, offering background knowledge and explaining football terms. In other words, I could read the text and eventually understand it, but I would need support.

Instructional level means that you can comprehend the text, but not without support. In reading class, students are usually taught using materials on their instructional level. The idea is for the teacher to “fill in the gaps”, provide concepts and teach vocabulary and strategies that allow the student to understand the text. This is how we move students from one reading level to the next.

How about you?  Can you think of a text that would be tricky for you? Now think about why. Do you lack background knowledge?  Is the vocabulary unfamiliar? Does the author use a confusing text structure?  What kind of help would you need to be able to read and understand this text?


Several years ago, when my daughter lived in New Jersey, I often spent the night. The guest room included enticing volumes of law books that belonged to her husband. Always up for a reading challenge, I delved into one of them. That was a rude awakening. Quickly I realized these books were totally over my head. With no legal background knowledge and little understanding of legal terms, I quickly gave up and realized these volumes were on my frustration level. Reading on your frustration level is counterproductive. Feeling frustrated is never the goal of reading.

Okay, your turn. Can you name a text that you would be unable to comprehend, even with a little support. If so, you understand what is meant by the frustration level in reading.

Thanks for hanging with me. In the next post, I’ll share how an understanding of these levels can be beneficial.  Bring on your questions or comments.

 Happy Labor Day!

About Rita K.

Educator and Certified Reading specialist
This entry was posted in Reading Levels. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Three Reading Levels –A Little Background Knowledge

  1. Rita K. says:

    As always, thanks for your vote of confidence, Patty. I do think it makes life easier for parents if they have a good understanding of the terms teachers often use regarding reading.


  2. patty foley says:

    Rita, you did a terrific job in explaining/defining the reading levels. You made the concept accessible to everyone. Thinking of you so very much this Fall, and the sweetness and bittersweetness of retirement that you must be experiencing.


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