Picking the right level books for Astroboy and Thumper was a difficult task until recently, when Thumper has finally read through multiple levels for me to understand how it works. Chinese books aren’t like English books, with reading levels spelled out in various book recommendation websites, or printed right on the cover of a book.
Review of Levels
First, let me review the levels I mentioned in my Building A Chinese Library for the Kids series. I’ve added more info I recently found from 東雨 Kingin Publishing.
- Board Books （0-3 yrs old)
- Picture books (Toddler picture books, preschooler picture books) (0-6 yrs old)
- Bridging books (6-10 yrs old, ~1st-4th grade)
- Level 0 (<5000 characters)
- Level 1 (5k-10k characters)
- Level 2 (10k-20k characters)
- Level 3 (20-40k characters)
- Advanced Bridging Books (10-14 yrs old, ~5th-8th grade)
- Level 4 (40k-70k characters)
- Children’s Literature 70k+ (15 yrs old+, 9th+)
Some Ways to Gauge Reading Levels
First, I’ll listing the ways I’ve heard of and how it worked or didn’t work due to my kids, or my own personality.
1. The right level book is the book your child will read.
Surround the children with book options. Whatever books they pick up, that’s their level. It’s something I would totally tell others now. But, totally not helpful when I didn’t know how to gauge reading level to help me pick books out from the library. I needed something more specific!
My interpretation now is the importance of observation and not being pushy. For example, if I were to sit Thumper in front of the bookshelf and tell her she has quiet reading time, I can kind of gauge her reading level just by the books she chooses herself.
For a long awhile, before she was very comfortable with zhuyin, she liked to browse through our Qiao Hu magazines to look at the pictures. In hind sight, I should have listened to what I was observing and realized it was due to her uncomfortableness with zhuyin, rather than get frustrated at her for reading something that I deemed below her level.
I thought she knew her zhuyin already. I didn’t realize that knowing zhuyin and being comfortable in it are two different things. Thumper won’t try things until she’s very sure she will excel in it. Astroboy is more willing to try. This mean that even if they’re at the same reading level, I can try books with Astroboy that I cannot try with Thumper.
2. Use the 5 finger rule.
A common quick method in English is the 5 figure rule. Have the child read a page, if there are less than 5 words they don’t know, or have difficulty reading, then the book is the right level for her.
This worked, and also didn’t work, for me.
It’s way too easy to fulfill the 5 finger (or even 10 fingers) rule in Chinese because you’re basically learning to sight read 1000-2000 characters! So not knowing 5 characters doesn’t mean the book isn’t their level.
This rule is most helpful in the beginning stages of learning to read, before the kids can start guessing characters due to knowledge of components. It also works when the child is just starting to use zhuyin to read. At this point, they’re still not familiar with it so if they get stuck at reading ~5-10 characters, the book may be a bit hard for them.
This method didn’t work for me because I’m lazy and impatient. It is very much a chore for me to sit with the children for every book they’re reading to gauge their reading level. Because Chinese books don’t have Reading Levels spelled out for Beginning Readers, or really, most children’s books, I can’t use one book to choose all the other books. I was also not familiar enough with Chinese books (then!) to have a general idea of what’s available for each level.
3. Reading Speed
The Great O uses reading speed. For example, he says that if a child can read a book at about 400 characters a minute, they’re then able to read the same books without zhuyin.
Unfortunately, I fail because I’m lazy and can’t even whip out my stop watch to time my kids, and then count the number of characters in a page.
4. Read a chapter at a time
I’ve heard of some children who read 1-2 chapters a day, slowly and methodically, even if they don’t recognize all the characters or are familiar with zhuyin.
Sadly, the first way does not work with Thumper‘s personality. Probably because I tend to get very frustrated when she mispronounces a word. She doesn’t like to read aloud at all and if a book is even the least bit “hard”, she will eventually drop it, complaining that the fonts are too small.
I’m finally learning to accept and work with her personality. For example, when she started on Harry Potter, but then did not picked it up after the first chapter, I knew that this is not her reading level. She can read it, but obviously she’s not comfortable at this level of reading to stick with it, so therefore this is not her reading level. Other books are way easier and faster reading for her.
Astroboy didn’t want to read Little Bear, either. Probably because I sat with him when he was reading and pointed out every mispronounced zhuyin. He dropped it after the first chapter and complained it was too hard. Only after I went with the gradual progression method was he willing to read a whole book by himself. But still, he would much prefer picture books and will not pick up a chapter book.
So again, Little Bear is not his reading level, despite being able to read it. Really, the books they choose themselves reflect their reading level. Maybe he is capable of reading Little Bear, but he doesn’t want to because developmentally and comprehension-wise he is more suited for picture books right now. I’ve learned to let it be.
5. Alternate reading pages
Another strategy I’ve read about is alternating pages. This also doesn’t work for me because, as I said, I’m impatient and lazy. I just can’t sit there and read with them. (Though I’m slowly coming around to reading to them again.) Plus I tend to criticize their reading. What’s worked for me is to just designate 30 minute reading time before bed and leave them be.
My personal philosophy is if my children need me to sit with them to alternate read pages, they’re probably not at that book’s level. However, this is a definite strategy to help a beginner reader practice reading. So perhaps it will work on your children.
6. Asking the children to tell you what the books are about
I believe the aim of this method is to see if the children comprehend what they’re reading. If my kids don’t understand a book, they won’t read it. I do check once in awhile by asking Thumper or Astroboy to tell me about their book; in a very sneaky, we’re just having a conversation kind of way. But they usually can’t. I chalk it up to children being able to understand way more than what they can express at this young age.
I also find that, even if Thumper doesn’t seem to understand everything she’s reading or listening, as long as she enjoys it, it’s all good. Remember how it takes a baby 3-6 months (don’t quote me on exact numbers) to start making sense of all the noise you’re directing at them and segmenting them into sounds, syllables, and words? You don’t stop talking to them because they don’t understand.
Similarly, with enough exposure, and repetition, the kids eventually pick up new vocabulary and increase their comprehension.
Choosing the Right Level Books
Otherwise known as, Half-Ass Lazy Method to Determine Reading Level that Requires Tons of Explaining.
Finally, here’s what I’ve arrived at as my method for gauging my kids’ reading level. It’s something I’ve been repeating saying, though not in a very clear way, to many of my friends.
1. If you sit them down in front of a bookshelf filled with Chinese books, what books do they gravitate to? That’s their reading level.
2. The premise of the second one is, imagine yourself reading a book, perhaps the same book if you can read Chinese, or equivalent English version. How fast do you read it? If a child can read at least half as fast, they’re at level.
3. Educate yourself about the books that fit with each reading level. With knowledge of Reading Levels of specific book series, you know what level they’re at. I’ve gotten much better at this the more books Thumper read and also researching books to buy. Having bridging books leveled by character count have also really helped me in finding the right books.
Here are some examples from Thumper’s reading progression the last year.
When Thumper started reading, we visited Books and Me and tried out the Something About Vicky books. She finished those in a blink of an eye. Probably polished off at least half the series in our hour morning there. These books have 2 sentences per page or so. So, definitely below her level. Astroboy is reading this series right now out loud, but in a slow and sure manner, usually 5 minutes a book. These are at his level.
Next, we tried the Lobel books and the Little Bear books, it would take her a long time. She fought them a bit because this was before her getting comfortable with zhuyin; maybe 15-30 minutes at least. She painstakingly read every word, slowly. I also asked her to read aloud a bit, usually the first page. Given these are short books, this meant it was a bit above her level. She can probably finish these books in 5 minutes now a days. (And would therefore be below her level.)
Astroboy read Little Bear recently too. But often after about 3 chapters out of 4, he starts getting tired and asks if he can stop. So above his level. He will be at level when he can finish it in one setting and then wants to read another book in the series.
For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other Dahl books, those took her a number of days, probably a week. She read a few chapters a day. Those were above her level. But, since she wasn’t complaining about it, the books were appropriate for her. Now a days, she can probably finish a book in one day.
We then borrowed Magic Treehouse from the library. In the beginning, it would take her 2 days to finish a book. Then it went down to about 1 day. Finally to an hour or two. We took a 2 month break to read other books. She’s now reading the books later in the series, which are about 1.5 times as long. Back to about a day or two for her.
It was then to Reading 123. She didn’t read them in sequence, so jumped around a bit between levels 2 and 3, with a few level 1s thrown in. The more she read, the faster she finished those books, from a day or two to a few hours to an hour or less now a days. This was when I started understanding how to gauge her reading level. Since it would take me about 30 minutes to finish a book. If she were to finish it in an hour, then it’s about the right level.
Fast forward to books in 3rd-4th grade level like Little House on the Prairie or Pippy Longstocking. She again is reading it a few chapters at a time, taking about one week to finish Little House on the Prairie.
A friend’s child finished Little House on the Prairie 2 hours. I can finish in 1 hour. Coupled with the fact that she would not voluntarily choose Little House if it were along side Reading 123 books, Little House is just slightly above her level; not inappropriate for her, but perhaps needs to be encouraged to read.
Putting it Altogether
If a child, in the beginning reader level, is reading only a few chapters at a time, I consider that a challenging level for them. Because those books are so short and have such high text to illustration ratio, it shouldn’t take that long to finish a book.
It doesn’t mean they can’t read it if they want to. Some kids have that kind of personality to read just a chapter or 2 a day. But in terms of reading fluency and level, the book is a bit challenging for them, due to either comprehension or zhuyin. However, if they eventually got to a point where they can finish a book in one setting, then you know they’re now at level or even beginning to surpass it. Better start looking for more books!
I’ve read that beginning readers in Taiwan can zoom through the Bridging book levels 0 to 2 (and even through 3) in about 6 months. So it is really important to stock up on books about 1-2 levels ahead. Especially for those of us that group order with sea shipping. If you wait till the child is ready for a certain book before you order, you’re wasting 2 months of their reading time stuck at a level.
For those of us who can read Chinese, think of it putting the books through longer use. You can always read to the child 1-2 years before they start reading themselves.
Lastly, the most important thing I’ve learned is just letting kids read. I used to keep pushing higher and higher level books to Thumper. I still do to a certain extent. But I’ve relaxed a bit more because she keeps putting down the books that she can read but doesn’t want to read.
Now I know that instead of saying “My kids can read chapter books!” because they recognize all the characters or sound out all the zhuyin properly, I should be aiming for “My kids can read xx level books at a normal reading speed!” That ought to be the goal instead. This means not thinking a book is not your kids level just because they can read through it. Put it within their reach anyway, so they can practice reading fluently.
Finally, the important thing is to have trust. Trust that children, when given properly prepared environment, and freedom to choose, will choose the things that are most appropriate for their developmental needs. This is something I continually have to work on myself, sad to say.