When teaching struggling upper grade readers, having grade-level goals in mind at all times helps keep progress on track. 

It’s important to set our sights on success.   It’s essential to be convinced each child can and will read at grade level - soon.   Keeping our eyes on the prize is key.    


A minimum goal for struggling upper grade readers is to be able to successfully read grade-level books for the grade they will be entering in the fall before they leave their current grade:

  • before they leave for the next grade, fifth graders need to be reading beginning sixth-grade level books
  • fourth-graders will have read several fifth-grade level books
  • third-graders will have successfully tasted fourth-grade books.  

Since it’s important that kids aren't reading books that are too hard for them, we have a lot of work to do with students who enter a grade reading one, two or three years behind grade level.

It’s important not to get lost along the way.  If a fourth grader is reading second-grade books in October, she has a lot of reading to do to get to fifth-grade books by May or June! Readers need to read three to thirty books at a grade level to be ready for the next level.   

In the New York City Schools, says Lucy Calkins (The Art of Teaching Reading, 2001), fourth-graders were expected to read twenty-five fourth-grade level books “at the level of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona or of Roald Dahl’s Matilda” during the year.  Nancie Atwell (In the Middle, 1987) had her students read thirty-five books in a year.  

If a student, or her teacher or parent is satisfied with the student’s reading one book a month, it will be almost impossible to get to grade level by the end of the year.  It will be impossible for the fourth-grader reading second-grade books to become a strong fourth-grade reader at this pace. If this student gets bogged down at the second-grade level - not steadily progressing through second, then third, then fourth grade books during the year - she won't be able to successfully read fifth-grade books by June.  

Many times students are unaware of these crucial goals.   They don’t understand why their teacher is pressuring them to read a greater amount or more quickly.  They are unaware of where they need to get to by the end of the year.  

A fourth-grade student looks at her Frog and Toad Together (Arnold Lobel) book.  “It’s a good book. I’m reading it nicely. I’m passing the quizzes,” she thinks.  “What’s all the fuss?”

I often show students a visual picture of the goal.  I bring them to the fifth-grade chapter book shelves. I show them the fat two hundred page books with the long, unknown words and the small print with no illustrations. I show them Christopher Curtis’ Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963.   I show them Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet.

I explain why I want them to read

  • a bunch of Frog and Toads
  • then plenty of harder second-grade chapter books
  • then a whole lot of third-grade chapter books
  • then several fourth-grade chapter books 
  • so they can read some of these long fifth-grade chapter books easily, in a snap, in one to two weeks, before the end of the school year.  

That’s a lot to ask. That’s a lot of reading! But I know she can do it! That's why I’m in such a hurry for her to read, read, read, read. So she can make it.  That’s what all the fuss is about.  

The fourth-grade student looks at me. “I get it,” her eyes say. “I get that I won’t get there if I lose my way sniffing the Frog and Toad flowers till May. I get that she thinks I can do it. I get that she won’t stop ‘till I do do it. I get what all the fuss is about. Bring on the third-grade books!”


To help readers move through the levels to reach their goal, teachers need to know
  • what grade-level reading looks like
  • what skills are necessary
  • what steps it takes to get there 
  • what individual kids are capable of
  • the signs of reading readiness at all stages
  • book levels.


It’s important to know general grade levels of the books available to students.

Keep in mind that grade levels, though helpful, are also approximate.  

For example, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting can be read by

  • on-grade-level readers in fifth or sixth grade
  • strong fourth-grade readers
  • a gifted third-grade reader
  • or by a seventh, eighth or ninth grader who wants a good read.

I use grade level labels for books as a helpful guide, keeping always in mind that many factors determine the difficulty level of a book. Remember, our goal is helping readers move through difficulty levels to get to the level that will allow them to successfully participate in their learning.


The sequence need not be precise.  Getting lots of practice and moving forward in the end is the goal. It will work just fine for students to read, for example, a few 2nd grade level books, then some 3rd, then drop back down to pick up a 2nd grade book that looks interesting, try a 5th grade level book, then read some 4th grade books, then back to 5th by the end of the fourth grade year.

This is because there is value in sometimes reading a challenging book that stretches a reader's stamina for page, chapter and book length, builds vocabulary, and introduces new and more complex sentence structures.

At other times, it's appropriate to rest and consolidate gains by dropping down a level or more for a book or two.

Sometimes taking time to read some very, very easy books helps strengthen and develop a reader's fluency.

Though we're moving students systematically through the levels, flexibility in meeting each reader's needs at each step is also important.


There are several methods of determining and rating book levels:

  • F&P Text Level Gradient - also known as Guided Reading by Fountas and Pinnnel
  • DRA
  • Lexiles
  • Reading Recovery
  • ATOS  (Accelerated Reader)
  • Fry Readability 
  • and more.

These are all quality methods of evaluating books for difficulty.  Schools will usually select one method of rating the difficulty of the books their students are reading.  All do a good job of estimating book level.  The differences between them make for a thoughtful conversation when deciding which method to adopt; all do the job of guiding students through the levels.

If your school has selected a particular leveling method, you can find great information about that method online. Once you've selected a leveling system, or had one selected for you, you can start "leveling" the books your students are reading.

When I started, I was very careful to pencil the book level in the BACK of my books, surreptitiously hidden.  The system I was using showed grade levels  - 2.5 to indicate a book for readers in the middle of second grade, 4.8 for typical fourth graders toward the end of the school year.  I was sensitive to my struggling readers who would be reading books that showed grade levels below their peers.

Consistently, however, my struggling readers didn't mind the grade level up front, even prominently displayed on the front cover.  They knew what level they were successful at, as did their peers. They were more often reassured by seeing a low reading level on the front cover of a book, rather than dismayed.  So I eventually started writing the reading level in sharpie on the front cover - easy to see when shopping for a book.

You can find book levels by searching for a particular title using a number of sites. Below are just a few.

  • (shows Lexile, Guided Reading, Grade Level Equivalent and DRA level.)


Teachers also need to know what skills and experiences will help their students get to the prize.  They need to be well versed in each small step so they can cheer and applaud and celebrate those successes along the way.  

They need to know how far each of their students must go, so they can understand the tremendously hard work their students are doing to progress two or three years down the reading road in only one year.  


Teachers need to keep their eyes on the goal so their students don’t get bogged down along the way.  It’s the teacher’s job to hold out the lantern, light candles in the windows, stoke the bonfire, tend the lighthouse lamp to light the way if their students get lost along the path.  

It’s important to keep the goal in mind.  If a student is having trouble mastering a level, has drawn a “Go to Jail, Do Not Pass Go” card, is stuck in Molasses Swamp or lost in the Lollipop Woods, it’s important to find another way to get them out.  It’s OK to go back three spaces from time to time.  But if we don’t get a “Get Out of Jail” card quickly, our students will never make it past Go.  

It’s important for kids to be reading books that are at their correct level of difficulty.  It’s important for kids not to read books that are too hard for them.  

(Keep in mind, though, that the correct level of difficulty varies from student to student, depending on many factors. Most important is the level of challenge on which each student thrives.  Each individual reader is different in the amount of difficulty that he can tolerate or that she demands in order to succeed.) 

If a student is not progressing, move him down a level to try some success; practicing with fluency can be a good idea.  

But if, after several weeks or months, it isn’t working - try something else.  We can’t get stuck in the meadow asleep in the poppies with the gates to the Emerald City still ahead.  We have to keep moving down the road.  Find another way.  Don’t let kids stay behind if there is any way to keep them moving ahead.  With very few exceptions, they can make the goal.


Leap-frogging past as many steps as possible whenever possible is helpful.  

If a third-grade student seems able to jump from primer reading into second-grade chapter books, is begging, pushing, demanding this jump - let him give it a try.  

If it’s too hard he’ll figure that out.  It will be OK.  He can try it again later.  

But maybe he knows something we don’t.  His determination may take him further than our lockstep thinking might, especially if he is fighting us all the way.  He just might be able to make it.  

If so, we’ve saved precious time.  A student who enters third grade reading at primer level needs to find some way to make up time.  

Although the steps are there for a reason - they are the best way for most kids to learn the skills - if an individual can skip them, great!  

Though it’s best to read twenty-five books at each grade level before going on, if a student can make it and go on after only three - if that student has three years to make up in one year - I say go for it.  

Next year, when he is at grade level, he can read twenty-five books at his grade level.  

If necessary, after he is successful, he can go back and pick up a few easier books to make up for anything that got missed along the way.  A student who skipped several levels in one year may need continued support the following year or two to consolidate gains, but he will be able to benefit from his regular grade level instruction.  He will be able to keep up.

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