Category Archives: lexile score

What’s the right age to read Harry Potter?

Harry Potter turns 31 tomorrow, July 31, a good time to ask if there is a right age for children to read the Harry Potter books.


When the books were first published, Harry was 11, and The Sorcerer’s Stone was more fantasy and magic—owls who delivered mail, a sorting hat, photos who talked—than menacing evil.  No need for concern.  But later books focused on evil and Harry’s fight to conquer it.  Much tougher reading.

The first book came out in 1997; the second in 1998; the third in 1999; the fourth in 2000; the fifth in 2003; the sixth in 2005; and the seventh in 2007.  Kids who read the first book when they were eight couldn’t read the fifth book until they were 18 and, presumably, mature enough to handle its content.

But today, voracious eight year olds can devour the series in a month or two.  Should they?

Here are some suggestions to consider if you have a child coming of age to read Harry Potter.

Book one:  Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Harry turns 11.  Kids usually like to read about child characters who are slightly older than they are, so readers 8,  9, 10, and 11 years old (usually, third, fourth and fifth graders) might enjoy the first book.

However, a child’s reading level needs to be considered.  Some third graders are just starting chapter books while others have been reading chapter books since kindergarten.  Lagging readers might miss out on much of the meaning in Harry Potter books because of a lack of vocabulary or difficulty with inferences.  For them it might be better to wait.

Precocious readers, on the other hand, might be able to handle the first Harry Potter book with ease.  Two scary parts (a troll fight and a final fight between Harry and Voldemort) are a little scary, but not scarier than what children have been exposed to in the evening news or in video games.  They will miss some of the cultural differences between British writing and American writing (such as a cupboard in London being a closet in the US) but they will still understand what is important.

A child’s emotional resilience needs to be evaluated too.  If children suffer nightmares from TV shows or scary picture books, Harry Potter novels might not be a good choice until the children are older.  Or you could tell them when they start the first book that by the end of the last book Voldemort is dead and Harry is alive.  But that takes some of the suspense from the reading.

Book two:  Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets  Lexile 940 (grades 5-6 reading level)

If a child can read book one, that child is ready for book two.  It has another fight scene at the end, but in other ways The Chamber of Secrets is a fanciful children’s story like book one.

Book three:   Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Ditto for books one and two except that the concept of a serial killer is introduced.  This concept foreshadows events in a later book.

Book four:  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  Lexile 880 (grades 5-6 reading level)

Two minor characters die in this book right in front of the reader’s eyes.  Also, children learn that some people cannot be trusted when one such person tries to lure Harry away.  The tone of this book is darker than the previous three, and for that reason precocious first and second graders probably shouldn’t read it, and sensitive third and fourth graders might not be emotionally ready. As a parent, you should be prepared to discuss the themes of death and trustworthiness with your children before you let them read book four.  I recommend waiting until fifth grade or middle school for this book.

Book five:   Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix  Lexile 950 (grades 5-7 reading level)

Someone Harry loves dies in this book.  Its tone is about the same as book four, that is, darker than in the first three books.  Harry is 15, indicating that readers should probably be almost that age too.  Postpone this book until middle grades for most children.

Book six:   Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Lexile 1030 (grades 6-8 reading level)

Book six is too tough for elementary school children and even for some middle grades children.  Harry, 16, must take on enormous responsibilities and he has no one to protect him.  No place is safe.  Another scary idea is that people exist who murder for the heck of it—not for a rational reason but just because. At the end of the book a pivotal character dies a terrible death at the hands of another pivotal character. Harry vows to avenge his friend’s death.

Book seven:   Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  Lexile 980 (grades 6-7 reading level)

More deaths occur, but none so chilling as at the end of book six.  A reader who can stomach book six can stomach book seven.  Read during late middle grades or high school.

A few students in my class read quickly. What do I do to keep them on task?

You could prepare a quiz ahead of time on the reading selection. Let the quiz focus on the pages to be read.  Ask students to raise their hands when their reading is done, give them the quiz and watch.  Since the quick readers are often gifted students, ask questions not at the knowledge level, but at higher level thinking.  Ask inference questions too which everyone finds tough.  Ask students to write not only the answer but the page and paragraph or line number which proves their answers.  Collect and check the quizzes to know if the quick readers are skimming or truly gaining knowledge.

dhild running with book in hands

You could ask quick readers to outline the reading passage. If it is nonfiction, then the outline could name the way information is presented, such as chronological, problem and solution, cause and effect, or whatever is appropriate.  Then the students could write one sentence per paragraph describing the information in each paragraph.  If the reading selection is fiction, then the outline could state the type of writing, such as description, dialog, action, or whatever is appropriate.  Writing one sentence per paragraph might not work for fiction, but one sentence per scene or character might.  The point is for the students to prove to you that they comprehend what they have read.

You could ask students to choose five words from the passage that they don’t understand or that they think their classmates might not understand and use a classroom dictionary to look them up. Then students should write each word in sentences to show what the word means.

You could ask students to write one (or two or more) questions about the reading which require thoughtfulness to answer. Collect them, shuffle them, and then use them for class discussion or homework.

Notice that all of these assignments focus on the original reading selection and either extend or deepen students’ understanding of it.  Students need only paper and pen and possibly a dictionary to do the work.  If you have the extra assignments printed up to use as needed, you can pass the appropriate one out any time a student finishes early.  And most of the ideas work well in science and social studies classes as well as in ELA classes.

Of course you could always have early finishers take out books and read them.  If the books’ Lexile numbers fit the students’ reading levels, this works.  But it does not enrich the reading lesson, and it could cause resentment among the slower readers who might feel punished for their slower progress.

What does sentence difficulty mean? I’ve read that Lexile scores predict the difficulty of a reading passage based on two things: word difficulty and sentence difficulty.

The number of words per sentence can be a measure of sentence difficulty. Sentences written for beginning readers usually contain a handful of words while sentences written for more proficient readers contain one, two or even three dozen words.

Stone Soup book cover• For example, take the first page of Spectacular Stone Soup, a novel often read in first grade. Here are the first page’s sentences and the number of words in each sentence:

Stacy Arrow hung her jacket on a hook. (8 words) Next to her Jiwon took off her coat. (8 words) Stacy pointed to a sweater on the floor. (8 words) “Whose is that?” (3 words) “No one’s.” (2 words) Jiwon shook her head. (4 words) “It’s been here all year.” (5 words)

• Now compare that novel for beginning readers to a novel for more advanced readers, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Here are its first paragraph of two sentences:

Harry Potter book coverThe two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. (16 words) For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction. (32 words)

The type of sentence (simple, compound or complex) can be another measure of reading difficulty.

• In the Spectacular Stone Soup selection, each sentence is a simple sentence with one subject and one verb. Some of the sentences have a prepositional phrase; some have adjectives; some have pronouns, but because of the short length of the sentences and the way each sentence limits itself to one idea, comprehension is easy.

• In the Harry Potter selection, the first sentence is a simple sentence but there are two prepositional phrases and an adverb phrase. The second sentence is a complicated compound sentence. Its first clause begins with a prepositional phrase followed by a subject, verb and two adverbs, followed by a noun phrase and a prepositional phrase. Its second clause (after the semicolon) begins with a participle phrase and a subject, but then begins one predicate with a verb, direct object and prepositional phrase and then begins another predicate with a verb, gerund, adverb and prepositional phrase.  Each sentence contains more than one idea.

Word order can be a measure of difficulty.

• In Spectacular Stone Soup, all but one sentence begin with a subject followed by a verb, the usual word order in English. The exception is a sentence which begins with an easy prepositional phrase.

• In the Harry Potter selection, the first sentence begins with a subject and a verb. The second sentence begins with a prepositional phrase, but the second clause in that sentence begins with a participle phrase.

Pronoun antecedents can be a measure of difficulty.

• The Spectacular Stone Soup selection uses the word “it” to refer back to the sweater used two sentences earlier.  It also uses the word “her” to refer back to each girl, but that pronoun is stated in the same sentence as its noun antecedent.

• The Harry Potter selection in the second sentence uses several pronouns (they, their, other’s) to refer back to the noun (men) used at the beginning of the first sentence.  The pronouns are father apart from their noun antecedent.

Parts of speech used can be a measure of difficulty.

• In Spectacular Stone Soup, the words are nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns and prepositions. Most are one syllable words but a few are two syllables.

• The Harry Potter selection includes the same types of words, but additionally uses a participle used as an adjective and as a gerund. The passage contains a three- and a four-syllable word.

Coupled with word difficulty, sentence difficulty can make reading passages easy or hard to understand. Authors consider their audiences and their reading abilities carefully before deciding how long to make sentences, whether to make sentences quite simple or complicated, whether to use pronouns or to repeat nouns and whether to write sentences in typical subject-verb word order.

As we mature we want more complicated vocabulary and sentence structure to entertain us. In fiction the story comes first, but how much we enjoy the story depends on the crafting of the sentences by the author. In nonfiction, the facts come first, but again, how willing we are to read those facts depends on the skill of the author in using the components of language, including sentence structure.

My daughter’s school library has all the books color coded. She’s in turquoise. Is that good for a first grader?

Too many words on a page make reading hard.What you are probably referring to is a way of categorizing books based on their difficulty level. It is called Guided Reading Levels and was developed by Irene Fountast and Gay Su Pinnell in 1996. The 26 Guided Reading Levels use ten criteria to categorize books:

  • genre (fiction and nonfiction and their subcategories)
  • text structure (the way the text is organized, usually chronologically, but sometimes comparing and contrasting; using cause and effect; and problem and solution)
  • content (the subject matter)
  • themes and ideas (the big ideas which the author is trying to show)
  • language and literary features (dialog, literary devices and technical language, for example)
  • sentence complexity (simple sentences are usually easier; complex sentences are usually harder)
  • vocabulary (the words a child is likely to know at a certain grade)
  • words (the number and the difficulty level)
  • illustrations (graphics of all kinds)
  • book and print features (length of a page, layout, subheadings, and table of contents, for example)

This system grew out of a somewhat simpler method of categorizing reading material developed by Reading Recovery in New Zealand. The Reading Recovery method creates 20 levels and uses four criteria:

  • book and print features
  • content, themes and ideas
  • text structure, and
  • language and literary elements

Another method which I talked about in an earlier blog is the Lexile Score.

These three methods of categorizing reading difficulty in children’s texts are some of the latest methods in an effort going back  to the 1870’s. In 1923 a formula was introduced by Lively and Pressey based on word frequency and sentence length. In 1935, Gray and Leary identified 44 factors that should be considered. Within thirty years, 200 readability formulas had been proposed.

Then, for about a generation, these kinds of formulas grew out of fashion.  But with the advent of computers, new systems have been developed based on word frequencies and sentence length. The Guided Reading Levels is one of them.

Turquoise means your child is reading at an end of first grade or beginning of second grade reading level.

For more information on the Guided Reading Levels, go to http://www.fountasandpinnellleveledbooks.com. For a chart comparing several methods of categorizing children’s texts, go to http://www.readinga-z.com/learninga-z-levels/level-correlation-chart/.