How to Quickly Determine the Language Level of a Book – the Five Finger Rule

Here is a quick and easy way to overcome the obstacle of knowing if a book is an appropriate language level for a student. While it can help to follow the publisher description of the language level of a book to collect a few book samples to test out on a student ( e.g. look for the CEFR benchmark rank of A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) or the lexile level (click here to see my correlation chart comparing lexile to CEFR and Headwords), that does not tell you the student’s level of langauge reading proficiency.

You cannot rely on the grade that student is in to tell you accurately what their reading level is since within a grade you can have a low level of English knowledge, even if the student is attending a bilingual or international school abroad. I have taught students in grade 7 and in grade 10 who had attended immersion school and international English schools their whole lives who actually had speaking and reading level commonly seen in grade 3 in a native English speaking class (A2 on the CEFR scale).

Other students who could hardly speak a sentence correctly can have high reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge, and read two grade levels above their current grade ( as native English speaking students often do).

So what can you do?

Use what is commonly called the Five Finger Rule.

  1. Ask the student to read one page from a book at a level you think they can successfully read at. It can be any page in the book, not just the first page of the book or a chapter.
  2. Ask the student to hold up a finger every time they come across a word they are not 100% certain of.
  3. Ask a few reading comprehension check questions (e.g. ask them to explain two more difficult words on the page and ask them to summarize what they read or ask them true or false questions) to see if they really understood the passage. If they get more than one wrong answer, the book is too hard for them. Try an easier book to read.
  4. If the student holds up one or two fingers, the book will be easy for them. This could be positive or negative, depending on your goals. If the student perceives the story as too easy to read, the language may be too simplistic and the book may bore them. But this can be a good choice of book if you want to help the student overcome reluctance to read and help them gain confidence by reading an entire book on their own, with minimal help and not much time spent learning and looking up words they don’t know.
  5. If the student holds up 3 fingers the book is exactly at their level, and a good choice for reading along at a good pace and understanding 80% or so of what they read (which is necessary to understand the story as a whole).
  6. If the student holds up 4 fingers, the book will be very challenging, and in addition to spending a significant amount of time stopping to look up words, it will be necessary to provide frequent reading comprehension checks and chapter summaries to ensure they understand the intricacies of the plot and overall storyline.
  7. If the student holds up 5 fingers or more, the story is too difficult for their current level of English language understanding. Even if the student really wants to read the story, it will be very frustrating for them, and they will either skip pver, or misunderstand a significant amount of the plot. Try to find a simplified version of the same story. There are many different publishers of Graded Readers for classic English stories, and you can usually find a version of a story (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, or Sherlock Holmes Detective stories) at all the different language levels from A2 to B2.

As a final tip, I like to have a student read and test out two different books at the same level, and let them choose, so that there is a higher liklihood they will feel empowered to finish the book they chose to read. If you only have one book at the student’s level, they can feel like you forced them to read a book they aren’t interested in, and consequently they will not feel motivated to read it. The level of language retention and engagement in classes is much higher if the student is captivated by the story.

Some students don’t like fiction, and only enjoy non-ficiton. The Five Finger Rule applies to non-fiction books as well (e.g. National Geographic’s Footprints series or biographies and historic books).

Good luck and happy reading!


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