One of the first questions that I ask a parent when they call is, "What is the name of the last book your child read?" Upon asking this question, I usually find that I unintentionally hold my breath as I await an answer. I'm hoping that they'll be able to name a book -- any book. When a parent answers this question, I learn so much. More often than not, I know that book. If I don't, I do a quick Amazon Search and pull up the first few pages of the book. I might ask a few follow up questions such as, "Did they enjoy the book?" "About how long do you think it took them to read this book?" "Is this book similar to other books they have read recently?" From this information, I can usually make a pretty good estimation of their reading level. Of course, this doesn't account for the child that is consistently reading books that are far too easy or books that are far too hard. I tell parents that too. When they take my placement test, I'll know more.
I consider myself a very avid reader. I estimate that I spend 12 or more hours of the day reading to some capacity -- books, journals, blogs, students papers, etc. I ordered six books on Friday. I'm hoping that they last me a couple of weeks if I filter in some children's books, young adult novels and journals. Yet, I certainly can't read anything. With a dictionary and google by my side, I could probably stumble through a medical journal and leave with about 50% comprehension. If I picked up a book on computer programming, I might also gain about 50% comprehension. If I picked up a textbook for Differential Equations, I would probably comprehend even less.
With the right tools and direction, your child should feel as if they can read anything.
They should feel empowered and successful. So many of my students want to read the 'biggest' book that they can get their hands on. It's a phase that a lot of avid young readers go through. I love to recommend "The Adventures of Hugo Cabret" for these students. It's a GIANT book. They love it. They feel empowered. They feel successful. They are proud. They should be. Reading is a habit that we should all be proud of.
There are so many ways to "level" books. I'm not fond of A-Z Reading Levels. It's very limiting. Each 'alphabet' reading level is so precise that it is limiting in options. I used Lexile reading for awhile too. I have a love-hate relationship with Lexile. Some books seem to be grossly mis-Lexiled. Amazon and other book retailers usually provide some sort of reading level, typically identified by a range of grades. This information actually comes from the publisher. I find that this is actually my favorite easily accessible resource. I also love Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media allows the public to post reviews based on "What Parents Need to Know." Reviewers are typically parents and students. They rate the books' educational value, positive messages, positive role models, violence & scariness, and language. Common Sense Media also provides a recommended age demographic.
For my book lists, I use a combination of these recommendations and my own personal experience. I read every single book that I recommend. Thankfully, I've always been an avid reader. Whilst the above resources are beneficial, most do not have a large enough database of reviewers that target the advanced reader. A publisher might intend to target a middle school audience. Although an advanced elementary student may be able to read the book, is it something that they will enjoy?
For example, one of my students recently picked up a book entitled "The Nazi Officers Wife." He's ten years old. He's also never read anything about the Holocaust. He watches PG movies. This book tells the story of a woman in Vienna during the Holocaust. She lives in a Ghetto. She lives in a slave labor camp. As Amazon says, "In wrenching detail, Edith recalls a life of constant, almost paralyzing fear." It's a wonderful book. Yet, I don't think this child would've enjoyed it -- not yet at least. He's perfectly capable of reading it. However, he lacks the background information necessary to fully enjoy the book. It's also a fairly harsh introduction into the horrors of this part of history. So, I tell him "That's a great book but I think you might enjoy this book more." It's a gentle way to guide the student towards a book that they will enjoy more. I pick out two suggestions: "Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl" and "A Jewish Soldier in Hitler's Army: Unlikely Warrior." He's happy with the suggestions and quickly plucks one out of my hands to be checked out.