Once your child hits elementary school, chances are at some point you’ll be told a number, letter, or grade-level comparison that constitutes his or her reading level. Whether this information feels like a badge of honor, a dream-crushing blow, or just gibberish, here are some follow-up actions to help make this information meaningful.

Find out about more than the level

A reading level is just one data point. Overemphasis of reading-level labels has stirred up controversy among educators. Paula J. Schwanenflugel and Nancy Flanagan Knapp, authors of “The Psychology of Reading,” caution that measuring a child’s reading skill is not nearly as simple as it sounds. Questions to ask your child’s teacher that will give you a more complete picture of your child as a reader include:

  • What are my child’s reading strengths?
  • What aspect of reading is most challenging for my child?
  • What do you observe when you listen to my child read? Can you give me a specific example?
  • How does my child seem to feel about reading at school?

You might find out that your child is an avid participant when it comes to discussions of books he hears read aloud, but struggles with the mechanics of reading on his own, such as figuring out multi-syllable words or reading fluently enough to hang onto the meaning of the text. She might read every word accurately, but have no idea what she just read about if asked. He might start out strong but lack the stamina to finish a text. Maybe the skills are there, but she only uses them when the right book motivates her to do so. Whatever the case may be, learning about your child as a reader is most helpful.

(Note: These challenges are part of normal reading development for many children. If you’re concerned your child has a true reading disability, it’s your right under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act [IDEA] to request that your public school complete a special education evaluation for your child.)

Educate yourself about what your child is reading

Matching your child with the best reading material is not as straightforward as handing him a stack of books at level 4.6, M, or 550L. Schwanenflugel and Flanagan warn that while book-leveling systems can be generally informative, distilling a book’s “level” down to one figure isn’t necessarily clear-cut.

Even Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, creators of the widely used “A-Z” reading level system, caution that their system was always intended as a “teacher’s tool, not a child’s label.” They responded to a controversial piece in the School Library Journal urging adults to prioritize children’s interests and opportunity to make choices when helping them select books to read.

Start by asking your child’s teacher questions like:

  • Can you show me examples of what she reads at school? What were your goals for her as she read this?
  • These are the types of books he reads at home. Do you think they are a good fit? Do you have other suggestions?
  • What topics really seem to engage her at school? Can you suggest any related books?

Once you have a general sense of the kinds of books your child can read relatively fluently and with adequate comprehension, focus more on helping your child find books he wants to read. This will keep him reading, which is beneficial at any level.

Plan accordingly for reading at home

Whether your child is a literacy superstar or has areas in which she struggles, once you’ve found out more about how and what she reads, consider making a few family updates to better support her needs. Here are a few ideas:

  • Appeal to what motivates your child. Does your child have a competitive streak? Initiate a family reading challenge. The yearly challenges from Better World Books keep reading interesting and could easily be adapted for children. Is your child socially driven? Sign him up for Goodreads so he can post ratings and reviews or let him write book reviews for e-commerce sites.
  • Channel your inner librarian and help your child find books that speak to her. Follow children’s book sites like New York Times Children’s Books, Brightly, and the Barnes & Noble Kids Blog. Stock up on popular series, authors, or new releases for birthday and holiday gifts. Don’t stress if the books your child wants to read don’t fit with your image of high-quality literature. Graphic novels, edgy genres like horror and fantasy, nonfiction titles, and even magazine articles appeal more than the classics to many kids and are still “real reading.”
  • Start your own mini book club. Reading and discussing a book with your child is a great way to connect. It’s an especially helpful approach if your child struggles with comprehension or sustaining interest long enough to get through a whole book. It’s also a great support strategy if your child really wants to read a title that’s a little over his head.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of snuggling up with a great book together, even if your child can read independently – just get a bigger throw blanket! A recent Australian study investigating family reading habits found that many families discontinue reading aloud once their children learn to read, which is unfortunate due to the host of benefits it can provide. These include boosting child confidence, vocabulary, and enjoyment of reading.

Parenting today is full of high-stress acronyms and figures. Do your child a favor: when you’re served up his or her reading level, turn it into an opportunity to push past the label and tune into the reader behind it.