Science Books For Early Readers

We went to the local library the other day to find books in the range appropriate for Huxley to read. It isn't sufficient to say he's in the first grade. Between preschool and second grade, there are (in English, anyway) probably about four or five levels of reading ability, and kids move through them fast. In addition to that, there are who the heck knows how many different scales, developed by various individuals and organizations, to reflect reading levels. It is so complicated that there is actually a company that you can pay to tell you what reading level a book is.

So we asked the librarian to help. I should mention that this is a good library and the librarian seemed generally competent. But she wasn't able to help much. It turns out that reading level is not part of the Library of Congress system. Or so I surmise.

Personally, I think this confusion stems from the apparent fact I noted above. Kids, when they start reading, go from chimpanzee to NYT reader in a couple/few years. There are many levels of ability in there, and really, of course they are not levels but rather arbitrary stages imposed on a continuum. Or a set of continua. The problem of categorizing early reading books is so difficult because all the different systems that attempt this run aground at the early end of the scale, and thus, so many different appearing systems. This is why, when you put tile on a wall, you don't start on the bottom. You start a few rows up, and work your way down and up from there. That way you will not be foiled by the lack of level at the base, and your only cost is having to cut every one of the bottom tiles. This may seem like a digression but some day you will thank me for that information.

Anyway, I recently got a good look at a sample of DK Publisher's "Learn To Read" books, which are have six categories, pr-1, 1, 2, 3, 4, and "Adventures." OK, that's a bit clumsy, but the key point here is that the numbered levels, 1 through 4, are consistent and meaningful categories.

Let me give you some examples of the text by reading level, followed by links to a selection of the more science oriented books. There are many books at each level, dealing with LEGO themes, super heroes, and other things.

dk_book_volcanoesLevel 1: Beginning To Read
Example Text:

A butterfly flits from leaf to leaf.
On each little leaf she lays one or two eggs.
She squeezes the eggs out of her body.

(From Born to Be a Butterfly.)

Example books:
Bugs Hide and Seek
Tale of a Tadpole
Jungle Animals
Sea Otters

Level 2: Beginning to read alone

Example Text:

The air ambulance plane rescues injured people from places that are difficult to reach.
It can deliver people to the hospital much faster than an ordinary ambulance can

Example Books:
Eruption!: The Story of Volcanoes
Space Quest: Jump to Jupiter
Dinosaur Dinners
Spaceships and Rockets

dk_book_on_rainforestLevel 3: Reading alone

Example Text:

Emergency dispatchers often stay on the phone until help arrives. They talk to callers to keep them calm. Most importantly, they tell the caller what to do until the emergency services arrive.

Example Books:
Rain Forest Explorer
Hope for the Elephants
Rocket Science

Level 4: Proficient readers

Example Text:

Ride the little train that climbs high into the Alps in Switzerland, and you will be treated to some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. From a small alpine town, the red train makes a steep climb up the Jungfrau mountain and past a famous peak called the Eiger. Many climbers dies on the sheer north face of the Eiger before it was finally scaled in 1938.

Example Books:
Dinosaur Detectives
Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters
Secrets of the Mummies
Big Fantastic Earth

You can see changes in vocabulary, sentence structure, tone, topic, etc. Not visible in these samples are change in typeface (larger to smaller) and the overall structure of the books. The lower levels tend to have pictures and words. The higher levels add captions to the pictures, sidebars, etc.

DK books are always good, and they do a pretty good job with science. I won't quibble with details on little kids books (such as the lack of attention to biogeography and central evolutionary paradigms). These are a far sight better than the science books I had access to when I was a kid!

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Nice finds. We run into the same thing with our 1st grader, but our public school has a pretty good library of the various levels. I'll have to check to see exactly which scale they are following. Indeed the progression is pretty quick. Over the summer we had her read and go through workbooks, and her vocabulary was pretty good. We've noticed that in just the first few weeks of school she's expanded her vocabulary, at least in terms of being able to say the words smoothly (who knows if she actually is grasping the meaning of each one).

I suspect she is ahead of the word-reading with her meaning, as that is usually how it goes. She gets language, and this writing/reading thing is an add on to that already well formed process.

The DK books are great, and my kids read many of them. But we also found they also seem to lack the spark that really gets kids inspired by science. The series of books my kids enjoyed most of all are the Magic School Bus books because they're so much fun too (when the kids were in first grade, we would read them together). But in hindsight, I think the strategy that worked best was to pick science books we could read together, and adventure books they could read on their own. As soon as they could read chapter books, my kids lapped up series like Encyclopedia Brown (…), and Magic Tree House (

Examples of science books they loved that we read together::
11 Experiments that failed ( - is delightful at getting kids to think about hands-on experimentation

Far from the shore, by Sophie Webb (, a lovely book about collecting field data.

By Steve Easterbrook (not verified) on 22 Sep 2016 #permalink