Selecting Books for Your Child: Finding ‘Just Right’ Books

How can parents help their children find books that are not "too hard" and not "too easy" but instead are "just right"? Here's some advice.

Five finger rule

Video bonus: To see the five finger rule in action, take a look at teacher Amber Prentice explaining the strategy!

  1. Choose a book that you think you will enjoy.
  2. Read the second page.
  3. Hold up a finger for each word you are not sure of, or do not know.
  4. If there are five or more words you did not know, you should choose an easier book.

Still think it may not be too difficult? Use the five finger rule on two more pages.

Choose a book that is a good fit for you!

Read two or three pages and ask yourself these questions:

Will it be an easy, fun book to read?

  • Do I understand what I am reading?
  • Do I know almost every word?
  • When I read it aloud, can I read it smoothly?
  • Do I think the topic will interest me?

If most of your answers were "yes", this will be an easy book to read independently by yourself.

Will this book be too hard for me?

  • Are there five or more words on a page that I don't know, or am unsure of?
  • Is this book confusing and hard to understand by myself?
  • When I read it aloud, does it sound choppy and slow?

If most of your answers were "yes," this book is too hard. You should wait awhile before you read this book. Give the book another try later, or ask an adult to read the book to you.

Tips on reading with your child

When they can't read the word, say…

  • Can you sound it out?
  • Fingertap it.
  • Can you think of the word or movement that helps you remember that vowel sound?
  • What is the first and last sound? What word would make sense?
  • Does it have a pattern that you have seen in other words? (ex-an, ack)
  • How does the word begin?
  • You said_______. Does that make sense?
  • What word would make sense that would start with these sounds?
  • Put your finger under the word as you say it.

When they want to read a book that is too hard, say…

  • Let's read it together.
  • This is a book you will enjoy more if you save it until you are older — or later in the year.
  • [Be honest!] When people read books that are too hard for them, they often skip important parts. You will have more fun with this book if you wait until you can read it easily.

Rogers, K. (2008). Selecting Books for Your Child: Finding 'Just Right' Books. Retrieved November 7, 2008, from


You are welcome to print copies for non-commercial use, or a limited number for educational purposes, as long as credit is given to Reading Rockets and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact the author or publisher listed.


I think it's very applicable about the rule that you put your finger there with word you don't know. This actually create trace of mark in your memory, which inspire you to look for it somehow later in your mind.

The fact that you A) had a library in your town, B) had a library with enough books in it to have "sections", C) had sufficient evaluative skills to discern the children's section from the adult section, and D) could read well enough to make sense of the back cover, E) had access to a dictionary, F) understood how a dictionary works, and G) had parents who gave books as gifts, as opposed to using them to start a fire to heat the house, tells me your privilege far exceeds anything my students have or will ever take for granted. Nice for you, not so helpful for much of the world. For kids who at 7 or 8 are still struggling to string five words together, the five finger rule makes sense. Hi-Lo readers that are topically interesting to 2nd or 3rd graders but are written at a K or pre-K level are also a great resource.

Those of you who find these research-based rules ridiculous may come from a family where books were readily available...or trips to the library were encouraged. Many students come from homes where there are no books and their parents do not read to them regularly. These book selecting rules help students in classrooms of 30+ students progress more quickly than if they simply picked up any book and tried to read it. So, scoff if you like, but in schools, where time is limited and teachers are often making up for lost time by expediating students through levels efficiently these rules are extremely useful.

I understand some people let the children be independent from very early age as 5, however that is the age they need more of parents attention than any other time in this kind of situations. By trying to read too large books can make them feel fed up and give up. Why you do that to your child? Someday be exceptional but helping children to choose right decision in their life is your responsibility. Is it not?

Good for you! Reading was obviously never a challenge for you. You are lucky. These strategies are used to help children who reading does not come easily to. They are fantastic and backed up by research.

My child is reading her level with ease and I am sure she comprehends it from the questions I ask but the teacher thinks differently. I feel she is being held back and don't want to push her as the level is not important to me but her progress is. I know she is capable of much harder text and I know she fully understands what she reads what shall I do ?

My rules when I started to choose books for myself to read:

1. I went to the library (alone, I was about 7 or 8).
2. Went to the children's section.
3. Read the back blurb of the books that looked interesting and borrowed some of them.
4. A year later I started looking for books from the adult section, including non-fiction, especially history.
5. When I encountered something I didn't know while reading the book, I checked it from the dictionary or encyclopedia.
6. When I was about 13 I started reading interesting (adult) non-fiction in English (not my native language) and learned many new words from those books.
7. Guidance from my parents was never needed and they never chose my books (apart from some that were given as presents).

I also just went to the library and read everything and anything that interested me. If a book was too hard I chose another one and I figured out the meaning of the words I didn't know from the content. My grandchildren now do exactly the same and adore books .

The 5-finger rule is intended to empower elementary students when choosing their own books. "Goldie Socks and the Three Libearians" by Jackie Mims Hopkins introduces students to this idea and Upstart has posters and bookmarks that go with the book.

I teach 2nd grade. My students love the Who Was books. Many of them bring them in to read for independent reading. Parents have gifted them to our classroom library. The problem is that most of my students are about DRA 20 and the books are DRA 40. What should I do? They love these books!c

Using Dr. Jan Richardson's "The Next Steps in Guided Reading" has been wonderful in my classroom. The 5 finger rule really works and stressing "Just Right Books" and "Someday Books" makes the students feel and be more successful.

Being a good reader means more than being able to pronounce the words on the page

Is this available in Spanish? I want to give this to the parents of my ESL students.

I understand where people are coming from who may think that the 5 finger rule is silly, but the fact is, when students read books that are too difficult for them they often get frustrated and give up. Children need to feel success when reading. When they are reading independently, how are they supposed to comprehend what they are reading if we are expecting them to look up every other word in the dictionary. Being a good reader means more than being able to pronounce the words on the page... good readers have to comprehend what they are reading as well. This is a great tool for kids to use to determine if they book they are reading is too difficult for them to read independently. The rule does not say, "if there are more than 5 words you don't know on a page, you can't read this book." The idea is if the book is higher than their independent reading leve, it might be better to save that book to read with an adult who can help.

These are very good tips. I wish I could have come up with these tips. They Really helped my students.

As a teacher I have studied research that shows that children learn to read by reading books that they can read fluently. As they become more fluent, they naturally begin to read harder books, but giving a book above their reading level does nothing but frustrate them. Imagine reading and having to look up every other word, and not really being able to use the dictionary, because your reading skills are not good enough to read the dictionary. Would you have any idea what you had read? These tips are very good. I am sending a link to this site to any parents who are expressing a desire to help their kids with reading at home. This is another key factor in becoming a good reader--practicing at home!

This rule certainly is not ridiculous. It is necessary for children to be able to choose a book that is on their independent reading level. I agree completely with Sharon when she says that students are able to practice comprehension strategies when they are reading a book that they can read fluently and with comprehension. Research has proven this. This rule is widely supported through best practices and research. It is a helpful tool for students, parents and teachers. Reading only books that are too easy will cause a child to become stagnant in their reading. Reading books that are too challenging will cause frustration and will not provide the opportunity for children to practice reading comprehension strategies. Only just right books provide the perfect balance so that readers can feel successful, enjoy reading and grow in reading abilities.

That is one of the most ridiculous 'rules' I've ever read. Who came up with this nonsense? This is, I'm afraid, a symbol of the sheer laziness that pervades modern society. Give the child a decent dictionary, be there to help them out, but don't baby them with silly 'rules' that mean they'll never progress beyond the stage they're currently at.

I think it's important for students to read books that are on their independent level. They will be able to practice comprehension strategies that they might not be able to if the book is too difficult.

I am okay with children reading books that have more than five or more words on the second page that they do not understand. Yes, the kids may skip the important parts; however, they might feel sufficiently challenged to look words up or read the book again. We shouldn't discourage kids from trying and reading more difficult books will help kids improve their reading.

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"There is no substitute for books in the life of a child." — May Ellen Chase