Like riding a bike, reading comes fast to some kids, and frustratingly slowly to others. For parents, it's a knuckle-biter: having practiced again and again on the simple slopes of letters, sounds, and sight words, will your child push on without you? And what IS the right speed, anyway?

If you've got a kindergartener or first grader, you may hear about “leveled readers”: classroom books intended to help sort out the confusion, and help kids advance. Unfortunately, if you're a parent, these “levels” can boggle the mind.

For one thing, “leveled” books are not used in every classroom. Some teachers work entirely with “phonics,” going sound by sound. Leveled readers, by contrast, focus on words and sentences of increasing complexity. Don’t worry, they’ve come a long way since the Dick and Jane of yesteryear. As a parent, here’s what you need to know:

Where do these levels start?
The first levels are slim books with one short sentence per page, next to a related picture. For example, page one could say “Mom is reading,” next to a picture of a woman with a book. On the next page, “Mom is running track,” and so forth. At this stage, teachers want your child to match words to text, and begin to see patterns in different words.

What about advanced leveled readers?
Leveled readers are ranked from Level A (or Level 1, depending on the series), which are used in kindergarten, all the way up to Level R (or 44, in some series), ending by fourth or fifth grade. As your child moves forward, you'll see more text and different kinds of sentences, such as, “Did Mom win that big race again?” By the time kids hit Level J or so, they’ll probably be using actual trade books, such as Danny and the Dinosaur or the Henry and Mudge books.

Do these books teach phonics?
No, but teachers usually do. As kids come across new words in their leveled readers, teachers will introduce phonics as a strategy for reading them. In addition, many schools also have a formal phonics curriculum.

Can I buy leveled books at a regular store?
No and yes. Reading levels, such as those in the DRA or Reading Recovery series, popular with schools, are assigned by educational publishers and writers working in conjunction with literacy experts. They start with very basic sentences and move on slowly from there. In contrast, “Early Readers” at the store aren’t quite so “early.” They usually correspond to mid- to-high-range leveled readers from school. So don't be discouraged if your child takes one look at one of those store-bought books and throws it – he or she just isn't ready… yet.

While these are general guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to leveled readers. Your child's actual class will move with its own style and pace. To understand what's going on, and how you can help, make sure you attend your child's Back to School night in the fall. Introduce yourself to the teacher, and stay in touch. Don't hesitate to ask questions. Working together, you and your teacher can help your child become an avid reader – no training wheels needed! – for life.