Finding Your Student’s “Success Zone”

I hear you thinking, “What? There’s a ‘Success Zone’? What’s that? How do I pick a book in the ‘Success Zone’ for my student? Oh, I know. That’s easy! If my student is in the fourth grade, I should give him a book at the fourth-grade reading level . . . Right?”


It’s very important that kids read material written at their reading level, which may be at their grade level . . . but many times it is not.

So how do you find the right book?

First, I need to explain that there is such a thing as the right reading level for each student. And, you need to find it. There has been solid research on this for many years.* Basically, there are three zones that relate to the student’s accuracy in decoding (I also consider the comprehension score. The blue scores below are the standards I use for comprehension.):

  • Independent – If a person hesitates, stumbles or misses less than 1 out of 20 words (95% correct), that material is easy enough for him to read by himself. (Comprehension 90% – 100%.)
  • Instructional – If he misses no more than 1 out of 10 words (90% correct), he can read that book, but with someone there to help on a few words. This is actually a good level for teaching that person to read better. (Comprehension 70% – 80%.)
  • Frustration – But, if he stumbles over more than 1 out of 10 words on the page (less than 90% correct), that book is too difficult for him. He should not be expected to read that book at all. He may listen to it being read, but he should never be expected to read it alone. (Comprehension below 70%.)


Finding the Success Zone


# of words in a passage that cause a student to stumble

When to use this level of reading

Independent No more than 1 out of 20 words (95-100% Accuracy)


(90-100% Comprehension)

Reading the student does alone must be at the independent level.
Instructional No more than 1 out of 10 words (90-94% accuracy)


(70-80% Comprehension)

Student can work at this level with a little help from teacher or partner.
Frustration More than 1 out of 10 words (89% or less accuracy)


(less than 70% Comprehension)

Student should never be required to read at this level. Maybe it can be read to him.


There are a few ways to determine if a book is in “The Success Zone.” The easiest way is an old trick I learned from Mrs. Wisely, my school librarian.

Quick “On-the-fly” Method (Not completely data-driven accurate, but still useful in a pinch)

  1. When a person picks a book he wants to read, find the page with the most text on it.
  2. Ask him to read that page while you watch.
  3. Every time he hesitates or misses a word, count it on your fingers behind your back, or silently in your head.
  4. If he reaches five or more on that page, the book is too hard.
  5. To test comprehension, ask him a few questions to determine whether he understood what he read, or ask him to retell it in his own words.

More Exact Method

  1. Make a copy of the page from the book with the most text on it.
  2. As the person reads the page in the book, mark off any word he hesitates or misses on the copy you made.
  3. Count the total words on the page, subtract the errors from the total, then divide that answer by the total number of words to find the accuracy percentage. This statement is expressed in the following mathematical formula:

       Total words – errors   =   %  words read correctly (accuracy score)

                                        Total words

  1. If the accuracy is:
    • 95% or better, he can read that book without any help.
    • 90-94%, he will need a little help, but it’s still a good book for him.
    • below 90%, that book is too difficult! He can’t read it!

It is very important that you not let your student struggle in the “Frustration Zone.” Imagine the hardest subject you ever took in school, (or maybe one that you refused to take because you knew you couldn’t pass it!) Now imagine you are sitting in that classroom and the teacher just told you to read the text because there will be a quiz in fifteen minutes. How do you feel? Butterflies in your stomach? Chest pressure? Nauseous? Sweaty hands? That’s how kids feel when reading in the “Frustration Zone.” Please don’t do that to them!

So how do you keep someone out of the “Frustration Zone”? If the book is too hard for your student, you should either pick a different book that is in his reading Success Zone, or make accommodations so he can understand the material in the book. If you think the student can understand the material . . . but he just can’t read it . . . don’t get an easier book. Instead, find a way to let him hear the book while he reads along. You might:

  • read the text aloud to him,
  • give him a Reading Buddy who will read it with him,
  • maybe provide a recording he can listen to with headphones.


* Reading development theory based on Lev Vygostsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD), which states that children can reach a higher level of development if they receive help from a more capable person to read material slightly above what they could read alone.