What is an appropriate reading level for my child?
In years past, children were directed to read books at a specific reading level, often labeled with an alphabet letter. Books for elementary school children were leveled according to the length and number of words in a sentence, support provided by illustrations, frequency of sight words, and other factors. One such leveling system, developed by Fountas and Pinell, was used by the Jordan School District for many years. Most recently, research has shown that a student’s background knowledge of subject matter predicts comprehension of text better than sentence complexity, and students exist on a wide variety of different reading levels at the same time. For example, a student who has played years of baseball may be able to comprehend a fairly difficult text about baseball, even if he or she may typically be a struggling reader. For this and other reasons, we now suggest students pick books at a wider range of reading levels, based on their interests.
In school, we focus most on grade-level text, and grade bands stretch from beginning readers with lots of decodable text in first and second grade to 12th grade text that steps young adults right into college textbooks. Students who struggle with learning to read are given extra support with grade-level text and specific practice with skills they are learning during small group instruction. Focusing only on leveled text prevents many students from progressing to grade-level expectations as they get older.
What is “decodable text”?
Decodable text is the term used to describe short passages or stories that limit most of the words in the text to phonics patterns currently taught to students plus a few pre-taught sight words. An example might be a text about a rat named Matt who sat by a cat. Decodable texts progress to include more complex phonics patterns like this: A gnome carved the wooden log with a knife, shaping a sculpture of his father to give to his son. Nearby, a tiny gnat gnawed on a gnarled knot of the same piece of wood. We use some decodable text while students are learning to read, and we also use authentic literature in all the grades. Authentic literature teaches content, syntax, vocabulary and comprehension in ways that decodable text is more limited. (At home, you might want to use both. The internet has many sources for decodable texts, some free. The majority of children’s picture books are not decodable text.)
How can I tell if a book is too hard without following a specific guided reading level?
Sometimes students pick books that are too difficult for them to decode the words or understand the meaning. Parents can tell if a book is too difficult if there are many misread words when the child reads orally or if meaning is misunderstood, even when the adult helps by explaining vocabulary or context. Help your child recognize these signs too. Most children have to be taught to realize they aren’t understanding a book. Marginally hard reading can be supported when the parent takes turns reading pages, reads the first chapter to the child to help “get into” the book, or helps to explain unknown concepts. It’s also good to teach your children to not give up too easily if a book is just a little bit harder than they are used to.
Watch your child carefully when they read to see if stamina is developed or if enthusiasm wanes. It’s ok to “abandon” a book occasionally because of difficulty or lack of interest. However, a child who abandons books continually may need to learn to love a book all the way through. This habit can be developed as parents read to children, especially chapter books, so children learn that longer stories can be worth the investment of time and endurance.
My child only brings home very easy books and is not interested in anything challenging or new to read. What should I do?
We see a lot of students reading Captain Underpants, Dog Man, and other easy and illustration-rich books long after they are capable of reading harder books. These and other sets of books make reading fun for children who might otherwise not like to read. If you are trying to broaden your child’s reading selections, talk to their teacher who likely will have other ideas of books that are fun to read. It has been shown that sticking with a predictable series assists comprehension for students in the middle elementary years who are building skills beyond decoding. As they follow a series, they don’t have to break new ground with characters, setting or author’s style, and they build stamina in reading more and more books.
You may also want to delve into non-fiction books that develop interests and strengthen academic vocabulary. Your child’s teacher can suggest topics that align with school science and social studies curriculum, building school success as well.
How many times should my child read the same book over and over?
Research shows that repeated reading is a good way to build fluency in young children. Some of the earliest reading skills (understanding that books in English are written from left to right and top to bottom, that words are separated by spaces, etc.) are reinforced with repeated reading. Later, fluent reading is strengthened when a student orally reads several paragraphs of text 2-4 times. As they read with more connected text, they begin to understand that fluent reading sounds more like speech. Middle elementary grade teachers typically practice re-reading text at school to develop fluency skills.
When goals of reading speed and accuracy have been accomplished, re-reading text becomes a strategy good readers do to understand the meaning better. This is more often done with silent reading. Strategic readers know how to find answers to comprehension questions within the text, and teachers practice by having students highlight or circle the answers they discover. This is especially helpful as children develop their critical thinking skills. Before they learn to find answers within a text, they often like to supply answers from their own background knowledge instead. Learning to focus on what an author says is an important skill for comprehension.
Why is there controversy over how to teach reading to children?
You may have heard of the “reading wars.” While the term is a little dramatic, there has been some controversy about how to teach reading. In response to reading instruction in the 60’s and 70’s that focused on textbooks and repetitive drills, schools in the 80’s and 90’s spent more time teaching with authentic literature. Some schools did away with phonics instruction entirely, asking students instead to guess words from contextual information or pictures on the page. Over time, it was shown that many students struggled with learning to read at all, so phonics instruction made a come-back. Now, with extensive neurological research backing the “science of reading” we carefully teach phonics and phonological awareness to all our children. We also use high quality authentic literature. You can learn more about the “Science of Reading” here.
What is Acadience testing and why do my children get tested every year?
Acadience testing, formerly known as Dibels, screens every student in our school for reading difficulties with simple, minute-long assessments that are used nation-wide. Acadience testing is a legislative mandate for students in grades 1-3, and we are required to notify parents of students in these grades about the progress of their children. (We test all our children and teachers are able to share reports with parents about their students’ Acadience scores). Students in kindergarten, first and second grade are tested on pre-reading skills and students in grades 1-6 are tested on how well they accurately and fluently read short passages of text. Because Acadience is a national test, enough data is available to use it as a predictor of future reading difficulties, and students who score below benchmark on their grade-level assessments are given more detailed diagnostics to determine what skills are not yet developed. Instruction is given in small groups during Walk to Read time to teach these skills. Students who score on or above level on Acadience testing are given grade-level or advanced work during Walk to Read.
What are the different components of reading instruction?
A really good graphic for understanding reading instruction is Scarborough’s Rope. This model shows that reading is both a process of decoding text through understanding the way speech sounds are represented in combinations of letters as well as memorizing words that don’t follow phonetic rules AND understanding language, including learning vocabulary words and the structures of text. Students practice each component separately, but the magic of reading happens when students learn to automatically apply all the skills at the same time. This takes years of learning and practice.
What is “teaching phonics?”
The Science of Reading uses evidence-based instructional practices that help almost all students learn to read on grade level. One of these is systematically teaching the letter combinations that represent the different sounds of English words. Children start with learning the sounds individual letters make and how sounds blend together to spell words. The 15 skills taught in Walk to Read phonics lessons show the progression from simple to complex as students master first simple words like cat (c-a-t) and progress to multi-syllabic words like catalog (c-a-t-a-l-o-g) or flashlight (f-l-a-sh-l-igh-t). Basic phonics skills are intensely taught in grades K-2. Advanced phonics skills are taught in grades 3-6. If students don’t master the skills when they are introduced to their grade level, they are given the opportunity to learn them in skill-based small-group instruction during Walk to Read at any grade. Along the way, they are introduced to sight words that don’t follow all the rules of phonics, though most sight words do follow some of the rules.
What is dyslexia and how do I know if my child has it?
According to Sally Shaywitz, of the Yale Center for Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia is
“An unexpected difficulty in reading in an individual who has the intelligence to be a much better reader.” Students identified with dyslexia are able to think critically and creatively, but they struggle with processing letters and words that represent the sounds of speech. Approximately 20% of all students could be identified as dyslexic.
The good news is that systematically teaching phonics and phonological awareness skills (the Science of Reading approach) is the most helpful treatment for overcoming the struggle of learning to read. In order to better teach the Science of Reading, the state of Utah has recently mandated that all teachers in grades K-3 attend an intense two-year program, LETRS. Our teachers are completing their training this year. You might be glad to know that this program is accredited by the International Dyslexia Association. In essence, we are already doing exactly what dyslexic students need.
However, at school we don’t diagnose students with dyslexia; the term “dyslexia” is a medical condition. But when students don’t learn to read even with the best opportunities to learn in the general education classroom, we have a process to test for learning disabilities that parallels how the medical community diagnoses dyslexia. One result of in-school testing may be eligibility for special education. If you want to know more about this process, you may call the school and ask for an administrator.