In many schools across the nation, there is lots of talk about reading levels—these levels are used to put children in groups for instruction, and to report to parents on children’s reading progress. In this system, each grade has a designated reading level range so that teachers can identify where a child is on the road to reading success. After a child’s reading level is determined, teachers track reading growth periodically by checking to see if the child has improved enough to read a more difficult book at the next level.
This makes sense as an organizing system. But to give all readers a solid foundation and put them on the road to reading and academic success, we believe there are reasons to consider a different approach altogether — one that will enhance instruction in the classroom, and support more productive partnerships with parents.
Why are reading levels a problem, in our view, and based on research?
First, because districts across the country that use this approach don’t really “know” their readers. Despite their best intentions and all the hard work that goes into establishing a reader’s level, the end result is that leveling does not give specific enough information—information that is needed to make an impact on children’s reading abilities. To improve reading outcomes, educators need to know which particular reading skills need targeting for each child in the class—and we can’t rely on a reading level for that information. Specifically, they need to know if children need work on Letters & Sounds or Vocabulary & Knowledge, or even both.
Then, often teachers use this reading level information to group children for reading instruction. But consider this scenario: Three children who are all identified as level K are put together in a reading group. One of these children actually needs work on letters and sounds, another one of these K-level readers is struggling because of underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge, and the third child actually needs more support to develop knowledge about the world so she has more information to use as she tries to understand what she’s reading. When this group of K-level children practice reading together, they are actually just working on reading text—they are not really working on the specific areas that they need to work on to keep growing as readers.
The other issue with using reading levels is that some skills that are really important for reading success aren’t assessed during this leveling process. For example, because the texts used are basic enough for children to read independently and all reading skills tested are tied to those texts, that means there is no assessment of children’s developing vocabulary and how they can comprehend stories they are listening to. Without that information, there is no indication of the way the children work with language and information that is more complex than what they can read—and that’s really important for later reading/school success. There is also no way to understand what strengths and weaknesses a child might have when working with letters and sounds outside of reading basic text.
Knowing a child’s specific profile as a reader is truly critical to getting to a strong start and high-quality reading instruction. That’s why we created Abound Parenting — to help parents better understand their own developing readers in the three skill areas children need to become successful readers, and then to foster more specific and productive conversations with teachers, and more targeted support at home.