Reading levels: quick answers to parents’ top questions

In many schools, children are tested to determine their reading levels, and teachers use that reading-level information to design classroom instruction. Last week, we wrote about the important things that parents need to know about reading levels, but there have been lots of other parent questions, too. Here’s our attempt at brief and accessible answers to your reading level questions!

  1. How does a reading level get assigned?
    1. Teachers have children read specific texts that are associated with each level (some are A-Z, others are numbered), and then see what kind of word-reading errors a child makes, whether a child reads the text fluently, and whether or not he/she understands what is being read.
    2. This can take a long time because sometimes the book read is not quite the right level and so the teacher has to have the child repeat the assessment with a lower- or higher-level text.
    3. The leveling process is often repeated in the middle of the year, and again at the end, but other times it is done up to 4x a year.
  2. What are the benefits of reading levels and this assessment process?
    1. Teachers get a 1-on-1 opportunity to think carefully about what a child’s reading strengths and weaknesses are as they prepare to meet the child’s reading needs.
    2. From a teacher’s observations, it is possible to better support a young reader and help him/her move ahead.
  3. What are some problems with the leveling process and reading levels in particular?
    1. Finding a child’s level is an adventure. While the assessments give good guidelines, there are so many things that can go awry. (For example, it is often hard to register every error a child makes because while a teacher writes down the child’s mistake, it’s very possible to miss the next part of what the child is reading. That’s fine if it happens once, but if it continues to happen it can affect the child’s score.) So if different people were to give the test to a student, it may mean the child could get different reading levels assigned.
    2. Leveling takes a long time, for teachers and kids. If there are 25 students in a classroom, it can take 10-20 hours for a teacher to assess all of the children in her class. That means more time out of the classroom for teachers, and as a result, there is often a pressure to move the assessments along quickly (and that means more room for error).
    3. Children are regularly grouped by reading level in the classroom, and often the lesson focuses on a comprehension strategy (e.g., summarizing a paragraph, finding the main idea). While that kind of strategy work can be important for a child to know how to do, it isn’t necessarily going to attend to the child’s reading needs. In other words, while all the children in the group are the same letter, they might have been placed into that reading level for very different reasons. One child may struggle to read individual words fluently; another child may have issues with low language skills; and a third might have trouble ignoring the distractions that are going on around her and therefore can’t read as well as she might be able to if she could control her body and mind more easily. That means that each of these children has different underlying reading needs that should be the instructional focus.
    4. Different publishers use different reading levels, which makes it super complicated for parents who are trying to figure it all out. Your child’s school may be using The Lexile® Framework for Reading, Fountas & Pinnell, Reading Recovery, or DRA. While they basically do the same thing, they use different terminology and some use numbers and some use letters as level indicators.

A savvy parent told us that she thinks the communication around reading levels is part of the problem: namely, parents can walk away from a reading-level discussion with teachers thinking they just need their child to move from level M to level N, for example. But they don’t really know what that means. It can be vague and confusing to jump into the school jargon and try to make sense of it all. Instead, the parent/teacher conversation needs to focus on which skills are needed to help the child develop as a reader.  Families need concrete information on the skill needs of their children, and they need to be part of the collective effort to help build those skills and move the child forward.

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