FINDING A CHILD'S INSTRUCTIONAL READING LEVEL
There has been a great deal of discussion about what a school age child should read. Content of textbooks is an on-going controversy.
Another area of what a child should read that gets little attention, some discussion, and next to no controversy is concerning reading levels. Some instructors and even entire primary faculties ignore so-called reading levels and encourage the child to read anything of interest, regardless of level. The push toward substituting magazines and newspapers for textbooks as primary reading material is an example, as well as plopping everyone in the same paperback book and calling it "literature."
There is merit to this as long as the child has no reading problems and learns vocabulary easily. For the children who are in the one-third of each class that usually needs extra help in reading, this approach will compound their problem. Non-graded reading materials may be interesting but technically overwhelming to these children. Some kind of controlled vocabulary text is needed.
Experts in the field of reading disabilities have agreed upon formulas that calculate the reading level of any piece. For years controlled vocabularies have been the guiding light of most commercial textbooks- A set of sequential, controlled vocabulary reading textbooks is necessary in a reading program, although where situations indicate a need, self-written (dictated) language experience stories can be substituted initially. (The student illustrates his story.)
Children who have some problems with visual perception skills should not be placed in linguistic-oriented texts where lists of took-alike (sound-alike) words are presented massively in the beginning levels. The lists tend to hamper reading progress. (An example of this kind of literature would be a story made up essentially of words that end with /an/, for instance, such as, "Dan ran to Nan. A man in a tan van had a fan for Nan. But Dan has her fan....", etc.). The old basal readers were controlled vocabulary texts, but the cost of buying even a few texts from publishers became prohibitive if a reading series was to be discarded every five or six years (new adoption). A set of paperbacks would last for years if the wear and tear was controlled and the initial cost was a fraction of a basal reader (a 4th grade paperback book might cost $4.95 per copy as compared to $65 or more for a 4th grade basal reader from a big publisher). None of this helps the struggling student who needs some kind of control over the vocabulary he is expected to learn.
FINDING THE READING LEVEL
Most authorities define three reading levels.
1. Independent Reading Level. Easy reading. In oral reading, a child would have one or less word calling errors in 100 words of text, with 100 percent accuracy on comprehension questions about the story. A student could read it alone with ease.
2. Instructional Reading Level. This is the best level for learning new vocabulary. It requires the assistance of a teacher or tutor. The word error range allowed while reading orally to the teacher is from 2 to 5 word calling errors per 100 words of text (95% accuracy or better), with at least 80 percent comprehension on simple recall questions about the story. This is where the best progress is made in reading. Children who are forced or permitted to attempt reading beyond the 5-word error limit soon begin to feel frustration when in an instructional setting.
3. Frustration Reading Level. This is too hard for the reader.
Word errors are over 5 per 100 words of text. Comprehension questions are
below 70 percent accuracy. Unfortunately, teachers sometimes allow this
to happen, especially when the words missed are basic vocabulary sight
words, such as "was" for "saw" and "what/that." The practice of having
young children work in frustration level reading materials is not professionally
sound. It is, however, all too often observed in the classrooms of well-meaning
A question often asked by teachers who begin to use the reading system described here is: "How do you know when a child has made a word calling error?"
Obvious errors are easy to record (yes, write them down). Substitutions such as "where" for "there" are easy to put down on the studentís word list. Words not known can be written by themselves, such as "enough," if the child cannot say it. Words pronounced but not comprehended are to be recorded, if the teacher is able to discover this. (In each class there may be a student who is a "good word caller," able to read aloud beautifully, but not very sure of what was read). Another type of word error is the long pause word. Allow only up to 3 seconds for the reader to say each word. Record any word where the child waits--pausesómore than 3 seconds before saying it. That way, by recording it, the word may be analyzed phonetically and practiced at a later time. If a child uses phonics to sound out the word successfully, but takes more than 3 seconds, record the word as an error, but praise the child for the good effort and success, and explain that with practice the word will come through smoothly later; (in this case the child would be expected to have used applied phonics during silent or oral reading, or to have asked about the word, prior to this oral reading time, which is used here as an assessment by the teacher). This is the time to stop momentarily and decide with the child if the personal phonics chart was of help, or if a new element should be drawn in, and to stress the use of the chart as a tool to be used.
At home a child will see parents and older brothers and sisters reading without speaking. Sometimes non-reading youngsters enjoy pretending to read silently. Looking at the pictures in books can be a favorite pastime. Some very young kids can memorize entire sentences and passages page by page by looking at associated pictures, when a book is read aloud to them. They won't be able to read any of it, but they can recite it as long as the picture is there.
In a school setting, silent reading has built-in expectations: progress, advancement and comprehension.
The classroom teacher may be following a publisher's scope and sequence in reading instruction, using basal books or other commercially prepared materials. The teacher may decide to follow the guidelines of the teacher's edition.
Steps in teaching silent reading involve the teacher introducing the story to the child or children to build up interest (teacher will have read the selection prior to this). Teacher enthusiasm for reading is critical in this.
Many classes can be most conveniently grouped into four or less reading groups that will be expected to change as students progress. It is usually in the group setting that new words for the selection are introduced, and all significant phonics elements are emphasized. Those words should be written on a chalkboard, whiteboard, or flip chart convenient to the table where the group is gathered.
Children love to play "teacher." Recalling the games played with parents at home in the summer perceptual practice (described in previous pages) may encourage otherwise shy youngsters to try to point out phonic elements in words. Teachers who elicit student participation are quick to praise such effort.
One purpose of silent reading involves checking a child's comprehension of what was just read. This requires the teacher to ask each student specific questions about a selection. Students read silently to find answers, then tell the teacher what they discover.
Another purpose of silent reading is to identify difficult words. During silent reading the child is encouraged to ask for help with any unknown or uncertain word. The teacher immediately tells the child the word so that comprehension and continuity are not broken. This is important later also as it helps eliminate miscalled words during oral reading. Words asked in silent reading are not recorded as they are in oral reading. This also helps build confidence.
For several years there has been criticism of the "harmful" practice of requiring primary level students to read aloud in a group setting. The critics said that the only purpose of oral reading was as choral reading and for entertainment purposes.
When oral reading is done professionally by a teacher who knows what the entire process involves, the above comment is not valid. Students taught competently tend to "love" oral reading, and if something interferes with that special group time, the teacher hears the complaints from the students.
1. Children must be placed at their instructional level of reading
(see earlier explanation of the three reading levels: instructional, independent, frustration).
3. The teacher must carefully record word calling errors and make other observations (breathing/visual discomfort) each time a child reads orally.
4. The teacher and the child must be practicing a form of applied phonics as the oral reading proceeds, with personal phonics chart available (see earlier discussion).
see "teacher self-monitoring chart."
In the classroom, while the child is reading aloud, the teacher is following along carefully, faithfully recording any word errors heard. (The child has confidence from being placed in the correct level text, from having read the whole selection silently a short time before, and from having his or her own phonic chart close by for quick reference).
Other members of the reading group (which may number up to six or seven students) are expected to follow along while each student reads. They are not to give any help in this process unless given permission to assist. Under no circumstances is help offered until at least three seconds time has elapsed and the reader has made an attempt at using the handy phonic chart nearby.
In this setting, children frequently read aloud their passages without error. This is rewarded with praise from the teacher and often from other students. Teachers often give out small stickers or stars for such reading at lower grade levels for error free reading. If the entire group is error free, other kinds of rewards can be presented to celebrate this. If the entire room reads orally error free, it is a cause for a special celebration. The possibilities are interesting.
The teacher will maintain a daily record of each child's oral reading activity. The date, book name, page number and errors/substitutions are entered.
The purpose of keeping records is for the child to practice the correct response so that the errors are soon eliminated. If a phonics problem is part of the error, that too would be reviewed and practiced. This is also an aid to improving comprehension, for the child would not be as apt to guess at words incorrectly and change meanings.
Some educators have said that a teacher recording errors during oral reading is threatening to the student reader. This may be true if it is done in a nonprofessional manner. Teachers may want to have the children say to themselves, "Thatís okay, I'll get it next time." Teachers will reassure the student that the word is recorded for practice and then will be discarded soon. The teachers can say, "Good try."
The system described here is common practice in clinical settings where the activity is one-to-one remedial reading. It is non-threatening and usually interesting to the student.
The teacher would begin with a loose-leaf ring binder notebook. Both sides of an entire sheet of paper would be set aside for each student. The page would be arranged in groups of three vertical columns. A narrow first column would hold the recorded date. The next narrow column will show the page number of the selection to be read aloud. The third column is devoted to recording word calling errors, substituted words, phonics attempts, and any other indicators the teacher finds helpful.
Periodically, the teacher or trained helper should take the child through the list that has been recorded in the notebook. Each time the child correctly reads a word from the notebook list in the three-second time frame, the teacher records a plus (+) beside that word. When three pluses are earned without an error in between, the word is crossed off the list. If the child stumbles or takes more than three seconds, the pluses are erased and the child starts over another time.
VISUAL MOTOR METHOD
For many years, students have been taught to use variations
of the visual motor method, or some modified version of it, usually in
spelling practice: see the word, say it, write it, cover it, write
it from memory, etc. The important thing to remember is to use it
as much as necessary in order to help that student master those particularly
For example, a student may have difficulty with the words: every, very, and ever. The following steps could be taken to help the student learn those words.
2. Have the student close his eyes and try to picture
the word in his mind, then spell the word as he
writes it from memory in the air, then say the word.
3. If the student did not spell the word correctly, just repeat steps one and two above.
4. If the student correctly does steps one and two, praise him, and say, "Since you did that so well, I want you to correctly write the word on a flash card, while you spell the word aloud." Then the student says the word correctly when finished.
5. When the student does #4 correctly, say, "That's great! Since you did that so nicely I want you to turn over your flash card and write the word 3 more times on the back. Each time, while you write the word, spell it out loud and say the name of the word when you are finished."
Some students like to trace over their first correct writing of the word with fluorescent glue of pretty color. Some like to sprinkle glitter on top of the glue before the glue dries. After the glue dries, the student can trace the glittered letters of the word with his finger, saying the letters of the word as he goes along and saying the name of the word when he is finished.
Students enjoy having their beautiful words displayed next to a doorway in the house ---- and the word becomes the password, which must be said by all who enter through that door!
Many good teachers enjoy using variations of the above
steps while teaching their spelling classes. They report that the students
and they look forward to and have fun doing the activities. Parents can
do the same thing at home.
Reading can take place nearly anywhere. Lincoln did it by candlelight in a loft. Did you ever read a good book late at night under the cover using a flashlight?
Reading instruction, on the other hand, requires a setting in keeping with the needs of the lowest reading group, if a classroom is involved.
Classrooms probably should be painted a non-stimulating color if easily distracted children are present. Room art should consist of student-made items or teaching aids and should not be distracting.
Highly distractible children should have a place they can go to "get away from it all." Cubbies and carrels are often situated along sides of rooms so that the open end of the cubby (cut-down appliance box) is facing the chalkboard/ whiteboard.
A few comments about the construction of a cubby may be appropriate. The top of a refrigerator box is cut to about the height of the child's cowlick as he or she is seated at the desk inside. The inner walls of the box should receive paint that will reflect light but not stimulate the occupant. Outside cubby walls may be decorated by the class with teacher supervision. And of course the open side must face the front--or chalkboard/ whiteboard side--of the classroom so that the child may have eye contact with the teacher. And the teacher can make sure the studentís pencil or finger is on the correct item to be learned at all times.
See classroom diagram.
People have objected to cubbies because they are in the way of the custodian's broom. Others have said it makes the room too crowded. And others say it resembles a kind of punishment box (one administrator suggested the ACLU would get involved if such a cubby were placed in the school).
If it is of some help to even one child, it is worth it. Most successful
uses of cubbies include a classroom sign-up sheet, ensuring that all of
the students may have a turn occupying a spare cubby.
Principals of primary schools are interested in reading progress. They look at standardized test results each year.
Another check a principal may use is first-hand observation using a monitoring chart (see example). During the third and fourth week of September the administrator would arrange a schedule so that he or she may visit each first grade classroom and record beginning reading levels, then go in again in December, and again in May. Other grade levels would require only two visits per year for reading assessment purposes, in September and in May.
As the principal enters, the teacher would provide a chart showing where each child is reading at that time. The chart would show names of students, names of books, level of difficulty, and space for the principal's notes. The principal would have a copy of the studentsítexts.
The principal would listen to each child read aloud in each reading group, noting the number of word errors per total words read. If a child seems to be in frustration level reading (over five word errors per hundred), teacher and principal may take steps to place the student in other material at the instructional level (two to five word errors per hundred).
Teacher and principal would understand they will work as a team at this, and that the goal is for the child to progress through at least a year of academic growth in the nine month term. When the principal returns in May it will be easy to see what growth has taken place. This collaboration is useful especially to new teachers, and it is a good mentoring activity for the principal who is then acting as "principal teacher" or "head teacher."
Administrators will find they need to adjust their priorities in order to do this important assessment. In very large schools, additional administrative duties may have to be absorbed by the superintendent in order to free up enough time for the principal to accomplish this goal. In tiny school districts where a superintendent/ principal position is filled by one person, the primary grades would take precedence over middle grades.
It is important that this kind of assessment not come to the principal second hand, as in a report from the reading coordinator or a curriculum specialist. The experience of being on the scene as the reading is done is vital to the goal of helping children.