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Level Books with Word Recognition

Match Books to Readers

How to Select Books

As a teacher-publisher, I write articles such as this to inform, advocate, cajole, and sell my English-language arts and reading intervention programs to teachers. I’ve been doing so for quite awhile and have written over 700 articles. Of these articles, one is near the top in popularity and is certainly the most controversial: The 18 Reasons Not to Use Accelerated Reader. When I wrote the article, I had recently transitioned back into the classroom (middle school ELA) from my position as a district reading specialist.

The site level reading specialist provided a pre-service day staff development in which she mentioned AR as our schoolwide reading program. She stressed the importance of using leveled books to match the reading levels of our students. She demonstrated how the AR program did just that. I chose to ignore the remark and put off scheduling my classes for their AR testing in the computer lab. When I got the final “you have to” mandate, I decided to provide a list of reasons why I would not be using Accelerated Reader as my reading program. So much for being a team-player. To her credit, the site level reading specialist did not snitch on me to the principal, or if she did I never knew it.

I decided to post what I had written on my blog.

Wow. The reader response was immediate and contentious. Teachers, parents, and students contributed to the discussion. Parents and students provided cogent comments and examples of “AR abuse” from their own experiences. But, it has been the teacher-response that has both baffled and informed my subsequent writing.

As a publisher, my audience is primarily teachers. Parents and students are not huge markets for my Teaching Reading Strategies reading intervention program 🙂 Teachers have taken this article criticizing AR quite personally. Although many have been supportive of the points I made in the article; other teachers have perceived my comments as being negative judgments upon their professional expertise. The only comments I have trashed have been those filled with expletives or those which would embarrass teachers the next day after posting a response following one too many glasses of wine.

One such response came this morning regarding book levels. The teacher claimed that in my article I advocate dumping all means of matching the levels of books to the reading levels of students. What? 

In re-reading my article, I don’t see that at all. Secondly, I want to be clear that I do support a common sense approach to leveling books to match the reading levels of readers.

Two approaches to how to level books and match them to readers are in general practice today:

  1. Quantitative Measures: Lexiles, the DRA, F&P/GRL, and even the ATOS (AR testing). My Take? The quantitative measurements are cumbersome to apply to books and developing readers. So many factors go into the levels of books. Although authors certainly consider these factors (their publishers require them to do so) in writing and editing their books, the variables are endless: subject matter, prior knowledge, cultural context, etc. Additionally, the reader’s Lexile range (or other measures) is quite a limited measure (syllables, sentence length, syntax, etc.) and does not factor in maturity, prior knowledge, motivation, etc.
  2. Qualitative Measures: On the other side of the reading philosophical spectrum, I would argue that a Lucy Calkin or guided reading re-tell is subject to just as many arbitrary judgments as the quantitative measures and is time-consuming, to say the least.

The first problem with both approaches is that they are teacher-dependent. They essentially leave parents and the readers themselves (the students) out of the book selection process. The second problem is that both methods over-reach. Selecting a book to match the reading level of a reader is just as much art as it is science. And, it’s not that big of a deal which level a reader reads (with some common sense limitations). Thirdly, the pre-determined levels of books should not be straitjackets for readers.

A Quick and Simple Approach to Book Selection

Much better to affirm parental judgment in terms of which books are challenging for their own children. Even much better to equip students with self-selection of books with simple word recognition techniques. As a reading specialist, I still buy in to the useful categorizations of independent (98%), instructional (90–97%), and frustrational (less than 90%) levels of word recognition. Call me simplistic, but it’s the words they know and the ones they don’t which should be the primary means of book selection.

The old “five finger” for primary and intermediate elementary and “ten finger” for upper elementary and secondary readers works much better and is far more simple to use as a book selection guide than the tests and re-tells levels. Each finger represents a word on the page which the student could not adequately define by meaning, example, etc. Too few fingers, too easy; too many fingers, too hard. Simple, but effective. Parents can easily assess and train their children to apply the same guidelines to selecting their own books. My own experience using this technique is that the finger counting is equivalent to about 5% unknown words. Perfect for independent reading with just a bit of instructional level vocabulary thrown in to help grow a reader’s word knowledge. Additionally, I’ve found that this method highly correlates with the quantitative level assessments and weeds out some of the inaccuracies of those tests. The difference in terms of selecting books is minimal.

Plus, let’s not forget a dose of good old-fashioned common sense and the role of motivation for a developing reader. If the kid is interested (as long as the book has some challenging vocabulary), even though a random page is 17 fingers for the reader, let the child select it. A personal anecdote may help: My slightly above grade-level fourth grader, Kenny, was dying to read the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when it first came out. Clearly, the quantitative measures ATOS 6.9 (34 AR points), Lexile 880, DRA, F&P/GRL Z, GLE 7.4 should have prevented his MA reading specialist father (me) from purchasing this “frustration level” book. However, I ignored the quantitative data and waited in line for the midnight release of this treasured book. Kenny plowed through the book and enjoyed it immensely. By the end of fourth grade, Kenny was significantly above grade level and a confident reader. Thanks to his teacher and J.K. Rowling. Conversely, if the book is only five fingers for a middle school student, let her read it if she wants to, with a promise to read a more challenging book the next time. The easier word recognition book will provide its own benefits.


 

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE.

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books BUNDLE

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

Designed to significantly increase the reading abilities of students ages eight through adult within one year, the curriculum is decidedly un-canned, is adaptable to various instructional settings, and is simple to use–a perfect choice for Response to Intervention tiered instruction. The program provides multiple-choice diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files), phonemic awareness activities, blending and syllabication activitiesphonics workshops with formative assessments, 102 spelling pattern worksheets, comprehension worksheets, multi-level fluency passages recorded at three different reading speeds and accessed on YouTube, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards, posters, activities, and games.

The accompanying 54 decodable Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each book introduces focus sight words and phonics sound-spellings aligned to the instructional sequence found in Teaching Reading Strategies. Plus, each book has a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns, five higher-level comprehension questions, and an easy-to-use running record. Your students will love these fun, heart-warming, and comical stories about the adventures of Sam and his friends: Tom, Kit, and Deb. Oh, and also that crazy dog, Pug.

Get the SCRIP Comprehension Strategies FREE Resource:

 

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