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How to Determine Reading Levels

Match Books to Readers

How to Select Books

Running Records? Degrees of Reading Power (DRP)? Fleish-Kincaid? Lexiles? Fountas and Pinnell Leveled Book List? Accelerated Reader ATOS? Reading Recovery Levels? Fry’s Readability? John’s Basic Reading Inventory? Standardized test data? Each of these resources/assessments quantifies student reading levels and purports to offer guidance regarding how to match reader to text. For the purposes of this article, we will limit discussion to why these approaches do not work and what does work to match reader to text for independent reading.

As an MA reading specialist, I have been trained in how these tests are constructed and how they help determine reading levels for students. I also know how some of the publishers of these tests level reading materials to match the results of their tests. Although very scientific, there are eight problems with each of these approaches:

1. They are cumbersome and time-consuming to administer.

2. They tend to be costly.

3. They are teacher-dependent (students and parents can’t pick books at their challenge levels without guidance).

4. They do not factor in reader motivation.

5. They do not factor in reading content, in terms of maturity of themes (Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has a 4.7 ATOS readability level).

6. When compared, the various formulae each vary in grade level equivalencies (one rates Tom Sawyer at 4.2, another at 6.9, and still another at 7.3).

7. They tend to force librarians into arbitrary book coding systems to conform to the tests.

8. They limit student and parent choice of reading materials. Two examples of the problems of determining readability levels and matching these to “appropriate books” should suffice:

I’m not trying to be a whining, complaining parent here. I’m simply trying to highlight a problem. At our public library, there are bookmarks in the youth department that list suggested books for students in each grade (K-12th). We picked up an 8th grade bookmark to get ideas for (her daughter’s) acceptable reading-leveled book. Found a book. Looked up the reading level  and found that it was a 4.5 (not anywhere near the 8.7-10.7 my daughter needed).

As a parent, I watched my very smart 9 year old work the system. He continually read books very much below his ability NOT because he likes reading them, but because he could read them quickly and get points. Other books that he told me he really wanted to read, he didn’t either because they were longer and would take “too long to read” or they weren’t on the AR list.

Given these issues, isn’t there a better solution that will help inform selection of independent reading books?

Yes. Motivation and word recognition.

Motivation has to factor into reading selection. My own son grew a full year in reading comprehension by reading the fourth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire over the summer a few years back. The book was certainly above his grade level for a fifth grader, but he was motivated and carefully read and re-read with dictionary and Dad at his side for help. Similarly, thank God for the current “Twilight” series. Many of my below grade level readers (I teach seventh graders) have significantly increased their reading levels by getting hooked on this latest literary phenomenon.

Word recognition remains the best indicator for self-selection of appropriate reading level books. It is book and reader-specific and thus cannot be tested by the above readability formulae. With guidance, parents and students can use the techniques below, in combination with the motivation factor to select books within their proximal zone of development—in other words, books that will challenge, but not frustrate the reader.

Word Recognition Techniques

Primary teachers have used the “five-finger method” for years.  Readers select appropriate reading levels by using the fingers of one hand to count down the number of unknown words on a single page. Any more than five unknown words means that the text is at their frustrational level and another book should be selected.

To update and refine this technique for older students, reading text that has about 5% of the words that are unknown to the reader is the appropriate independent reading level.

How can you pick a book to read that has 5% unknown words?

1. Choose a book and count the number of words on any complete page found near the beginning of the book and multiply that number by 3.

2. Read a page toward the beginning of the book, counting the number of unknown words. A good guideline would be “if you can’t define it with a synonym, antonym, or example,” it is unknown. Then, read a page near the middle of the book and continue the count. Finally, read a page near the end of the book and finish the count.

3. Divide the total number of unknown words by the total number of words found on the three pages. The result will be the percentage of unknown words. Anything within the 4-6% range is acceptable. For example, a reader counts the number of words on a page and arrives at 225. 225 x 3 = 750. After reading the three pages, the amount of unknown words totals 30. 30.00 divided by 750 = .05, or 5%.

Again, don’t let the word recognition range be the only factor in determining student choice. When in doubt, let the student go higher. Student motivation can overcome word recognition deficiencies (within reason). Try to discourage reading materials below the students’ word recognition levels. Although we want students to love what they read, we are also about challenging them and building reading comprehension and vocabulary development.

As C.S. Lewis once said… the neat sorting-out of books into age ranges, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table (1952 essay On three ways of writing for children, collected in Of Other Worlds Harvest Books 2002).

The results can be amazing. Reading this level of text will expose most readers to about 300 unknown words in 30 minutes of reading. Learning 5% of these words from the surrounding context clues of the text is realistic. This means that students will learn about 15 new words during a typical reading session. My advice? Ditch the overly complex and limited reading formulae and use motivation and word recognition to guide independent book selection.

FREE DOWNLOAD TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SALE Context Clues Vocabulary Strategy includes a lesson and two context clues worksheets to help students apply the strategy. Answers included!

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The Teaching Reading Strategies (Reading Intervention Program) is designed for non-readers or below grade level readers ages eight-adult. Ideal as both Tier II or III pull-out or push-in reading intervention for older struggling readers, special education students with auditory processing disorders, and ESL, ESOL, or ELL students. This full-year (or half-year intensive) program provides explicit and systematic whole-class instruction and assessment-based small group workshops to differentiate instruction. Both new and veteran reading teachers will appreciate the four training videos, minimal prep and correction, and user-friendly resources in this program, written by a teacher for teachers and their students.

The program provides 13 diagnostic reading and spelling assessments (many with audio files). Teachers use assessment-based instruction to target the discrete concepts and skills each student needs to master according to the assessment data. Whole class and small group instruction includes the following: phonemic awareness activities, synthetic phonics blending and syllabication practice, phonics workshops with formative assessments, expository comprehension worksheets, 102 spelling pattern assessments, reading strategies worksheets, 123 multi-level fluency passage videos recorded at three different reading speeds, writing skills worksheets, 644 reading, spelling, and vocabulary game cards (includes print-ready and digital display versions) to play entertaining learning games.

In addition to these resources, the program features the popular Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books. These 54 decodable books (includes print-ready and digital display versions) have been designed for older readers with teenage cartoon characters and plots. Each 8-page book introduces two sight words and reinforces the sound-spellings practiced in that day’s sound-by-sound spelling blending. Plus, each book has two great guided reading activities: a 30-second word fluency to review previously learned sight words and sound-spelling patterns and 5 higher-level comprehension questions. Additionally, each book includes an easy-to-use running record if you choose to assess. 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. These take-home books are great for independent homework practice.

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

Teaching Reading Strategies and Sam and Friends Guided Reading Phonics Books

FREE DOWNLOADS TO ASSESS THE QUALITY OF PENNINGTON PUBLISHING RESOURCES: The SCRIP (Summarize, Connect, Re-think, Interpret, and Predict) Comprehension Strategies includes class posters, five lessons to introduce the strategies, and the SCRIP Comprehension Bookmarks.

 

 

 

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