What Is My Child’s Reading Level? Part I: Level of Accuracy

While there is considerable variation, schools provide a fair degree of information about a child’s reading performance—from scores on standardized tests to comments on classroom performance, and grades on report cards. Yet many parents still are unclear as to just how well their children are doing in this vital area.

The lack of clarity is understandable. Reading represents a vast range of skills and it is difficult to capture a child’s performance in a single number or grade. But in that complexity is a set of factors that is key to assessing how a child is doing.

In this blog, I will cover one of those factors — the level of accuracy. Subsequent blogs will deal with some of the other factors.

In assessing reading level, one of the most common measures used is single word reading That essentially involves reading sets of isolated, disconnected words–words such as when, sleep, happy, feel, block, mouth, etc. The testing is designed to continue until a child reaches a certain level of failure–for example, failing four out of five consecutive words.

That means a child can be making lots of errors (even every other word) and the testing will continue. Each correct response counts towards the child’s reading score. If a child can keep going for an extended period, it would result in a fairly high reading level.

I recently assessed a junior high student with dyslexia. On single word reading, the school testing yielded a 6th grade level–quite a respectable score. The problems with this became apparent when we switched from the reading of isolated words to the reading of meaningful material in a book. Then his reading level came out as 2nd grade.

Why should this be? The answer becomes clear when we examine the role of error when dealing with a whole page of text. There, even a single error can have profound consequences. For example, take the sentence

They saw a horse running down the street.

Now imagine that the word “horse” was misread as “house.” It turns the sentence into nonsense. And if no adult is present, the child has no idea where the error occurred (was it on the word saw, horse, running, street?). The only way to make sense of the words is to stop, go back and carefully re-read.

That is just one error. If a child makes multiple errors and has to repeatedly go through that self-correction process, it is not going to happen. So while errors do little to affect the reading of isolated words, they play an enormous role in “real reading” (i.e., reading books). Essentially, they can destroy any hope of comprehension.

All this means that reading of isolated words can be a misleading index of reading ability. It also means that we should be interested in a measure that is almost never reported. That measure is the rate of error in reading books and related materials.

If reading is going to be productive, books that children are going to read independently should evoke no more that 10 per cent error. Put another way, they should elicit at least 90 per cent success. Further, since books require sustained reading, the children need to maintain that level of accuracy for at least 10 minutes if they are in first or second grade and up to 20 minutes in grades higher than that

Viewed from this perspective, in trying to lead a child to success, our main concerns should not be with the official grade level of the book. Instead, a child’s performance determines the books that are suitable and productive. Should you be interested in knowing the official grade level, many books will provide that information–somewhere on the cover. Reference librarians can also be helpful.

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