What do children’s reading levels mean?

Reading levels are one of my least favorite things about elementary school. They are a quick way for teachers to decide what books to read with which students but they don’t do much for students. But knowing your children’s reading levels can help you select books to read with them at home, as well as give you a little bit of information about whether they are meeting the targets for their grade level.

Different systems, different data

Lexile Levels

Lexile levels are assigned to a book or article. A student gets a Lexile score on certain literacy assessments, like the MAP Growth assessment. A Lexile score is a 3 or 4-digit number. This chart shows Lexile levels for the average (50th percentile) and high achieving (90th percentile) reader by grade level.

Guided Reading Levels

Guided Reading scores are letters of the alphabet from A (beginning of kindergarten) to Z (usually around 5th or 6th grade). A child’s reading level is determined by the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS). In this assessment, a child is asked to read out loud from a leveled book and then answer questions about the story. This assessment has several large flaws. First, the score doesn’t tell us whether the child is having trouble reading the words on the page, remembering what happened, or communicating his answers. Second, these assessments are very subjective and a child’s score can vary greatly depending on who assesses them.

Developmental Reading Assessment

The Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) is another common assessment used in elementary schools. DRA scores are numbers from 1 to 70. Students are usually given the DRA once or twice a school year. This chart compares DRA levels to grade levels.  

Once you know the level, what’s next?

If your child’s reading level is on-target, according to their teachers or according to one of the charts linked above, that’s good news. If you don’t notice any problems with your child’s reading, and the scores are as expected, keep doing what you’re doing!

If they haven’t met the goal on their reading assessments, it’s time to gather some more information. What do you see and hear when you ask your child to read? What other assessments have the teachers done that might give a fuller picture? Check out this blog post for more info about what to do if a child is not reading at grade level.

How to help kids build a reading habit

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A habit is a behavior that we do consistently, without consciously thinking about whether to do it, over time. It can be good (saving money, eating vegetables), bad (smoking, staying up too late), or neutral (walking the dog around the block clockwise). Wondering how to build a reading habit for your kids?

At first, even the best and most desirable habits can feel uncomfortable and it’s easy to forget to do them. But if we set the right conditions, they get easier with time! Here are some ways to help your child build a reading habit. 

How to build a reading habit

BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, says every habit has a cue, a behavior (that’s what we think of when we say “habit,”) and the reward.

Cues

Cues are things in the environment that prompt you to start a habit. Snacking because you walk by the candy dish, starting the coffee maker because it’s 7am, running home when the street lights come on. Here are some cues for reading to think about in your child’s environment.

Place

Designate a reading spot that is comfy, well-lit, and quiet. Keep needed supplies (a book basket, pencil and sticky notes, a reading log) nearby. Minimize distractions like toys, screens, and people who aren’t reading quietly.

Time 

Pick a time for reading when kids are quiet but not sleepy. Make sure they aren’t hungry or in a rush to get outside with their friends. 

At my house, there’s a quiet period on weekend afternoons that make for great reading time! We fit in reading on other days but on weekends it’s a really nice experience. Other families read while waiting for siblings to finish practice or lessons. That has the advantage of keeping siblings and their distractions away for better focus. I could never read in the car without feeling sick, but some kids are able to read while their parents are driving. 

Reading behavior 

When you say you want your kids to read more, what do you mean? To help kids build a reading habit, you have to make the reading itself as enjoyable as possible. If you start them off with books that are too hard and frustrating (or too easy and boring), they are less likely to stick with it. Some thoughts about keeping reading engaging and appropriately challenging:

Choosing books

Some teachers are firm about expecting kids to read books “at their level,” but when we’re talking about building a habit of reading, there’s a big place for books that make kids happy! If that’s a dense book of sports stats, great! If it’s a comfy favorite picture book, great!

If your kids have finished a favorite book or series and you want to keep the momentum going, try searching online for “books like _” for recommendations. You can also ask your child’s teacher or your children’s librarian for books that are popular with kids that age. 

Fixing errors

Reading isn’t fun when you can’t read the words on the page. If a book has too many words your child can’t decode yet, reading will be slow and frustrating. They will have trouble understanding the story because all their bandwidth will be used up just to figure out the words. 

You can help your child with challenging books by

  • Choose easier books – ok, this one isn’t quite fair but one way to make reading more enjoyable is to choose books at an easier level.
  • Offer to take turns – when you read every other page, they hear your fluent model. Plus it helps them move along through the story, which can improve their comprehension.
  • Get the audiobook – audiobooks are a great resource for letting kids enjoy stories they can’t decode effectively yet. For some readers, it builds confidence to hear a book that’s a little challenging first, and then read it again on their own. 
  • Talking about it with them – ask questions or point out things that’s surprises you or made you laugh. 

Thinking about the story

Some kids race through the pages of a book, trying to get through as many pages as they can. Others flip through a book randomly and don’t get much of the story. Knowing that you’re going to ask them about it later sometimes motivates kids to pat attention to the details. At the same time, don’t interrogate your kids about their reading. Think book club chitchat, not Final Jeopardy! 

For some kids, writing a quick note on their bookmark when they stop reading, or sketching a picture at the end of the chapter to make a little comic strip of the story, can help them remember what they read. 

Make these a small part of your child’s reading time, though. When I was a kid, a journal entry was required at the end of each chapter. I had a hard time writing a succinct summary, so I would get stuck on a book for weeks because I fell behind in my journal. The strategy of having us write about our reading backfired for me! 

Reward

It’s tempting to offer prizes and praise and rewards to get kids to do things they don’t want to do. Mini M&M’s saved my sanity while potty training! But giving kids rewards for reading can backfire, according to some research. 

Reading that lasts

So focus on rewards like learning interesting facts, being entertained, and having cozy quiet time with a parent. Making reading an inherently enjoyable experience is the goal. That’s the best way to help kids build a reading habit that lasts a lifetime!

If your child is struggling with reading, we can help! Contact us today to talk about how we can help your child become a capable, confident reader.

Managing at home reading expectations

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Does your school have reading logs? Journal assignments? Charts? Graphs? Do you have to swear a blood oath that your child read books this week? If your family is struggling with managing at home reading expectations, here are some tips for how to get your child to read better and how to manage the school’s reading homework assignments for your family.

Create Reading Habits

A lifelong habit of reading will give your child the opportunity to move into careers, hobbies, and community opportunities that make their lives better. The power of fluent, wide, eager reading cannot be overestimated. Ultimately, if you’re trying to figure out “What can help my child read better?” you’re probably taking a shorter-term view, trying to get this week’s assignment done and end the argument about reading. Here are some ideas to take the pain out of at-home reading assignments and begin to bring the joy of books to your household.

Choose the right books

How to help a struggling reader at home
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

Teachers are big on reading levels. Those letters or numbers on stickers on the book cover, or inside the front cover, are there to help teachers choose the right books for their classroom, but they are often misused for gate-keeping purposes. Teachers will enforce a rule that kids have to have “just right” books and that the book can be neither too easy, nor too hard, and use the book’s level as a way to decide. 

Reading levels have their place. One use is that they help you find other similar books to try. If you ask your child’s teacher what his “instructional reading level” is, you will likely get a Guided Reading level (a letter) or a Lexile (a number) that tells you the difficulty of text they are reading at school. You can find plenty of books online organized by level. Flip through one and get a feel for it. How many sentences are on a page? How many paragraphs? How often are there pictures? Use those clues to help you find other books that your child might find comfortable. 

But beyond that, the sky is the limit. For example, I worked with a second grader reading books about Minecraft at the fourth or fifth grade level because it is his favorite game, and a tenth grader struggling with non-fiction at an eighth grade level because he didn’t have a lot of background knowledge about American history. If there is a topic your child is passionate about, don’t be surprised if he can read books that are “above his level.” 

On the other hand, if your child is struggling with reading the books that come home, try decodable books like the Simple Words series or Bob Books that match the words they have learned to sound out. Core Knowledge Language Arts also offers free “Skills” units that have great decodable readers you can print. Flyleaf Publishing is a great source of decodable books, which are offered for free online (through the end of the 2021-2022 school year).

Choose the time and place

There are good times to schedule reading time for your child, and then there are times that don’t work as well.

Times not to fit in reading:

  • While the rest of the family is watching TV
  • Right before dinner
  • In the car on the way to school

Times that work better:

  • After a snack
  • While younger siblings are napping or not home yet
  • At a “family reading time,” where every available person in the house sits down with a book – maybe in the hour before bed or after lunch on the weekend.
  • In the waiting room at dance class or in the bleachers at a sibling’s practice – if the environment is quiet

Finding the right place for reading homework

Some kids love to curl up in a quiet corner of the house and read until you make them stop. Those aren’t the kids you are reading this for, I don’t think. Kids who are struggling or who avoid reading need the support and attention of a whole adult (or responsible older child) while they work through their reading. 

This is easiest to accomplish when you sit beside your child, at the table or on the couch, or in bed if no one is too sleepy. Have good lighting, a comfy seat, and minimal background noise. 

Looking for fun ways to fit more reading into your family’s life? Check out our free Winter Reading Bingo Board!


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Make it a habit

In his book Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg breaks down all habits into three parts: a trigger (he calls them “anchor moments”), a habit, and a reward. If getting your child to read every day sounds totally out of reach for you and your family right now, try these tiny steps towards your goal.

  1. Pick a trigger – “We will take out a book right after the table is clear from dinner.” or “As soon as her big sister starts basketball practice, we’ll sit in the bleachers and read.”
  2. Set a tiny reading goal – A page, a paragraph, a sentence, a word. It might seem ridiculously small, but start with the next step – one more increment of reading than you’re doing now. If reading at home right now just isn’t happening, the only way to get started is to start, so start tiny!
  3. Decide on a reward – BJ Fogg makes a very important distinction between the reward we get for something we do successfully (I cook breakfast so I get to eat a delicious English muffin) and the long-term payoff (if I go to work all week, I get a paycheck on the 15th). We’re looking for those tiny, in the moment rewards for reaching our first reading goals. How will you and your child celebrate the success of sitting down with a book together? A hug? A little dance? A high five?

And Don’t Worry!

Be patient with yourself and with your child. A teacher has literally no idea what your family situation is, in most cases, and you have to decide what success looks like for your family. Even if teachers have some control over assignments like reading homework, they are planning for a whole class and not taking into account that in your house, the adults work different shifts or the baby wakes up a couple of times a night or the babysitter doesn’t read fluent English or each kid is on a different schedule for sports practice. So while the school’s expectation may be what brought you here, keep the big picture in mind. You are raising your children to be happy, whole people, thoughtful and well-educated. The long game of teaching them to love reading and to look to books for inspiration, knowledge, and comfort, counts for a lot more than the number of pages in their reading log. 

Managing at-home reading expectations
Reading is a homework assignment for many kids, but it’s not one-size-fits-all. Here’s how to build routines to get your child reading more at home.
Grab your FREE Winter Reading Bingo Board here.


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My child is Guessing Words When Reading!

If you’re the parent of a young reader, you may have caught wind of terms like “The Reading Wars” and “The Science of Reading.” The issues always boil down to, “What is the best way to turn children into capable and eager readers?” Like everything, the questions and answers get oversimplified and misrepresented in media. But if you have a school-age child, varying approaches to reading instruction can make a huge difference. Especially if you’re wondering, “Why does my child guess words when reading?”

If a child guesses words while reading…

The (Vastly Oversimplified) Process of Reading

To read written English, we need to:

  • Connect the right sounds to the symbols (letters) printed on the page and blend them together to “hear” a word
  • Read quickly enough to not get exhausted and not run out of attention
  • Recognize a real word and understand what it means in this sentence
  • Read a whole story, remember it, and understand things about the story

One philosophy of teaching reading, called balanced literacy, advocates encouraging children to “use context clues,” including pictures, to figure out “what would make sense.” The problem with that approach is that, eventually, the books they read have fewer and fewer pictures to help them figure out hard words. Kids who rely on this coping strategy end up stranded because they don’t know how to say multisyllabic words. These kids have often been very successful in the classroom until third or fourth grade, but by fifth, they start to struggle. They can’t keep up with grade-level science texts, or lessons that require them to read for information. 

How to help children who guess words when reading
Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

The worst part is that this is not what mature readers (like adults) do. Efficient readers quickly recognize whole words or chunks of words and combine them to read words they might never have seen before. By encouraging children to check the pictures, or by letting them fall back on this strategy, you’re promoting a reading habit that will become less and less effective as they progress as readers and eventually, it will leave them stranded. 

This parent noticed the problem when she tested her daughter on a predictable book with pictures to provide support. With the pictures, it sounds like beautiful early grades reading. But when the pictures are removed, the child stumbles and gets stuck. Think about the last 10 books you read. How many had pictures to help you read the words? Relying on the text alone is what reading really is!

How to Help Your Child Avoid Guessing

If you’re trying to figure out how to stop your child from guessing, first you need to understand “why does my child guess words when reading.”

Use decodable text – “Decodable text” is the term for stories that follow a sequence of introduction for different phonetic spelling patterns. The exact sequence is different for every set of decodable books, but generally “easy” books include one or more short vowel sounds and short words in short sentences. Think “Val sat on the mat.”

Text becomes “decodable” when students have learned the spelling patterns included in it. This doesn’t always match grade level or any other commonly used book leveling system. To know what decodable books your child needs, you have to know what patterns she has been taught: short vowels, silent e, vowel teams, etc.

Give “hard” words to them for free – Readers guess when they don’t know a word and don’t have the tools to figure it out. Once you have picked appropriate books, it helps to anticipate the tricky words and warn your child when they come up. It can feel awkward to interrupt their reading, but remember that you’re trying to stop the guessing behavior before it starts.

Even if they can read almost every word in the book, they might need help with character names. I know I’m not the only one who read Harry Potter without knowing how to pronounce “Hermione” until the movies came out!

Instead of “What would make sense?” – In the guided reading philosophy, teachers cue children when they get stuck on a word by asking “What would make sense here?” It leads them to say horse when they can’t read pony or hat when they can’t read helmet. Sometimes those substitutions are OK in early stories, and so kids over rely on that strategy. Then they get to more challenging texts. What would make sense in this sentence from the Wikipedia entry on electricity?

“The ____ of this force is given by Coulomb’s law.”

You didn’t guess magnitude? Me neither. That’s why having a strategy for breaking down unfamiliar words is so important.

One way to make reading more fun is to use our Winter Reading Bingo Board. Download it here.


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Why is this still happening?

I heard the statistic that actual classroom instruction in public schools lags about 20 years behind educational research. It makes sense. If a teacher works in the schools for 30 years, it has probably been at least 20 years since she was a grad student. And administrators and curriculum coaches are likely at least a few years out of school. Not to mention, college teacher preparation programs are still teaching this approach to reading instruction and churning out new teachers who teach the same ineffective strategies. 

Is there hope?

Lots of people are asking their school districts hard questions, bringing effective, evidence-based, strategies into the classroom, and moving towards better curriculum. As a parent, finding these people (or becoming these people!) is one of the most powerful ways you can help your child and all the children in your district.

Look into local Decoding Dyslexia or Reading League chapters. 

For your own child, consider whether your current public school is the right place for them to learn to read. I taught my own son to decode because he attended kindergarten via distance learning, in a balanced literacy district, to boot. If your child is struggling with guessing and avoiding reading, it may be the best approach to choose a home instruction program or find a tutor who can teach your child using structured literacy so they have the skills and confidence required to sound out words without guessing. 

If it’s time to get some highly trained, 1-on-1 help to teach your child to read, contact us for a free consultation and demo lesson.

What should I do if my child is using the pictures to guess words when reading?
Some children learn to use the picture or other clues to guess words that are hard to read. Here is how to help your children move away from using pictures and rely on the words printed on the page.

How to help a child read better at home

If you buy something from a link in this post, we may get a small commission on your purchase.

Happy New Year! Among the many resolutions we all make to eat better and get organized, many parents are wondering how to help their children have a great year. As a parent, you may be looking for ideas about how to help a child read better or how to get your child to read on grade level. Read on for some ideas about how to help a child read better and read more.

Identify the Problem

Sounding out words

Sometimes, children are reluctant to read because reading feels very hard! Especially for younger readers, books “at their level” can be filled with tricky irregular words that don’t follow the rules they know. For example, a sentence like “Bill made a card to give his mother” would look right at home in a first grader’s book, but there’s a lot to take in here: 

  • silent e changes the vowel sound in made, but not in give!
  • in mother, the o makes the /ŭ/ sound instead of the /ŏ/ sound!
  • card has an r-controlled vowel sound, which many reading programs don’t introduce until later on!

If your child is still learning about phonics and how to sound out words (usually up through second grade, possibly later), look for decodable books that match what they have learned. For kindergarten, Bob books are a great option. These Simple Words books are a terrific choice for older kids who want to read “real” books but are still learning to decode. Check out all my recommendations for decodable books here.

Reading Fluently

Even if a child can accurately sound out words, they may do it in a slow, laborious way that makes it hard for them to follow a story. If you’re wondering how to help a child read better and more fluently, one of the best ways is to provide a good model. This can mean taking turns reading pages, or having an older sibling read with them. Reading along with audiobooks is another option for letting children hear a fluent reader.

Beyond modeling, fluent reading comes from tons of practice. Suggest that your child read to pets, or dolls, or grandparents, or the neighborhood squirrels, whatever captures their attention. It’s important that children read frequently and read lots of different types of stories to become more fluent. It’s like learning a musical instrument – it can be boring, and it can be painful for the people listening, but slow and steady practice is an essential part of becoming a great reader!

Need ideas to jazz up your home reading routine? Sign up here to grab my free Winter Reading Bingo board and get email updates with more ideas to help your readers at home!


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Sticking with a Book

Maybe your children read beautifully but they still don’t like it. Reading time is “boring” or “too long.” In our modern world, it can be so hard to block out distractions and sit down with a book. I read a lot of eBooks and often have to dodge email notifications, game requests, ads and weather reports to even get my book open! Those things are designed to get us to look at them. Think about how you can design reading time to make it appealing.

You can help a child read better and help them build reading stamina by:

  • Creating cozy reading spaces – cushions, blankets, good lighting
  • Keeping book collections fresh – hit the library regularly or trade with other families for new-to-you titles
  • Keep old favorites handy – there’s nothing wrong with rereading well-loved books!
  • Set an example – I know you don’t have time, no one does! But if you want your child to read, let them see you read. Keep a book in the kitchen and steal a few minutes while you wait for the water to boil, or create a bedtime reading ritual for everyone.

Finding books they can stick with is another challenge for growing readers. If your child has a limited reading diet, you may be wondering how to get your child to read on grade level. I often search websites like whatshouldireadnext and Good Reads for books like a current favorite. School and public librarians, as well as reading lists published by schools, can be great resources for book ideas. The Holy Grail of reading is finding a series your child loves, written by a prolific author. 

You can help your child expand their repertoire by:

  • Introducing new series – bring home one or two books from a new series and be willing to go back for more.
  • Learning about popular authors on YouTube or on their websites
  • Trying graphic novel versions of popular books – These can be quick reads that give them a taste of a more complex story.
  • Finding a common thread – If they like non-fiction about animals, try a novel that features animals.
  • Adding audiobooks – While we don’t want to give up on “eye-reading,” adding audiobooks can expose children to new kinds of stories in a more fun, lower effort way that might motivate them to read similar books themselves

Kids Who Read More, Read Better

Skipping reading when everyone is tired at bedtime or on a busy night of soccer and scouts doesn’t feel like a big deal. But daily reading has huge cumulative impacts on learning and development. Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. That can make an enormous difference in vocabulary, knowledge, and ability to understand stories.

Kids who read for 20 minutes a day can read six times as many words each year, compared to kids who read just five minutes a day. Click To Tweet

So let’s get started! Make it your New Year’s Resolution to increase your children’s reading time by 5 minutes a day, to start. Once you take the first step of making sure they sit down with a book daily, it’s much easier to grow the habit from there!

How to help a child read better at home
Most of us don’t remember learning to read. Here’s how to help your children get the help they need as they learn to read.

Don’t forget to download the Winter Reading Bingo board!


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