Literacy from Birth to Adulthood: Assessing, Tracking, and Encouraging

I cannot recall a time at which I could not read nor a time at which I felt limited in my ability to read and comprehend.  I remember reading the BOB books and, of course, the Spot books — my favorite, but my mom always ensured that the books on my shelves and in my prize box were ones that I could read, comprehend, and enjoy with no more than a few new words per book at first and, eventually, longer texts with more complex ideas that she was sure I could handle. 

 

 When we visited the bookstore, a popular field trip for us, I still felt as if my options were limitless. I, of course, subconsciously knew that the store reached beyond the cozy comfort of the children’s section and, eventually, the young adult section, but I was always gently directed towards a section containing a treasure trove of new literary delights.  As I progressed from picture books to chapter books to middle grade books, young adult books, and eventually ventured towards whichever section I felt compelled, each new section brought about new entertainment, knowledge, and memories. I never once felt frustrated or illiterate. 
 

Because of this, I sometimes take my ability to read and comprehend for granted.  I use my literacy skills every day — to navigate the world around me, to continue my education in both traditional and non traditional ways, and to build a school in which I inspire a similar passion for reading in my students — in which I hope that no child ever considers the “level” of a book, but rather considers the potential enjoyment that (s)he may get out of the book.  

As adults, we know that there was once a time at which we could not read for none of us were born with the ability to read.  We know that we cannot simply hand a newborn baby a book and expect that child either read or comprehend the material at hand.  In fact, at these early stages, we cannot even expect that child to comprehend any and all texts which are read aloud. Over time, however, our children develop a larger receptive vocabulary (listening vocabulary) and, ultimately, literacy skills — the ability to comprehend written work.  The rate at which a child develops comprehension skills varies from one child to another and is dependent upon a number of factors including one’s innate ability, the frequency at which a child is read to, the frequency at which a child reads independently or with someone, the quality of the texts provided and, of course, the complexity of the texts provided.  No doubt, a child who is only ever exposed to picture books will feign to develop comprehension skills beyond the difficulty of the text which they were provided.

We must gently direct our children towards books that they may both enjoy and comprehend. Gradually increase the complexity of the texts that you provide, but do not limit the books that your child chooses independently.  We may direct our children towards an appropriate area of the book store or library, but we must never tell a child “no, you cannot read that.”  If the book contains truly inappropriate content, redirecting the child with statements such as, “I don’t think you’re going to like that book, but I think you’ll love this (provide an alternative) instead!”  If the book appears far too challenging, you might suggest reading the book together.  Resources such as Lexile.com, AR Book Finder, Scholastic Guided Reading, Amazon, and various publishers provide reading levels that can help guide reading selections, but we should not use them to limit the books available to our children.  

It can be difficult, however, to navigate the seemingly nonsensical leveled reading systems that schools use today.  Random letters and numbers are assigned to books and your child, but little direction is provided to parents regarding what to do with this information or why.  These numbers and letters are part of leveled reading systems such as Lexile, DRA, Accelerated Reader(AR), Fountas and Pinnell, A to Z, mClass, etc. These systems do not necessarily correlate to one another as nicely as one might think or hope.  I did, however, create a chart that correlates all of these systems based on the 50th percentile expectations for fall, winter, and spring of each grade level for each metric. Many of these systems drop off by middle school, but some, such as Lexile, AR, and MAP, attempt to quantify comprehension skills up until college despite an obvious “flat line” in growth throughout the high school years.  

Unfortunately, many of our nation’s adults never reach the limits of any of these metrics with only 12% of US adults scoring at the highest levels (4 or 5) on the Adult Literacy Scale.  The five levels of literacy as defined by The International Adult Literacy Survey are:  

  • Level 1 indicates persons with very poor skills, where the individual may, for example, be unable to determine the correct amount of medicine to give a child from information printed on the package.
  • Level 2 respondents can deal only with material that is simple, clearly laid out, and in which the tasks involved are not too complex. It denotes a weak level of skills, but more hidden than Level 1. It identifies people who can read, but test poorly. They may have developed coping skills to manage everyday literacy demands, but their low level of proficiency makes it difficult for them to face novel demands, such as learning new job skills.
  • Level 3 is considered a suitable minimum for coping with the demands of everyday life and work in a complex, advanced society. It denotes roughly the skill level required for successful secondary school completion and college entry. Like higher levels, it requires the ability to integrate several sources of information and solve more complex problems.
  • Level 4 and level 5 describe respondents who demonstrate command of higher-order information processing skills.

(OECD/Statistics Canada, 2000:12).

 

About ⅓ of the adult population in the US scores at a level 3 in literacy while another ⅓ falls at a level 2 literacy with adults averaging at about a 7th or 8th grade reading level (850L to 943L).  

 

It is vital that we provide our children with the proper resources and nurturing to ensure that they do not become part of the ⅓ of the population that are hardly employable.  To do this, we must encourage active reading both in and out of the classroom.  We must provide our children with the resources and opportunities to stretch their literacy skills by providing books to our children that they will both enjoy for its content and for its readability.

 

Many educators advocate for “just right” books — or reading books at, or slightly above, one’s tested reading ability. I too once advocated for this — I still do, but I found the finite levels of many reading level systems to be far too limiting.   The number of books that “fit” within a given level was limited, and at the rate that my avid readers gained comprehension skills, I would need to re-assess their reading ability at least once a month.  I found that students that were simply avid readers gained comprehension skills just as fast as those who focused on how difficult or complex a text was.  As such, I’ve devised a different system — one that “levels” books by approximately two to three grade levels at a time but also focuses on encouraging students to focus on whether or not they’ll enjoy a book rather than whether or not the text may be “too hard” or “too easy” or “just right.”  

 

Reading, like life, requires balance. Restrictive reading programs — that is those which do not permit students to read books outside of their assigned reading level only hinder students — preventing them from stretching their minds when they see fit or relaxing with a favorite past-time. A truly voracious reader may take it upon oneself to look up new words an re-read passages time and time again to decipher the deeper meaning. For the advanced reader, these systems can be more distressing than challenging as many leveled systems do not leave room for students to demonstrate above grade level reading skills and may make students feel limited to books they deem boring.  On the other hand, students who demonstrate reading skills far above grade level may be equally as frustrated when they cannot read a book that an educator labels “too easy” — for every child, no matter how advanced, should have the opportunity to enjoy classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Narnia, or A Wrinkle in Time. Every child should have the opportunity — should feel free — to relax with a picture book for their own enjoyment. Moreover, no student should feel pressured to read texts that may conquer topics and content intended for an older audience that may be inappropriate or simply inaccessible to such a young mind who has yet to experience relationships, tragedy, or questions of morality.  

 

The algorithms used to assign reading levels to texts and to students do not take these subjective measures into account — they cannot, for a computer simply collects and analyzes data — purely objective.  Lexile measures, for example, analyze semantic difficulty (word frequency or repetition) and syntactic complexity whereas Accelerated Reader assesses books based on page count, number of syllables per word, and average words per sentence.  Guided Reading Levels analyzes word count, semantic difficulty, sentence length, and sentence complexity. While these systems may seem somewhat similar, the weight each places on different data points varies and, as such, books are ‘leveled’ quite differently.  One might assume that book might at least appear in the same order from one metric to another, but this is not the case. Out of the six books displayed in the table below, no two systems stack up exactly the same.

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While I refuse to shelve Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and actively advocate against the series, it remains an international bestseller year after year with over 150 million copies sold.  The series is notorious for crude humor, tragic behavior from its characters, poor grammar, rudimentary sentence structure, and a practically missing storyline. The text, pictured below (left) is assessed at a 1000L or, according to Lexile, about a 12th grade level.  This is higher than The Hobbit or Harry Potter, but it is popular with a much younger crowd of boys ages 7 to 8 and even more prominent as a recommendation for reluctant readers who often read below grade level. In my experience, those students that are hooked on Diary of A Wimpy Kid tend to have serious reading deficits and do not test anywhere close to 1000L according to MAP testing.  You do not have to be a reading specialist to see the clear difference in quality and complexity between Diary of A Wimpy Kid and the Hobbit. The Hobbit, which often appears as required reading in high school, and is often enjoyed by boys ages 12 to 13, is assessed at a lower Lexile than Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It is, however, assessed at higher levels according to Guided Reading, the DRA, and Accelerated Reader. 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Excerpt
Diary of a Wimpy Kid Excerpt
Excerpt from The Hobbit
Excerpt from The Hobbit

Big Nate, a series somewhat similar to Diary of A Wimpy Kid, is assessed at around 500L — significantly lower than either Diary of A Wimpy Kid or The Hobbit.  However, Scholastic Guided Reading Levels assesses it at level S to T — similar to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  DRA assess it at a 40 – 50 and AR Levels places it at about a 2.6 – 3.0 on their scale (depending on the book).   If we toss out the reading levels, algorithms, and comprehension checks, it looks very similar to Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  In fact, its pretty difficult to discern one from another.  

Magic Tree House Books, a very popular chapter book series, has a similar Lexile of 510L and an AR of 2.6.  Scholastic Guided Reading places it at a level M and DRA places it at a level 24.

Big Nate Excerpt
Magic Tree House Excerpt
Despite the clear inconsistencies across reading level systems, schools and educators continue to rely on them to guide — and restrict the books that students supposedly can and cannot read.  Some programs, such as Accelerated Reader, require students to complete rudimentary comprehension checks in the form of multiple choice quizzes which allow them to “earn” points — granting them permission to read more advanced material but also penalizing them for reading “lower point” works.  These programs can turn even the most avid reader into a fiercely reluctant reader — stripping students of their choice — reducing reading to nothing more than a chore or unwanted homework assignment that students begrudgingly complete.

As educators, we must remember:  

  • Reading assessments are indeed a valuable tool within education, but they must not be used to limit students.
    • Students must feel free to read books of all degrees of difficulty and complexity.
    • We may encourage, but not require, students to push their limits with more challenging work.
  • Reading assessments should be used as a tool to help us better understand students.
    • From a comprehensive reading assessment, we can determine why a student may be struggling.  We can then help the student flourish by enriching necessary areas of study.
  • Reading assessments provide a general overview of a student’s knowledge and skills, but it cannot replace active teacher-student conversation.
  • Students who find joy in reading — who love to read — will become voracious readers and, as such, fully literate adults.  Students who do not like to read will become resistant.  Find books your students will love.  Literacy will come naturally. 

As parents, we must remember:

  • Our children are more than a number or a score from a standardized test.  We may use test scores to track student progress within the confines of a specific test, but we should not judge a child’s entire academic career on a single test.
  • Reading assessments can provide an approximation of a student’s knowledge and skills, but it is not an exact science.  If your child’s reading assessment seems grossly out of line with your expectations, talk with your child to find out how they felt about the test.  Exhaustion and distracted thoughts can make a dramatic difference in student performance.  
  • The learning to read stages require consistent parent involvement.  You do not need a test to tell you whether or not your child is ready for the next book in the BOB series, the next Magic Tree House book, or maybe something a bit more complex.  
    • When your child is learning to read, sit with your child and ask them to read aloud.  Sound out words together. When a certain text becomes easy, move on to the next book in the series.  Remember that is also OK to enjoy a book that your child mastered weeks ago simply because your child loved the story line.
    • If your child has reached the chapter book stage, ask them to tell you about the story.  What was their favorite part? What happened? Who was in the book? If your child is breezing through a chapter book each evening (and they are able to tell you about the book), they may be ready for something a bit more advanced.  Gently provide some recommendations. Take a trip to the bookstore and pick up some similar books from the middle grade section.
  • Children will not develop literacy skills without spending time on task.  Children should read every day. ​
  • Children will not continue to gain literacy skills if they are not exposed to higher level texts.  Provide the opportunity for your child to read more complex texts.  Start reading a story together to see if your child wants to (and is able to) read it independently.  Open doors, but do not push them through it.
  • If your child is behind grade level expectations in reading comprehension, discuss the value of literacy and reading with your child.  Find books on topics that your child WANTS to read about.  Ask a librarian for some recommendations, but let your child choose which books to read.  
Looking for a book?
HEROES Academy provides recommended reading lists for students based on age, interest, and general reading ability.  Our recommended reading lists are grouped by primary(orange), elementary (yellow), middle school (green, and high school (blue) lists.  Take a look at the books on a given list. If your child has recently read one or more books on a list, they will likely enjoy the other books on the list.  I personally handpick and review each book to determine which demographics a book may be most enjoyed by.  Read, reviewed, and sorted by a teacher and librarian not an algorithm!  

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