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Why shouldn't levelled readers be used for kids still learning to read?

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Parents, are you told by your child's teacher that they are reading at a level J or level M or whatever letter it is they are at? Then your child's progress is being measured using levelled readers.

Levelled readers are books that are controlled for vocabulary, sentence length, complexity and the number of words on a page. However, each "level" does not indicate your child has learned the skills needed to progress to the next if they are still sounding out words. Levelled readers encourage guessing and looking at the pictures rather than sounding out words. These instill habits of poor readers and can be very hard to break later on. Instead, a child learning to read would benefit the most from decodable passage or decodable books. Want to know more on the science of levelled readers? I encourage you to view the background provided by Timothy Shanahan:

What are decodable books? They are reading passages or books that are controlled for the specific pattern your child is working on. If your child is reading words with short vowels and consonants then that passage will have 80% of the words follow that pattern. This means that your child is immediately able to practice the phonic skill they have learned and it is being reinforced as they read through the passage. They are applying that skill over and over! If the child does not know the word, they need to sound it out and this is how students become successful readers!

Accuracy at reading these texts is one thing but we also want the child to read it fluently. If the child lacks fluency, you may observe that they can read the text by sounding out but it is slow and effortful. This means that all their cognitive load is going into decoding or sounding out the words on the page which leaves very little room for comprehension at the end. It is important that the child is able to read these texts efficiently before moving on to the next pattern.

So how can we measure progress if not using levelled readers?

The best way to do this is measure their words correct per minute (WCPM).

WCPM = ((number of words in the text - number of errors)/ seconds it took the child to read the book) X 60. If a child is able to read the same passage several times in one session with little-to-no errors and maintain a consist speed, then they are ready to move on. If their WCPM is lower on their first reading attempt and improve with each repetition then they continue to work at the level they are at.

Rather than level J or level M we need to know:

Can the child read words with consonants and short vowels?

Can the child read words with vowel digraphs?

Can the child read words with silent e?

etc. etc.

This is how you will know if your child is progressing! This can also be used to write Individual Education Plan (IEP) goals that are going to actually help your child progress in their reading. Parents, you can advocate for your child in these meetings to ensure their progress in being tracked in a manner that follows the science of reading.

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