Is my child reading on grade level?

readingWe often discuss reading achievement in terms of grade level, but we rarely acknowledge how imprecise the term “grade level” is.  What exactly does it mean?  How are “grade level” skills determined?  In fact, there are no universally accepted criteria for establishing grade level reading skills and there are at least two good reasons to avoid using grade level to measure reading achievement.

First, schools differ in their approach to reading instruction as well as the timetable by which children are expected to master certain skills.  A kindergarten-level skill in one state might be considered a first grade skill in another state. The adoption of the national Common Core Standards will provide some uniformity in grade level expectations, but I don’t think it will ever be possible to provide a definitive answer to the question, “what grade level is my child’s reading?”

Second, there are many facets of literacy and these skills often develop unevenly for students with disabilities. For example, a child may have mastered the expected phonics skills for his grade level, but be far behind in fluency. To complicate matters further, reading assessments and curricula are not uniform in determining reading grade level, which is evident when you see how many Reading Correlational Charts are out there.

Instead of focusing on grade level, it may be more helpful to look at the specific skills a child has mastered and compare that information to the curriculum expectations or standards in the child’s district.  Then, the team can design interventions that meet the child’s individual literacy needs.  Here are some tips to start this process:

  1. Find out what curriculum standards your school district uses to guide reading instruction. Information on standards is usually available on the website of your State Department of Education.  For example, here are the grade level standards from the Connecticut State Department of Education website. Connecticut is one of the states adopting the Common Core Standards. You can find out if your state has adopted the Common Core Standards by clicking here. Many states have developed “crosswalk” documents that show how the Common Core Standards intersect with existing state standards.  Here is a link to Connecticut’s “crosswalk” document for kindergarten English Language Arts (ELA).
  2. Check your school or district website for information on the reading curriculum used. If your child’s teacher has a web page, there may be information on the scope and sequence of reading instruction (for example, “this week, we will learn about magic-e”). Many district websites also include links to standards as well as information about resources for parents to reinforce literacy skills at home.
  3. If you are unsure of what reading skills your child has mastered, you may want to request a literacy assessment.  Here is a great article on early reading assessment from the Reading Rockets website.
  4. Review your child’s IEP. Are the reading goals consistent with the district’s literacy standards? Do you understand the goals and objectives? The language of literacy is full of jargon that is not in most parents’ everyday vocabulary. Don’t be hesitant to ask for clarification to be sure you have a full understanding of your child’s reading instruction and development.

After you collect this information, it may be helpful to create a chart like the one below to see where your child’s skills are in relation to grade level standards. This will help to pinpoint areas in need of intervention or support.

READING STANDARD                 CHILD’S SKILL LEVEL      INSTRUCTIONAL NEED
Follow words from left to right, top to bottom, and page by page. mastered N/A
Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet. mastered N/A
Isolate and pronounce the initial, medial vowel, and final sounds in consonant-vowel-consonant (C-V-C) words Can match words with the same initial consonant Isolating middle vowel and final consonant in C-V-C words
Demonstrate basic knowledge of letter-sound correspondences by producing the primary or most frequent sound for each consonant. Knows the sounds for most consonants except g, s, v, w, and z. Often confuses /b/ and /d/ Letter sound correspondence for sounds not mastered. Reinforce /b/ and /d/
Associate the long and short sounds with letters for the five major vowels. Knows short vowels only Long vowel sounds
Read common high-frequency words by sight Knows 8/10 words on list Mastering all words on list

What about sight words?

Child with Down syndrome readingI am often asked about sight word instruction for children with Down syndrome. This can be a touchy topic in the field because, years ago, most children with Down syndrome who were taught to read at all were taught using functional sight word programs. The thinking was that children with Down syndrome were not intellectually capable of learning the rules of the English language necessary to decode unknown words. “Besides,” people would often say, “kids with Down syndrome are whole-word readers.” I used to bristle at this comment; first, because I hate when people make sweeping generalizations about children (“kids with Down syndrome are happy,” “kids with Down syndrome are affectionate,” etc.) but also because I suspected that it was just another way of saying, “kids with Down syndrome can’t decode.” I spent a lot of time discouraging people from sight word instruction because I was so busy trying to spread the word that children with Down syndrome can learn the rules of language and decode unknown words.

As with many things in life, I have learned that there is a middle ground.  Research has shown that beginning readers need to learn sight words and phonics skills. And as it turns out, children with Down syndrome are often more skilled at learning sight words than typically developing children are. Many appear to have an affinity for sight word reading–even a love of it–from a very early age. This is a good thing, since approximately 50 percent of the text used in schools is made up of only 100 “high frequency” words. Some of these are words that cannot be sounded out–often called “permanently irregular” words, such as the, would, said, and of. The rest are words that can be decoded, but may contain rules that a young child has not yet learned, so they are “temporarily irregular” (such as eat, you, good and saw).

There is no universal sight word list (although  Dolch and Fry are common) so parents may want to check with their district to find out what list they use and/or what reading program they implement. Many commercial early reading programs introduce sight words systematically as part of the scope and sequence of the program. Knowing this information can help parents work together with their child’s teacher to avoid confusion.

And if you are wondering how many sight words a kindergartener needs to know,  Dr. Timothy Shanahan recently addressed that frequently asked question on his blog, Shanahan on Literacy (which is packed with information on every aspect of literacy and well worth a visit).