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A Note on Reading Levels

Seeing as it is Literacy Week and Family Literacy Day is January 27, I wanted to take a moment to discuss a topic that always has parents (and therefore, their kids) stressed out! Reading levels have always been such a source of stress and anxiety for parents because they are always wondering these questions - Is my child at the right level? How do they compare to their peers? How can I help them move up levels? Are they moving up fast enough? Are you sure they are this level - they can't read it at home? OR Are you sure they are this level - it seems way too easy? And my personal favourite: The tutor (or sub in another professional that works outside of the school) says my child is a level X, but you say its Y... how is that possible?!

Before jumping into how reading levels are determined - let me just say that while in the moment, it is easy to get caught up in numbers and fixated on comparing against peers, the only progress you should look at is your child's. If they are better today than they were in September - that is the piece to focus on. Get the ball rolling, run with the momentum once you have it and provide space and time for frequent practice of skills. Worry less about levels and more about building a love of reading and self-confidence through literacy skills!

How are Reading Levels determined?

Reading levels are the independent level of reading that a child has attained. Meaning, the level they can read with 95-100% decoding accuracy and solid comprehension. Levels are traditionally determined by an appropriately trained assessor such as the classroom teacher or a reading specialist. These assessments are completed 2-3 times a year, or more, in order to track the progress of a child. The assessment tool most frequently used to determine the level is a running record. There are lots of different brands of assessment kits, all varying slightly in their levelling systems. Some of the most popular ones are PM Benchmark, Fountas and Pinnell, and DRA.

Here is a link to a comparison chart that helps understand how they all line up against one another.

What is a running record?

A running record is a sheet that corresponds with a levelled text. It has the text from each page on separate lines, with spaces for markings (check marks, errors, add-ins, etc.). There are special markings that the assessor uses to indicate things such as self-corrections or appeals for help. At the end of the running record, there are a number of follow-up tasks that assess understanding and comprehension. There is also a space to tally up the total errors and self-corrections. The data you look for is the accuracy rate (%), the error rate (ratio) and the self-correction rate (ratio). See the example below!

One of the more detailed aspects of a running record are the MSV columns. I only really use these if I am trying to analyze a child's reading for the purpose of providing deeper suggestions, particularly in a case where I am concerned or wanting to more accurately target the instruction. If I am doing large-scale reading assessments to get a baseline, I typically don't zone in on this component.

MSV stands for Meaning, Syntax and Visual. Here is where you can mark down the strategies the child uses when they attempt a word but get it wrong, or attempt a word, make an error and self-correct. Sometimes they use one strategy, other times they use two or all three. Sometimes they use none! Analyzing these trends can help us understand the skills a child relies on most frequently and the ones to help them learn more of!

Here is a breakdown of the MSV analysis:

Meaning - the word the child used made sense in the context of the story but was the wrong word


Correct Text: She went to the store to buy carrots, rice and beans.

Error Made: She went to the store to buy carrots, rice and bananas.

Syntax/Structure - the word the child used grammatically made sense but was the wrong word


Correct Text: She drove to the store.

Error Made: She drove to a store.

Visual - the word the child used had phonetic similarities but was the wrong word


Correct Text: She watched the kids play at the park.

Error Made: She watched the kids pay at the park.

That is the abbreviated guide of how running records work. Levels are used to track progress in reading, but can also be helpful in determining groups for Guided Reading or Literacy Centers. Typically, you place children of similar abilities together so that you can work on a levelled task that is the right balance of accessible but challenging. The level of text used in these circumstances is usually what is referred to as an "instructional" level of text. This means that the text is read with 90-94% accuracy, as opposed to independent which is 95-100% accuracy, with strong comprehension.

Comprehension and Decoding

I say this a lot, so don't be shocked that I will say it again. Decoding skills are important, in fact, necessary to becoming a skilled reader. However, there comes a point where if the balance of practice is leaned too far to the decoding side, the comprehension will fall apart. Far too many times have I seen a child in Grade 2 read a text far beyond their age expectation, but have no idea what they are reading about! If a child can read a Level 22, but can't comprehend it, they are not a true 22. The number is meaningless in this scenario! For every time they build a skill in decoding, they should also be working on deepening their understanding. You can do this by focusing on noting story elements such as the characters, setting, problem and solution, or building upon new vocabulary learned in the story. You can ask questions before, during and after reading. Additionally, you can encourage your child to make connections to the text by connecting it to personal experiences or other texts or media forms.

The Problem With Reading Levels

Kids fixate on them because adults fixate on them! So many times, kids ask me what their level is and naturally, they compare themselves to others. It risks damaging self-esteem and creating a negative association with reading, which we want to avoid at all costs. This is why it is so important to focus on progress over numbers.

In addition to this, levels, as objective as they may seem, can actually still have quite a bit of variability. Here's why:

- Every assessor has their own style and assesses in variable conditions. Even if they follow the guidelines to a T, no two assessors will do it the same. Some have done a handful throughout their career and others have done hundreds. Some may do it in a classroom full of loud children, others in a quiet, distraction free space. Some may allow for one or two slip ups, others may be very rigid about the testing rules. Some assessors use their finger to guide along the text, others do not. Some show familiar texts, others don't. Whether or not these little differences are within the formal guidelines of a proper running record is irrelevant because these small variances can contribute to altered performance from a student! It's not that I don't trust another educator to do them properly, it's that I always take another assessors evaluation with a grain of salt because I am aware of the possible variances in how they assessed the child.

- Every brand of book is slightly different. As I mentioned, there are lots of different companies that make leveled books and they differ slightly in difficulty. Just because the tutor has your child reading Level 18 doesn't mean that they will test 18 at school with my differently branded set!

This isn't to say that running records or levels aren't accurate or valuable. They can be very informative and helpful! It's just to be mindful about getting hung up on the numbers themselves.

Big Takeaway

I hope that this gives you a bit of insight into the world of reading levels and their place in schools. The big takeaway here should be to focus on the trajectory of your child, whatever that may be. As long as it's moving forward - that is the key.

If you are looking to have your child's reading level assessed in detail, or want to discuss strategies or tips for boosting these skills at home - please reach out!

Happy Reading!



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