An Introduction to Readability Levels
I began homeschooling over thirty years ago when Ray and I taught my younger sister (who was in eighth grade at the time) in our home. During my first several years of homeschooling, I used early readers when my children were first learning to read, but I did not care for “readers” for older children. I always felt that abridged or excerpted stories were inferior—and that children should read whole books.
This worked wonderfully for my first two (the ones who learned to read at age eight and nine). They didn’t like abridgements and excerpts very much anyway—and could easily read a couple of chapter books a week from ages ten and up. (I should note that they are both real literature buffs as adults, and our son teaches literary analysis of many novels to homeschooled students every semester. All of that reading really paid off!)
Then along came our third child, who begged for everything that I did not think was “best” for learning—workbooks (the more, the merrier, in her opinion); readers with excerpts and short stories; tons of what I had thought were useless pages of worksheets and coloring pages; and more. She was a different type of learner than Joshua and Kayla had been—and desired different learning tools.
So I began my hunt for “older” readers—readers for children beyond the phonetically-controlled ones that I had utilized to teach reading. I found many that I liked—and actually used some of them to read aloud to the kids since we found the stories and excerpts interesting and fun. They even caused my kids to go on and read entire books for themselves that they might have otherwise not known about or read (after reading an excerpted portion in their readers).
So…the moral of this story? Every child is different. Each child has his own learning style, likes, dislikes, etc. And we need to cater to those as much as possible in their learning. In order to choose reading materials for your children, a basic knowledge of readability levels will be a great help. I will detail readability levels and determinations in this month’s newsletter (March) and next month’s.
When a child is in school, he is likely in a “reading group,” that is a group of children from his class in which all of the students read at about the same reading level. The child’s teacher chooses readers/stories for each group of children based on that group’s (the children in that group’s) reading level.
To practice with your child at home, you will want to do the same thing—but in a one on one, rather than small group, situation. How do you know what level is appropriate for your child?
I will enumerate some tips for choosing books at your child’s reading level, primarily for word-calling purposes. First, though, a small peek at readability levels will help you in determining your child’s reading level.
Readability is based on many factors. Many readability scales use one of a few simple formulae in which the number of words in a passage or story is divided by the number of words—and a readability level is derived based on the number of words each sentence contains (on an average). Other formulae use the number of syllables, considering that a sentence that contains twenty “one-syllable” words is certainly easier to word call than a sentence that contains twenty “three-syllable” words.
In both of those cases, the readability level is based on word calling, which is an accurate portrayal of early readers since children do not focus much on comprehension at that level of reading. (And if a class does focus on comprehension, it is usually just literal comprehension—what happened, who the characters were, etc.)
As students progress in their reading, we want them to not only be able to sound out words in a passage or story, but we want them to derive meaning from those words. Formulae for readability of a text based on comprehension is much more difficult to assess (though definitely counting number of words with longer syllables demonstrates a higher comprehension level than just merely counting the number of words).
So many things come into play when considering readability of, say, a chapter book of 150 pages. A book might be short but extremely difficult to comprehend due to the vocabulary used (which some formulae do not consider). Likewise, a book can be very long but have extremely immature vocabulary and not be difficult to comprehend at all.
In our language arts and composition books, we give students passages to write from at least half of the time for factual writing in the early grades, lessening as students learn to find appropriate sources themselves, etc. In choosing these passages to write from, comprehension is extremely important. In order to write from source material, a much higher level of comprehension must be realized than merely that of sounding out the words. In choosing passages for students to read, take notes from, and write from, we consider readability in terms of word calling first, then we consider sentence structure. Sentence structure includes the length of the sentence, the type of sentence (i.e. what we learned as compound, compound-complex, etc.), the type of and length of sentence openers a sentence contains (prepositional phrase openers, adverb openers, etc.), and finally, the vocabulary of the passage.
How does this apply to your reading with your student? Consider the list of ascending skills below concerning readability and readers:
Readability and Readers
1. In the early grades, you will be concerned with readability in terms of decoding, phonics, sight words, etc. That is, can your student read the words?
2. If your child already reads well in terms of decoding (sounding out words), and can “pick up anything and ‘read’ it,” you will want to focus on content—comprehending what he reads, discussing it, etc.
3. As students progress in reading, homeschooling moms and teachers in school often forsake the practice of reading aloud with children, noting that the child can word call anything, so there is no need to check for word calling skills/application of phonics. However, we advocate reading aloud with your child for some years, at least a couple of times a week. No, you will not be checking for word calling anymore (though my older boys will still say something like, “How do you pronounce this word—m-y-r-i-a-d?” when they are reading something to themselves), but reading involves word calling AND comprehension. A child who can “read anything” but not comprehend it is like a child reading “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket.” To say that a child in fourth grade can read at a ninth grade level because he can decode all of the words in a passage that is rated at a ninth grade readability level is like saying he can read the “Wocket” tale by Dr. Seuss. He might be able to word call it, but is he “reading” if he cannot comprehend what he reads?
4. Oral reading together with Mom or Dad at upper elementary grades is for comprehension—you will not necessarily be checking on the application of his decoding skills, but you will be checking on his comprehension, vocabulary recognition, etc. You will hopefully be guiding him through his reading, discussing it, answering questions about vocabulary words (i.e. words he can easily sound out but does not know the meaning of), etc.
5. If your child is beyond the beginning phonics instruction, you may not need books that are “graded” in terms of readability. Perhaps he already enjoys reading a certain picture book series or early junior fiction series. These can then become his “readers” to read with you.
6. Consider the differences in “readability” in the materials he reads with you vs the materials he reads to himself:
a. Be sure the material he reads aloud with you is somewhat challenging (i.e. he needs some help with words here and there but the books do not leave him in tears).
b. Be sure that what he is reading to himself is not so difficult that he needs cueing or instruction as he reads it.
c. Keep in mind that there are other things that affect readability besides syllable count, numbers of pages, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Interest is a strong factor in determining readability. (That is why I recommended the Saxon Bold Intervention+ for older students who need remedial reading on our Positive Parenting blog.The materials that they read from are high interest for older students—not childish or primary stories.) This is the reason that children who would not read their science or history book in fifth grade are picking up huge books of Harry Potter and these vampire books (not sure of their titles). Whether we like them or not, many children out there are reading these tomes simply because they are interested in them—despite the fact that those kids are not “at that reading level” and would never have picked up a book over two hundred pages prior to these books being released. (If you have an older student who is working on remedial reading, ask your librarian specifically for high interest/low readability materials for older students. Some of the adult literacy materials are extremely high interest with lower readability levels, as well.)
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