In our institutes, educators talk about the ongoing literacy assessments happening in their classrooms. We hear about how they are determining reading levels through time-consuming testing, grouping similarly leveled readers for targeted support, and then assessing children’s progress by retesting and re-leveling. Yet, despite all this well-intentioned assessment and hard work, we find that most districts don’t really “know” their readers. What do we mean? This process of leveling only gives the illusion of knowing readers – it’s not the specific information we need for making an impact on reading outcomes.
Imagine this scenario: Three students at the same level are put in the same small group for intervention, and the instruction works for only one of them. Why? Because the level doesn’t tell us the source of the weakness or breakdown—or a child’s strength, for that matter. One reader might be struggling because she is shaky with decoding, another might not have the relevant vocabulary to access the text used in the assessment, and the other might not have followed the story structure — same reading level, but they all need something different.
To improve reading outcomes, educators need to know which reading skills need targeting. A reading level does not give us this kind of fundamental information for effective instruction. Districts will only “know” their readers when they get a firm understanding of each student’s code skills and meaning-making skills.
Code skills support children’s ability to read individual words. That means knowing the code — the 26 letters of the alphabet and the 44 sounds that the letters, or letter combinations make, and then knowing how to blend the sounds together to read words. Meaning-making skills are the skills that help readers make meaning of the individual words they are reading and are based on knowledge of the world and vocabulary knowledge (read this Lead for Literacy memo to learn more). Until we get past relying on reading levels to inform instruction and intervention, we can’t expect outcomes to significantly improve. As our institute fellows will attest, just leveling is not the answer.