As A Division Testing Specialist, who oversees the Virginia Grade-Level Alternative Assessment (VGLA) I am often asked about determining accurate reading levels for English Language Learners (ELLs) who are participating in the VGLA for reading. This is not always an easy question to answer and I usually find myself (struggling) describing characteristics of ELLs and how they access reading materials.
Recently, I came across a great article titled, ““Revising Key Assumptions of the Reading Level Framework” by Juliet Halladay in The Reading Teacher, September 2012 (Vol. 66, #1, p. 53-62) which offers some great considerations when determining students’ reading levels.
Most educators are familiar with the reading level framework first developed by Emmett Betts in 1946 and use independent, instructional, and frustration reading levels, when assessing students’ reading levels. But Halladay cautions educators and discusses four underlying assumptions about reading levels and provides a glimpse into how they transcend classroom instructional practices.
Assumption #1: Decoding accuracy and reading comprehension go hand in hand. “In fact, says Halladay, some students decode accurately and have poor comprehension, while others make numerous decoding errors and have good comprehension.” The link between decoding and comprehension varies with age (it’s stronger with younger than with older readers) and skill (it’s stronger with unskilled than with skilled readers). “With older and more skilled readers, comprehension is more often linked to vocabulary and prior knowledge than decoding.” The implication: teachers should be cognizant of students with gaps in decoding and comprehension skills and dig little deeper before making a determination on their reading levels.
Assumption #2: Independent reading requires near-perfect decoding accuracy. The threshold for independent reading is usually 98 or 99 percent, counting every miscue as an error. Halladay raises two questions: How reasonable is it to expect students to read aloud with near-perfect accuracy? and How important is this when selecting books for independent reading? On the first question, she agrees with Fountas and Pinnell that a more forgiving criterion (say 95 percent) makes sense. On the second, she says teachers should take into account whether errors change the meaning of the text as well as students’ prior knowledge and level of interest in what they are reading. The Implication: Teachers know that building fluency is one reason for independent reading, but so is developing a love of reading, building vocabulary, and developing content knowledge. Error-free reading is not essential when developing love of reading, vocabulary and content building.
Assumption #3: Oral reading skill is a reasonable proxy for silent reading skill. “Not necessarily, says Halladay. The research on this link is decidedly mixed: for some students, oral reading underestimates their silent reading comprehension (especially if there is time pressure – a teacher conducting running records).” For other students, oral reading overestimates silent comprehension (especially for younger readers). What does this mean? Teachers should assess both silent and oral reading before deciding on a student’s reading level.
Assumption #4: Decoding and comprehension difficulty cause frustration. Common belief holds that texts that are thought to be too-difficult will be emotionally stressful for students, could reinforce bad reading habits, and waste time. “Surprisingly,” says Halladay, “there is actually very little research evidence to support the connection between frustration level and actual emotional frustration.” One study found that students became frustrated only when they reached 41.5% comprehension and 90% accuracy. Other studies indicate that frustration depended on personality characteristics, not gender, age, or intellectual ability. “Many students enjoyed reading texts that were challenging to read. One explanation for this seeming anomaly is that students chose their independent-reading books; another is that they might be learning something from the graphics or inventing stories about the illustrations; another is that social factors are involved – e.g., I want to read what my friends are reading.” Classroom Implications: “Teachers should be careful not to assume that a challenging text will be emotionally frustrating for a student.”
These four assumptions highlighted some important considerations to take into account when determining students’ reading levels. When the perennial grade-level conversation arises, I am armed with some more strategies to offer thanks to Juliet Halladay.