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How Do I Know My Students’ Reading Levels?

Okay . . . so students need to be reading at their Instructional Level in order to learn new skills. How do I know what their Instructional Level is?
Trust me . . . this is not a dumb question! Most primary teachers assess their own students reading levels. Intermediate teachers (say 3rd -5th grade) most likely assess their own students or have a Reading Specialist or a Literacy Coach who helps assess students. Beyond that – in Middle School and High School – the vast majority of teachers probably have no idea about their students’ reading levels. This makes no sense, as those grades are significantly important for increasing reading strategies. If students leave high school with little or no help, they are not likely to get help. Ever. So, once a child hits middle school, we only have a few years to help them put more strategies in their toolbox . . . yet, those are the very years that most teachers don’t know their students’ reading levels and don’t know how to help students who are reading below grade level. Help!?!
I’m going to fill my blog with strategies to increase students reading skills and help . . . but first things first: You have a struggling reader or a resistant reader. How do you assess the student’s Independent, Instructional, and Frustration reading levels so you can help him move forward? Here are a few ideas . . .
1 – Get ahold of the student’s elementary teachers and ask for the most recent reading assessments, including grade levels. Every student should have records somewhere. Depending on the school district, some students may have been assessed as recently as 5th or 6th grade . . . other students may not have had a reading assessment (to determine grade level) since 3rd grade. But track down the most recent records possible. Scour the records for grade-level, reading-level, and the reading strategies the student was most recently working on.
2 – If your district has a Reading Specialist or a Literacy Coach, ask this person to assess your struggling student(s) and give you a copy of the results in writing. Even if the person in this position does not work in your building or with your grade level, (s)he may be willing to help. Approach this from a student-centered perspective: “I have some students who seem to be reading below grade level. I want to help them, but I need to know what level they’re reading at so I know the best way to help. I know you are beyond busy, but this is out of my area of expertise. Can I recruit you to help me assess their reading levels so I can help these students make greater progress this year? I’ll do all the work afterwards . . . I just need to know their current reading levels so I have a place to start.”
Be the squeaky wheel until you get a reply. Of course, it may help to accompany your request with a couple of nice tea bags, a pack of colorful sticky notes, a mini candy bar, or a can of soda. Something that communicates to this teacher, “I know you’re busy and I’m asking you to go out of your way to help me help my students. I really appreciate your willingness to help. Here’s a small token of my appreciation.”
3 – Find a reading tutor who may be willing to volunteer to assess your students and give you the results in writing in exchange for a recommendation letter for his or her tutoring business.
4 – Contact a local college or university and ask if their education students – those who are in a course on literacy or teaching reading -- can come to your class for half a day to help assess your students’ reading levels. Many college professors would jump at the opportunity to give their students such real-world practice.
5 – If all else fails, you can try to on-line assessment available through Reading A-Z, found here:

One thing to keep in mind with on-line assessments or do-it-yourself assessments is that you really need to understand how to complete a Running Reading Record. There is a skill to completing these accurately. The above website has a link to help you review or teach yourself . . . however, if you have not been formally trained in Running Reading Records, your results will not be completely accurate. If you’re in a position in which you really have no other resources, then a close approximation of a student’s reading level is better than no knowledge whatsoever.
Don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated! It takes a bit of time and effort to learn your struggling readers’ instructional reading levels . . . but the payoff is HUGE! Once you have answers, you can meet your student where she is at . . . which means you can help her move forward and actually learn new skills and strategies to increase her reading ability! Nothing is more rewarding for a teacher or more life-changing for a student than that!
Photo used with parental permission

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