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Ask an Expert: Boosting student’s reading level

Mom and literacy coach Ilana Spiegel offers some tips to a parent concerned that her child isn’t progressing the way she should in reading. 

Q. How do you get your child to the next reading level? Do you read to them a book that might be too hard on their own or do you just suggest it?

A. To understand how to get your child to the next reading level, it is helpful to understand how reading levels are determined. Most assessments of children’s reading levels consider both surface structure and deep structure. Surface structure refers to what a reader can see and hear – the visible and audible,  such as letters and the sounds they make, sight word recognition and making reading sound like language. Deep structure is the invisible part of reading, the thinking and understanding that goes on inside a reader’s head as she tries to make sense of printed language. It is the simultaneous interaction of surface structure and deep structure that allow a reader to enter “the zone” where they can both say the words and understand what they mean.

Photo courtesy BigStock.com

Photo courtesy BigStock.com

The levels that you might find on the back of a book, such as “lexile,” “DRA”  (Developmental Reading Assessment) or “RL” (grade reading level), or even 1, 2, 3 look at the complexity of the words individually, both how to pronounce them and what they mean, and the interaction of the words to form a meaning on sentence, paragraph and whole text levels.

So, for example, if your child is, say, a DRA 18 and you are wondering what she would need to move to a 24, her teacher might tell you that she needs to work on her fluency and accuracy (surface structure), so she can quickly and correctly pronounce the words.  She might also suggest more work on her understanding either on a literal (she can point to the answer in the text) or inferential (using what the text says and other information) level.

Keep in mind, however, that some tests teachers use to assess a student’s reading level have a written component. Your child, therefore, might be capable of saying the words and understanding what they mean but she might not have the writing skills to express that understanding.

Picking out the right books

When considering putting more challenging texts in your child’s hands to read independently you also should consider her interest, background knowledge and motivation. Each of those three areas can provide scaffolding that will allow your child to both decode and understand a higher level text than she might be able to tackle without the curiosity, schema or desire.

Well-written picture books can also provide scaffolding and can have more challenging vocabulary and concepts than many leveled readers. Authors such as Patricia Pollacco, Eve Bunting, Jane Yolen, Seymour Simon and Jonathon London are known for writing and illustrating fiction and nonfiction books that address issues such as bullying, animals and insects and the environment.

E-readers and apps can add some needed motivation and engagement to a text you have suggested by allowing your child to change font size, background and contrast color. She can also access features such as audio for the whole text, text to speech for individual words and instant dictionaries for word meanings to aid in saying and understanding words and larger passages.

Keeping track of thinking with notes and highlighted text on an e-reader or tablet allows you easier access to help monitor her understanding.

And, yes, reading aloud to your child, regardless of her age allows her to hear and see books read with fluency and expression (surface structure). It also provides a great opportunity to model and discuss ideas around understanding (deep structure) in more complex texts. When you read a challenging text to and with your child you can help make visible and audible the conversation you have in your mind when you read, modeling not just how the words are said, but how you figure out what they mean.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.