"It’s hard enough to be a kid. They have lots of things to worry about: parents, friends, sports, grades, etc. Reading can be an escape from those worries, just like it is for adults; it’s a way to relax and plunge yourself into someone else’s world for a little while. But what happens when a child finds out that they’re not reading on the “same level” as the other children? What does that even mean to them? It’s not good, they know that. Reading has now become another worry to add to the pile of worries." Fountas & Pinnell Blog
Testing is not teaching.
Why do we teach reading?
To perform on a test?
My goal in teaching reading is always to establish a foundational life skill that will enhance life and learning forever.
Children deserve no less.
Students do not learn to read from teachers' testing their reading so we, as teachers, need to carefully consider how much time we are investing in testing when we could be teaching. What information are we trying to collect from the test that will help the student learn going forward? Is it information that could be collected incidentally as we work with them, or is it information that can only be determined from a test?
If we treat testing like it is more important than learning, children pick up on that message and do not value the joy of reading as much as their performance on the test.
Perhaps the greatest challenge has been in broadening our perspectives about what reading actually means.
Most of us who are already adult, accomplished readers immediately identify knowing letters, sounds and phonics (how we put letters and sounds together to make words) as fundamental to learning to read. We would be partially right - it's pretty hard to read unless you can recognize letters have sounds and that putting letters together makes words that carry meaning. But reading is so much more than identification of words because reading must include meaning.
Keeping this understanding of reading as a balance between recognizing letters/sounds/words and making meaning of text is essential to developing readers who are skilled at saying the words as well as making sense of the text.
When we focus overly on decoding, children understand that is what is the most important skill and they focus their energy on trying to sound out the word, often interrupting their thinking about what came before the word they are struggling with, and then any meaning they might have had is lost. And there are many strategies that support making sense of the letters/sounds/words that do not require actual decoding - partly because the strategy of decoding letters/sounds is only reliable about half the time. However, when students don't know their letters/sounds or how to put them together into words, they rely overly on other clues such as pictures, limited, known sight words, or a 'take a guess' strategies that are unreliable for extracting detail and understanding from the text.
It is when we approach reading from the perspective of making sense of text using a wide variety of strategies and allow children opportunities to interact with each other and share reading that we foster best environments for growing successful, accomplished young readers.
The history of teaching young children to read is long, varied and controversial - even defining what reading actually is can be controversial and certainly how success in learning to read is measured can spark heated debate amongst educators, parents, researchers and anyone who has ever learned to read! Studying the history of teaching reading (something I have been doing seriously for the last twenty years!) reveals the impossibility of the task - there are literally hundreds of thousands of research articles, opinion articles and books that have been written and published over the past fifty years alone - all offering advice on the 'best way' to teach a child to read.
The problem is not the research, nor the opinions, nor the personal stories of those who of us who have all experienced the 'learning-to-read' process ourselves. The problem, as I have come to understand it, is that learning to read is always a highly personalized experience and does not look nor sound like the journey of the person sitting beside you in school or at the hockey game or on the bus. There are similarities for sure, but there are usually more differences in the journey - and therein lies the problem - too much research, opinion, story-telling is focused on trying to generalize what is clearly a non-generalizable, very specific and personalized experience.
Over the years, teachers of young children (and Eric Harvie teaches pretty much only young children as a Kindergarten - Grade 4 institution) have long sought out the 'best' ideas for teaching reading as researchers have tried hard to narrow down and pinpoint the exact best practices. There have been literally academic and societal 'reading wars' over how to think about and teach reading - which speaks to how extraordinarily important learning to read is for both human and vocational success in life.
This isn't a hit-or-miss endeavour - young children need to get this right, for learning to read is simply the most important and basic academic skill required to advance the quality of life for humanity. There is no 'oh well, try something else' - reading is an 'IT' skill - every child needs to be a good reader to succeed in virtually all areas of our modern life.
My experiences with teaching reading formally spans a 30-year career and 3 academic degrees, as well as over 40 years parenting, and my own experiences of learning to read. I am passionate about teaching reading - I can't imagine anything else I would rather do, learn about or spend my life doing. And I don't have any answers - can't find them anywhere - that generalize well enough to meet the needs of every child.
This is where the problem of labelling students as readers at a particular level has emerged - the impact of being labelled with a level has ultimately created a much greater detrimental effect on students than the simple act of trying to determine what level of books are appropriate for them to be reading. In fact, there are numerous studies that repeatedly demonstrate telling students what their level of reading is causes them to lose interest in reading, reduce self-confidence, give up trying to learn.
Perhaps of greater importance is the fact there are no universally determined reading levels that are standardized and applied to the commercially produced reading assessments used so prevalently in schools across North America - reading levels are idiosyncratic to the developers of the particular leveling systems being used and are not generalizable to curriculum or social expectations in geographic areas of the world. They are arbitrary and carry impact for learning only to the extent we allow them to with our students. What has meaning with one type of assessment in one school does not carry the same meaning in another school or with another test. When we put value on the assessment rather than on the learning being accomplished by the child, we are implicitly saying this test is more valuable than this child's learning journey. As teachers and parents we need to be very cautious with this approach - it is not the level that has value, it is the learning that has occurred.
In 2004, when the Fountas & Pinnell Levelled Reading Assessment system was first introduced to me as an Assistant Principal in a K-6 school, it seemed like the most important information for supporting student reading I had encountered in the 15+ years I had been teaching. Finally, there was a way to say 'at/above/below' grade level, a way to identify where the strengths/challenges were and what to teach next that was based on what children were doing rather than a structured basal reading series. It seemed like the 'answer' to the reading assessment questions that had been swirling around for years!
And some of that has held up over the years - it is is still one way to identify the strengths/challenges and what to teach next, but there have been many other strategies developed that are just as useful for identifying these as well. What has become abundantly clear is that the F & P levels are idiosyncratic to their own assessment system (which is also very costly); they are based on American student research, not Canadian; and the levels do not correspond to the Alberta - or any other - Canadian program of study or curricular expectations. So when we test a child using the F & P system, identify that child as reading at a particular level and then describe that child as being at/below/above 'grade level' we are actually basing that assessment on data obtained from tests that do not measure what they are supposed to measure according to the Alberta Language Arts Program of Study - in the same ballpark but not the same game.
And then there are the notably harmful effects of 'leveling' readers as noted above by Fountas & Pinnell themselves - the effects that snuff out the enjoyment and passion for reading, do not acknowledge the personal nature of each person's learning to read experience, limit risk taking with choosing to read unfamiliar texts and cause all of us - teachers, parents and students - to over-rely on the implications of the reading levels rather than truly dig deep with children to build strong, independent, skilled readers who do not care about levels but are enthusiastic readers.
The Fountas & Pinnell Reading Assessment System is, of course, only one example of several 'levelled reading' programs available for purchase and use as reading assessment tools by schools. At EHS, we continue to use the program as part of an overall larger, comprehensive collection of reading assessment strategies, but we no longer share this information with parents as a summative assessment statement - it is, instead, part of our ongoing formative assessment work with students and is used much more judiciously as needed than a few years ago when we arbitrarily used it to test students quite frequently throughout the school year.
Children who choose books on topics or adventures or relationships they would like to learn more about are interested in the content of the story and use whatever reading strategies they know to make sense of the story structure, vocabulary, events, characters, setting, charts, graphs, maps and other text features. They are making connections, asking questions, predicting, analyzing, inferring, synthesizing and approaching reading as an intrinsically valuable, interesting thing to engage in on multiple levels.
When we limit a child's reading to books written in a particular set of parameters that limit vocabulary and text complexity to fit within a 'level' we are saying to them that to be fluent and accurate with words is more important than being engaged in the meaning of the text. And this is a dangerously slippery slope if we truly want to develop readers who will read for life as an enjoyable experience as well as a learning experience.
This is not to say that knowing a child's reading 'level' - regardless of the assessment testing system - is not a valuable tool in the teaching toolkit because there is definitely value in this from a teacher's perspective. We need to know a students' accuracy, fluency and approaches to decoding and making sense of text. We need to know they can track text from left to right, be attentive to punctuation, make sense of unfamiliar words, identify fiction from non-fiction, understand genre, recognize when graphs or charts or captions are used in a text and why. And a test can quickly allow us to locate the approximate skill level of a student when we need this information.
Often, so can sitting beside them and listening to them read. Or observing them as they read with a partner. Or self-select a text to read independently from the classroom library. The reality is that children send us bits of information all the time about their reading at school and at home - from recognizing the environmental print of the McDonald's sign at the local mall to reading a headline at the supermarket checkout to noting the ingredients of the recipe for Saturday's dinner to choosing a book independently in the Learning Commons or local library or selecting tonight's read aloud before bed.
Learning to read is a highly personalized experience and no two children take the identical route at the same time. Learning to read is also a highly social experience of reciprocity - children who share stories and make sense of text together are able to make the most of what the collaborative experience of reading together and sharing ideas, expertise and strategies has to offer. Generalized, communal learning across a classroom or group of students is undoubtedly vital, but there must also be much room for focus and specificity for what each child needs next to continue growing as a reader.
Testing for reading levels has now taken it's rightful place as one of the tools a teacher may choose to use to inform the next best teaching for a particular child, along with multiple other approaches to understanding those needs as well. What parents and students need to understand is a much bigger picture - the progress a child has made already and what their next steps are in becoming more accomplished as a reader, their level of interest in reading and how they choose texts to interact with, how students approach text for meaning and what strategies they are using to make sense of the text rather than just decoding the words.
When we don't talk about levels, we talk about the child and how s/he is progressing, what strategies they are using, what the next steps are in developing reading proficiencies (usually an array of letter/sound and text strategies), what their interests in reading are, what they understand about how text is organized and how to make sense of it as they read. This is the important information we need to share about our students, not how they performed on an arbitrary test.