First we all need to understand this definition given by Rudolf Flesch: A Grade 5 reading level of the material means that the reader must have passed Grade 5 in order to read it. But, if Joey did not really pass, that is if he did not master his lessons with 80% accuracy, and he was just moved along with his age-mates, his “reading level” will be much lower than that of his new Grade level.
There are three reading levels that are educationally significant: Independent, Frustration, and Instructional.
Independent•••The first is the Independent Reading Level; that’s the level at which the student can read on his own with 90% accuracy. He needs study materials at his reading level if he is to read text on his own for seatwork or homework. When we say “Joey is reading at Grade 5 level.”, we are talking about his Independent Reading Level. If he is very very interested in a topic, say submarines or dinosaurs, he will struggle with more difficult text until he understands it, but he needs a very strong personal desire to read it.
Frustration•••This is the level at which a person can no longer comprehend what he is reading. Maybe the vocabulary is too hard. Maybe the sentences are so long that he is losing the thread of the idea. For a student in Grade 7 whose Independent Reading Level is Grade 5, even Grade 7 material is at his frustration level. For a student in Grade 7 who is (independently) reading at Grade 6 level, Grade 7 material is at his Instructional level.
Instructional•••This is the level of the instruction given at the student’s classroom Grade level. This is the level of the new vocabulary that the teacher must introduce. This is the level at which the teacher performs Guided Reading instruction of the text whether it’s literature or mathematics or social studies or science. The teacher introduces new or technical vocabulary and gives background information to orient the students in time place and context. The teacher gives time for silent reading and coaches struggling students in useful reading strategies. Finally the teacher asks questions to be sure that the students have comprehended it. If there is a comprehension gap, the teacher may give further instruction in relevant reading strategies to individuals or a group, or to the whole class.
For a Reading Lesson, that is a lesson in how to read, the teacher selects materials at the Independent Level of the student and performs Guided Reading practice. By emphasizing and teaching new reading strategies, she raises the skill level and can increase the Grade level of the materials until the student is reading at the classroom Instructional Level. That is the point at which the student is ready to graduate to the next Grade.
“Although guided reading has been traditionally associated with primary grades it can be modified and used successfully in all grade levels. For example, older students may need to learn new strategies to understand how to read an information book in a way that is going to give them access to the information they are seeking.”
WARNING: The “subject” textbooks may have a reading level beyond that of the stated Grade level. My son complained to me that he was having difficulty reading his Grade 7 Social Studies text. Knowing how to apply the Flesch-Kinkaid Reading level formula, the one that Microsoft Word gives you in the Tools section under Spelling Options, I tested the reading level of different parts of his text. What I discovered was that the reading material, although it said Grade 7, was actually at Grade 9. Now my son is a reader, and he was reading at Grade level, but his text was two Grades above that at his frustration level, so he was having difficulty reading independently for homework study.
It is no wonder that many students are dropping out of school. How many years of continual never-ending frustration. But the teachers are frustrated, too. They must select the texts that they use from the recommended (required) list provided by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Education is also frustrated because they have a limited number of texts to select from. The author, of course, wrote what he was assigned, given the topics determined to be suitable for the Grade, and he wrote to impress the potential purchasers, the teachers and Ministries, with his expertise so that the book would be desired by the purchasers. The publisher did his best to provide educational aides such as colours and bolding, glossaries and sidebars, and pictures and all of the modern conventions of textbook writing.
So what went wrong? That 's a topic for another blog entry.