The start of the school year is a good time to reflect on reading goals for students. And where goals are discussed, reading levels, word counts, and subject tags are not far behind. Let’s separate two kinds of reading: instructional and independent. The kind of reading you find in academic texts and assessments requires classroom preparation, close understanding, and focused comprehension. When kids choose their own reading material, that book or website is viewed with different expectations, meant to address different needs. This distinction recommends against an easy transfer between metrics from an assessment or textbook assignment to a student’s independent reading. So, if telling students their “reading score” and directing them to similarly leveled materials is inadequate guidance, how can we make data actionable for readers and educators?
Let’s identify the data to consider: a reading level (for example, Lexile® level), the number of words, and content descriptors or tags (such as fiction vs. nonfiction, genre, and topics). You may find an approach that balances these three factors provides an effective starting point for recommending books.
A book’s reading level, or text difficulty measurements, can provide some guidance for educators and students, but it cannot be a sole determinant for suitability. We don’t want to restrict access to books only because the level is “wrong.” Also, it’s a good idea not to place reading levels (especially if they are labeled as “grade equivalent” levels) on the outside of a book.
Students who come to a text with extensive background knowledge and enthusiasm can read well above their expected zone. Students who are hooked by favorite interests, genres, authors, and series can stretch themselves. Well-written texts supported with illustrations, charts, website extensions, and a glossary may have a high reading level, but still be accessible to less skilled audiences.
- Word counts, along with number of books, track how voluminous a student’s reading is. Many school leaders promote a “million word” goal for students. Intermediate and middle school teachers often suggest 40 or so titles a year. Nothing builds fluency, stamina, and background knowledge like reading a lot of high-quality text.
If a student keeps a log of books, including page counts, you can help him or her slowly increase the reading load. High-quality series scaffold reading by offering familiar protagonists in various settings, facing wide-ranging challenges. Ultimately, word counts can help students set goals to balance their reading with the demands of school, family, and social life.
- Educationally, using content tags promotes the most wide-ranging reading experience. You can build a grid with rows for fiction and nonfiction of low, medium, and high reading levels, and columns with different topics. Or get more creative, and ask the student to browse the library shelves and make a knowledge diagram, with central interests in the middle and branches for associated themes and subjects. Then slot in books and their word counts for each area of interest, fiction and nonfiction. With a log or computer-based program, you can track the student’s reading and learning accomplishments.
With the levels and content tags available in library and independent reading programs, you can avoid overly restricting students and provide guidance that clears a path to enjoyment and knowledge. Use reading data to support a wide range of quality choices, affirm risk-taking, give room to stumble and try again, and ask kids to reflect on their experience. Well-supported and informed readers are engaged and active readers.
Looking for ways to engage your readers this fall? Starting in September, get in the game and register for our WordUP Challenge. It’s a win-win that could earn your school great prizes and will get students reading through our motivating Reading Counts! program.
Education Research Director, Core Literacy & Early Learning
Dr. Vytas Laitusis
Education Research Director, Supplemental & Intervention Math
Associate Partner, ICLE