Is my child reading on grade-level?

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This deceptively simple question has been on the lips of many parents.  And, with report cards just around the corner, the complexity of answering that question continues to dabbs-foster-love-reading-Thinkstockweigh heavily on teachers. Teaching, like parenting, is not for the faint of heart.

So, with a nod to the hard work of both teachers and parents, below are some thoughts that might help us continue to make sense of how we communicate progress in reading.

This post might leave you in disequilibrium.  It might create more questions than answers.  It might reaffirm what you have felt as a teacher or parent trying to support a child in this new and challenging era of literacy.  Join the conversation by posting your thoughts and questions.

Sophisticated Texts and Skills

While as a parent, I care deeply about my children’s love or distaste for reading, on a report card, I expect to see if they are reading “on grade-level.”  Again, this sounds simple.  However, national and state standards are placing “equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read” (“How to Read the Standards”, 2015).   So, our first challenge is to report clearly how students are progressing in both of these areas.

Complex Texts

Two questions serve as a foundation for our conversation with parents about readers tackling complex texts:

  • What is the current level of text your student reads with accuracy and fluency?
  • How does this compare with the grade-level expectation?

On our reading rubrics the criteria that serve to help us flesh out this conversation are “Range of Text,” “Phonics/Word Recognition,” and “Fluency and Comprehension.”  (K-1 also includes “Print Concepts” and Phonological Awareness.”)

-“Range of Text” communicates if a child in 1st through 5th grade reads and understands texts at the grade level expectation with appropriate accuracy and comprehension.  These grade-level texts would challenge students due to their quantitative characteristics (i.e., the length of words and sentences) and their qualitative characteristics (their meaning, purpose, and structure).  This reporting criteria also shares if a student’s skills transfer across a variety of texts (stories, poetry, informational texts, etc.).  Meeting expectations (a 3 on the report card) would indicate that the child is on target for grade level expectations for that quarter. Kindergarten teachers felt strongly that they would report the information about their students reading grade-level text under “Fluency and Comprehension.”

-“Phonics/Word Study” shares if students apply grade-level phonics, word analysis skills, and decoding strategies to problem solve words in isolation and in text.  Earning a 3 each quarter signals a student can apply these foundational grade-level skills taught that quarter to grade-level texts.

-“Fluency and Comprehension”  describes if students read with appropriate accuracy, rate, and expression as well as self-correction strategies for that grade-level.  Earning a 3 each quarter shows a student can apply these foundational grade-level fluency skills taught that quarter to grade-level texts in order to understand them.

 Focusing on the Reader

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Visuals adopted from Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center as well as a quote from Peter Brunn’s workshop this summer on Collaborative Literacy Classrooms remind us the most important parts of reading should be the readers and their thinking.

The above reporting criteria give us a way to communicate to parents how their students fare with complex texts and the foundational skills they pull from to decode and make sense of the words on a page.  However, as Dorothy Barnhouse suggests in Readers Front & Center: Helping All Student Engage with Complex Texts, tending only to the qualitative and quantitative aspects of text that may make text challenging for some students ignores the most essential component of what makes reading complex for all readers: the thinking readers do as they read.

This summer Peter Brunn met with numerous English Language Arts teachers from Kirkwood and reminded us of the power of listening to student thinking instead of listening for the correct answer.  Barnhouse adds to this idea when she suggests teachers “can only begin to know what [a] student is thinking by shifting [their] attitude[s] from the teacher who is supposed to know to the teacher who is supposed to discover” and by getting “out of the way” so they can “listen, carefully” to student thinking “from a stance of not knowing” (13).  Teachers take on the role of researchers to learn about their students’ thinking because they do not yet know how each student reads texts until teachers listen to that student’s thinking as he reads by engaging him in conversation.

During this conference, Barnhouse adds teachers might notice and name what students already do as readers and then determine what next steps the students might need in advancing their skills.  As teachers lean in to listen to their students’ thinking, they learn how students make meaning of what the text says, how the author crafts the text, and how to integrate that new knowledge with what they already know or with what other texts say.

This thinking exists whether readers are tackling a challenging grade-level text, a story their best friend recommends, an infographic about the power of recycling at their school, a blog about fashion, or a sculpture at Laumeier Sculpture Park.  Texts are all around our readers, and paying attention to their thinking as they explore these texts is essential to our ability to support them in an era where the definition of literacy is ever-expanding. Focusing on the reader means our goal is to “help each student expand from where they are so they can do complex thinking in texts that are complex for them” (Barnhouse, 68).

Attaining that goal is not a linear path, so Barnhouse eschews the Common Core State Standards staircase of text complexity, claiming it focuses solely on the text, not the reader.  Instead, she attempts to capture the interrelationship of text-and-reader in her own visual of a staircase.

Adapted from Barnhouse's Readers Front & Center.

Adapted from Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center (68).


Simply stated, this visual shows the intersection of a reader and a text.  “At the bottom of the staircase is a reader doing simple thinking in a simple text.  At the top of the staircase is a reader doing complex thinking in a complex text.  In between are readers doing simple thinking in complex texts and complex thinking in simple texts” (Barnhouse, 68).

In reporting student progress, we hope to show that intersection of reader and text as well.

Complex Thinking

If the reporting criteria for Foundational Skills and Range of Text are how we communicate to parents the complexity of texts their students are reading with the decoding and fluency skills to make sense of them, then the other reporting criteria are how we report the evidence we have for the complexity of a reader’s thinking.  

Three questions may serve to open a conversation with parents around the complexity of their student’s thinking as readers:

  • What are the grade-level skills your student should apply to texts of various levels of complexity & varied genres (types)?
  • How does your student’s skill mastery compare with the grade level expectation?
  • Which skills could you practice at home to help your student tackle more complex texts in more complex ways?

Our reading rubrics help us speak to students’ complexity of thinking by “distilling reading to a single set of  nine [essential] reading skills that readers can carry across texts and up grade levels” (Calkins, 24).
Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.51.49 PM-In making meaning of what the text says, students will grapple with  the first three of those essential skills, which are also three of our reporting criteria: “Details & Inferences, “Central Ideas & Themes,” and the “Development of Ideas, People, or Characters.”  Each grade level expectation outlines new layers of complexity in these thinking skills, so students move from doing simple readings to complex readings of texts.  Meeting expectations each quarter means students can practice the complex thinking skills taught that quarter about making meaning of what the text says at the level of sophistication appropriate for that grade level when reading in whole group, small group, and independently.


Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.53.17 PM-In making meaning of how the author crafts text, students will be encouraged to increase the complexity of their thinking in terms of “Word Choice,” “Text Structure,” and “Author’s Purpose,” three additional essential skills outlined in our reporting criteria.  Similar to the previous group of reporting criteria, these standards increase in sophistication with each grade level. Meeting expectations each quarter means students can practice the complex thinking skills taught that quarter about making meaning of how the author crafts the text at the level of sophistication appropriate for that grade level when reading in whole group, small group, and independently.





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-The last three essential skills outlined in our reporting criteria examine students’ sophistication in integrating knowledge and ideas.  Specifically, we hope to communicate how students “Understand Text of Diverse Formats,” “Analyze & Critique Arguments,” and “Compare Multiple Texts” in increasingly complex ways over their K-5 experience.  Meeting expectations each quarter means students can practice the complex thinking skills taught that quarter about integrating knowledge and ideas at the level of sophistication appropriate for that grade level when reading in whole group, small group, and independently.





In order for students to do the rigorous work outlined in the complex skills and complex text sections above, “they’ll need explicit instruction in the skills and strategies of high-level comprehension.  They’ll need a repertoire of strategies that undergird these reading skills.  They’ll need the skills broken down into manageable steps, and they’ll need to practice these steps and get expert feedback along with way.  They’ll need lots of practice, on a variety of texts.  As they do this practice, teachers will need assessments [like our Fountas and Pinnell benchmark and running records] that will allow them to carefully calibrate their teaching, to move kids up levels of skill and text difficulty” (Calkins, 28).


How do you determine when to move kids up levels of skill and text difficulty?


How do we provide a holistic picture of our readers (the intersection of their skills and levels of text complexity) in order to help parents best support their reader’s growth at home?