A child’s struggle with reading isn’t limited to learning to read and write. Reading is a skill so integral to education and learning that when a child struggles with reading, they often struggle with many subjects.
Whether it is the volume of material assigned or the difficulty of the text, there can be many reasons a child will labor with other classes. How can you make sure your children are not overwhelmed with what they are reading?
Letting Go of Perfection
It’s a great question, but before we get to that, have you heard the story about the three girls at soccer practice? They all needed to take ten shots on goal.
- The first girl does great: she gets 10 out of 10.
- The second girl does well, too: she gets 7 out of 10.
- And the last girl doesn’t do so well: she gets 0 out of 10.
You might think, “Wow, that first girl — that’s what we’re after!”
But here’s the deal: the only girl who improved during that practice was the one who made 7 out of 10 shots on goal.
The girl who made all 10? She didn’t learn anything because it was too easy.
The girl who didn’t make any goals? She didn’t learn anything because it was too hard.
The girl who made 7 succeeded most of the time, but her brain made new connections. She was challenged, but not enough to discourage her. She was learning.
Isn’t that interesting? When we’re teaching, we don’t want perfection!
So when you wonder if your children are in the right place for them in reading (or math, or any skill-based subject), remember this example. You don’t want perfection. You want your children to be succeeding more than failing, but to be missing some things as they continue to learn.
Exposure to New Information
So when your children are learning with a teacher—at home or in a classroom—they should be exposed to new information. Of course! How else do any of us learn? The teacher can explain new words, show new locations on a map, tell stories about famous people in history to make their lives more real.
New information, learning from books and stories, is a gift that teachers present to their children.
However, that’s not the whole story.
What about when children are learning to read? What then? How challenging should that material be?
Understanding Reading Levels
Standardized tests will tell you your children’s reading level, usually listed as a grade level, like “second-grade reading level.”
You would think that this means that children can read books that second graders read.
Surprisingly, that’s not quite right.
If your student can read at a “second-grade level,” that means that your student is not independent at the second-grade level. Instead, the student needs instruction in reading second-grade books. This student is an independent reader with first-grade books and needs support and guidance for second-grade books.
Understanding reading levels is essential because, in Dr. Karen’s experience, parents often start to panic and move ahead with more challenging material, trying to make their children learn to read far too quickly. “That sets up a horrible spiral of frustration, until eventually the students just crash.”
How can you help your children avoid the crash?
Independent, Instructional, and Impossible Reads
If you do an internet search for the length of a standard paragraph, you’ll read that a standard paragraph has 100–200 words. In truth, paragraphs vary so widely, this “average” becomes almost meaningless, especially in books for early readers. This paragraph and the one immediately following have 100 words, which I mention as a point of reference.
When children can read nearly all of 100 words in a passage correctly — missing only one to four — that’s an independent read. The context is strong enough for the children to support those few unknown words, and they will have good comprehension.
However, if children stumble over five or six of those words, that passage is too difficult for either fun reading or independent schoolwork. When children are missing 5–10 words out of 100, that book is in the children’s instructional level. That’s the level of reading when children need additional instruction, additional teaching. Children should only read such a book when sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with an instructor, who is ready to provide the necessary support.
When children stumble over 11 or more words out of 100, their brains shut down. Not because of a lack of dedication or character, but rather, when the material feels too hard, the brain starts to feel overwhelmed and threatened, which makes it go into survival mode. A mind that’s trying to survive does not allow new learning to take place.
So don’t give your children a book that’s too hard, even if you are ready to offer help.
Why Instructional Reading Levels Matter
If you want your children to work independently in their science and history — if you want them to have the greatest comprehension and the most enjoyment — select materials that are at least a year below their reading grade level.
These subjects have a significant amount of new vocabulary and concepts. Think of all the specialized terminology in science and all the names, dates, and events of history.
The brain needs to process all of that new information. So if you give your children books at their instructional reading level in subjects like science and history, they are not going to be able to retain the information. When the struggle of merely reading the passage takes so much concentration, they have nothing left to learn of the new vocabulary and concepts, and so their comprehension will suffer.
If you want your students with a sixth-grade reading level to read a book about science, choose a book with a fourth or fifth-grade reading level. They will enjoy the fruit of increased understanding.
Here’s a handy grid for your reference.
|Words Read Successfully||Type of Reading||When to Use|
|96-100%||Independent||Bedtime, free time|
|90-95%||Instructional||ONLY with help|
The Sweet Spot in Reading
We’re looking for that sweet spot with our child’s reading. If the reading is for pleasure or content, go with a lower level where they will succeed. If we are providing reading instruction, move a bit up to find new material and build potential connections.
Most importantly, avoid reading material that is entirely outside of their ability. This only frustrates our child, makes them feel like a failure, and does nothing to improve their reading growth.
There are times and alternative means for children who struggle with reading to obtain information, from audio and video to conversations. We don’t have to make every subject they encounter an opportunity to impart reading instruction.
Allow your children to develop a love of reading that will carry them throughout life.