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Why Reading Levels Can Be Misleading

Parent: “What do you mean my 4th grader is reading at a 3rd grade level? His last school told me he is at a 5th grade level. You must be wrong.”

Sadly, we’ve had this conversation many times with new parents. While this is frustrating for parents it does give us the opportunity to explain to new parents that reading ability is more than just a number/letter.

There isn’t a standardized testing method used by all schools. Many testing methods use a single number or level to communicate where a student is at -- how each method gets to that number can be very different leading to different results. Often the reading level is simply determined based on words read per minute.

In some cases, a reading assessment is misleading and in other cases harmful.

How Does Arches Evaluate Reading Ability?

We strive to do a thorough evaluation of a child’s reading ability at the start of school. There are key reading skills that each child needs to learn in order to be a successful reader (and thus student).

Early reading is a measurable, leading indicator of a student’s future success.

Speed + Accuracy = Fluency

Fluency is the ability to read accurately, smoothly, and with appropriate phrasing and intonation.


  • Words read per minute, minus mistakes

  • Speed is not the most important aspect of fluency

  • Automaticity is the ability to read words without breaking them up phonetically

Without assessing words, familiarity of the text, the type of reading, etc, it is hard to understand what speed means as an evaluation measurement by itself.


Accuracy is an important part of determining a reading level. Reading zones determine if a text is too hard for a reader. Readers should be able to recognize or decode 90%-95% of the words in a text for it to be at their reading level. Below 90% leaves a reader frustrated.

Aspects of Accuracy:

  • Reading words without mistakes

  • No word substitution

  • Word decoding - fluent readers can determine pronunciation of unknown words

  • No skipping words (a, the, of)

  • Dropping letters from the end of words (s, ed)

  • Repeating words in the sentence that were already read correctly

  • Phonic gaps (often shows up as spelling problems)


Reading with proper expression dramatically improves reading enjoyment and comprehension. Expression utilizes emphasis, intonation, speed, patterns, and phrasing. Often expression doesn’t come with the first reading of a text.


A reader is doing two things at the same time; reading words on a page (and all that is involved in that) and trying to make sense of them. Maintaining fluency helps comprehension and comprehension helps fluency. As an example, if a student is stuck decoding a lot of words, fluency and comprehension are hindered.

Why Learning Early Matters

First-grade reading scores are fairly reliable predictors of future reading scores (Juel 1988). In other words, if students are reading at the 80% percentile in the first grade, they will probably score near that same percentile in the 4th grade. A study has shown that children are held back more by their reading ability than they are by IQ (Wilson & Hughes 2009).

Lastly, it is easiest for children to learn reading and to catch up in reading ability when they are in the early grades. As they get older, the gains in improvement are smaller. By third grade, in all schools, teachers are using reading to teach other subjects like history, math, and science. “This shift from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’ is extremely difficult for children who have not mastered basic reading skills.” (Musen)

“Students who read independently become better readers, score higher on achievement tests in all subject areas, and have greater content knowledge than those who do not…”

“The advantage of early instruction in reading was maintained throughout schooling and remained evident at the senior high school level.” (School Library Media Research Journal)

The Arches Academy difference

Sadly, parents are often misled about where their child really is at in regards to reading skills. It is easy for parents to miss the more subtle aspects a child may be missing because reading is more than just speed.

At Arches Academy parents aren’t left “hoping” that someone is paying attention to their child. Arches’ parents know where their child is at, what they are doing well, and what they need to focus on and the teachers help students through that process.

Schedule a tour of Arches Academy and talk with us about your child!

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