“If my child is reading on level, can he or she still have dyslexia?”

picture of Lexercise clinician, Tori WhaleyIn today’s blog post, Lexercise clinician Tori Whaley talks about the limitations of reading level. Here’s what Tori has to say…

When parents pose the question, “What is my child’s reading level?” there are usually two pieces of information they are looking for.  First, they want to know whether their child is meeting grade-level expectations.  Second, they want to know what books are good for their child to read.   The question of whether their child is at risk of falling behind in future grades may not directly enter their minds.  After all, shouldn’t present success foretell future outcomes?

The answer is yes and no.  Schools use diverse instruments to measure reading levels.  All of them can compare a child’s current performance to other students in a given grade level and provide recommendations for what level of books are appropriate independent reading material for a child.  However, success at the early levels on some reading assessments does not necessarily mean a child has mastered the skills necessary to continue growing as a reader.

The challenge in assessing reading is due to the complexity of the task.  The goal of literacy is communication.  Books for emergent readers use specific tactics to support communication.  Very early readers depend on high-frequency words and illustrations to get their point across.  Successful early reading, as measured by many popular reading assessments, does not necessarily require the ability to sound out words.  Students with dyslexia who are strong at word memorization may easily master these levels by memorizing common words.  Teachers who depend on these assessments in isolation may miss the reality that these students are not acquiring adequate phonics skills.

As students advance through levels reading materials have fewer pictures and charts and tables are introduced.  Word and sentence complexity and the amount of text per page all increase.  Single-word identification and reading fluency become more important.

The strategies students may use to attack this level of text may vary. Typically developing readers, who have acquired strong phonics skills, are able to read novel words with relative ease.  In contrast, students with dyslexia who have not acquired strong decoding skills may rely on other strategies, such as context, essentially guessing at novel words.  They predict which word comes next in the sentence using what they know about the subject matter and what word seems to fit with the other words they may have read.  This is far less reliable and leads to inaccurate reading, decreased fluency, and, often, poor reading comprehension.

Occasionally, such a reader may come across a text that he or she is able to read with ease.  Parents and teachers may wonder: Why is this book more accessible than others at a similar level?  The answer is usually related to the student’s interests and background knowledge.  For instance, I had a student once who had a strong interest in snakes.  He went to the reptile exhibit at the zoo and studied everything he possibly could about snakes.  If I gave him two texts at the same level, one about snakes and the other about trains, he would have little difficulty reading the snakes book but struggle mightily with the one about trains.  This is a phenomenon even strong readers experience.  If I am presented with an engineering textbook, I can guarantee you I will have a hard time reading it with understanding.  But I can read and make sense of just about anything ever written about reading and education.

So, what does this mean for parents?

1. Talk to your child’s teacher about what kinds of assessments he or she uses to monitor reading progress. Ask your child’s teacher how to use that information to select appropriate independent reading material for your child.

2. Do not discourage your child from reading books they find interesting, even if they are challenging. With supported reading or read-aloud, these books can develop a lifelong love of books and reading. However, be aware that if a child cannot read at least 90% of the text of a book independently, they will need support in reading. Encourage your child to choose books for independent reading in addition to high-interest materials that may require more support.

3. Look for indications not only that your child is “moving up reading levels” but that your child is learning to read and sound out words. Nonsense word assessments, such as the Lexercise Z-Screener can be helpful in identifying challenges in this area.

4. If your child struggles with reading or spelling, the most important first step is a professional evaluation. No matter where you live your child can be tested and treated individually, face to face, online, by a clinical educator at Lexercise. Learn more here or contact us, at Info@lexercise.com or 1-919-747-4557.

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.