Phonics books are a great way to practice reading, but how do you know if the level is right for your child? Our expert Catherine shares an easy way to assess your child’s reading level at home.
Your child probably brings home levelled reading books from school. Most schools use a reading scheme of some kind – a series of reading books which are specially written and designed to be at the right level to support children as they progress in reading. These days, the books that your child’s school sends home are likely to be phonic readers – reading books where your child can use their phonics to work out all or most of the words.
Luckily, there are some quick and easy ways to check! The ideas below should work whether your child is an absolute beginner, or already becoming a confident reader.
Start by observing your child reading. You can easily do this in a normal one-to-one reading session with your child, using a book they’ve brought home from school. You just need paper and a pen to jot down notes as your child reads. Here’s how to do it!
1. Set up the reading session
- Check that the book is new to your child – they haven’t read it before.
- Look at the book cover together. Read the back cover blurb to your child.
- See if your child can read the book title – but read it to them if they struggle.
- Look inside the front cover of the book. If there are any pre-reading activities, do these with your child. This will help prepare them for the reading session.
2. Watch and listen
- Once you’ve introduced the book and your child is feeling relaxed and confident, ask them to start reading at the start of the book.
- Listen to your child read. Depending on their reading experience, they may sound out lots of the words as they read – or they might read without much sounding out at all. Either is fine!
- If your child gets stuck on a word, remind them to use their phonics to sound it out and blend the word together (e.g. ‘s-a-t, sat’ or ‘r-igh-t, right’). If they struggle, show them how to read the word and move on.
- Keep a note of any words that your child got stuck on. Put a tick by the word if your child managed to work it out after you prompted them to use their phonics. Put a cross by the word if your child couldn’t work it out at all.
- You might spot some words which your child reads wrongly without noticing – they misread the word without pausing or seeming puzzled. Note down those words too, and underline them.
- Keep the session short. If your child is enjoying reading, let them finish the book, but it’s fine to stop after five or six pages.
- Just before stopping, ask your child a simple question about the book – for example, ‘Can you tell me what happened in the bit we just read?’ or ‘Why did X happen?’ or ‘How do you think Character Y felt?’ If they can chat about the book, that’s a good sign that they have read it with understanding. If they can’t, it might indicate a problem.
- Give your child lots of praise, and finish the session as you normally would.
3. After the session
Look at your notes from the reading session.
You may have some ticked words that your child struggled with at first but then got right; some crossed words that they couldn’t read for themselves; and some underlined words that they read wrongly without noticing.
Alternatively, you may not have noted any words down at all, because your child read them all perfectly!
Here’s what to make of your notes.
Several ticked words – not many crossed or underlined words
Your child’s reading book is probably at the right level for them. Ideally the book will offer your child some challenge – so if they pause to work out a word every now and again, that’s ideal. It means they’re learning all the time as they read.
If there were a few words they couldn’t read at all, that’s fine too. Sometimes these words might be high frequency tricky words like ‘once’ and ‘are’, which are hard to work out using phonics. Your child just needs to practise recognising these words. Sometimes too, your child’s reading book might include some words they haven’t yet learnt how to read with phonics. As long as there aren’t so many of these words that it really slows the reading down, that’s not a problem either.
Lots of ticked, crossed and/or underlined words
Your child’s reading book is probably too difficult for them. It’s fine to have some words that are tricky (or even impossible) for your child to read. But if most sentences contain one or more words that your child can’t read, that means the book is too hard. Your child will probably benefit from trying a book at the level below the one they’re reading at the moment.
You can double-check this by thinking about how they answered your questions about the book. Usually, if a book is too difficult, your child will be concentrating so hard on trying to get the words right that they can’t think too much about the meaning. So if they struggled to talk about the book, or what they said didn’t make sense, that’s another sign the book is too hard.
Not many ticked or crossed words, but several underlined words
This means that your child didn’t notice for themselves when they were reading words incorrectly. This is quite common for children in the early stages of reading, and it might mean that they haven’t really ‘got’ some aspects of phonics – so they are relying too much on guesswork. They could probably benefit from slowing down a bit and practising sounding out and blending words. You can also help them by pausing often during the reading to talk about what is happening – that helps your child focus on the meaning and think about whether their reading is making sense.
If you notice this pattern with your child, they may benefit from going back to an earlier reading level and practising their phonics some more.
Very few (if any) ticked, crossed or underlined words
This suggests that the book may be too easy for your child. It’s great that your child can read the whole book without pausing to work out any of the words, but to improve as a reader they will need to experience some slightly trickier books. Ideally there should be a few words in the reading session that challenge your child so that they have to use their phonics and other reading strategies to make sense of what they are reading.
However, sometimes children who read without making any mistakes can still find it hard to talk about the book. If your child struggled to answer your questions about the book, they may benefit from staying at the same level but slowing down their reading so they can think (and talk) more about what is happening in the book.
It’s always worth having a chat with your child’s teacher if you are at all concerned about your child’s reading progress. Together, you can work out a plan to help your child improve and flourish as a reader!
If you feel like your child would benefit from additional reading at home, why not test our monthly subscription to receive a personalised phonics bundle including hand-picked books at the right level for your child.