Type of text: Narrative or Expository?
Children hear narratives – stories that feature a setting, characters, and generally predictable plot structure – long before they are able to read them. For years they listen to stories and follow along in picture books at bedtime and are therefore extremely familiar with the patterns that govern narratives by the time they start sounding out the words by themselves. All of this experience makes narratives much easier for children to understand than non-fiction expository texts. Not only is expository subject matter often less familiar, but the structure of the text is very different, in that setting, characters, and plot are absent. For this reason, most children, indeed most people, read narratives on a higher level than expository texts. It is perfectly normal and even expected that a student will read, say, a sixth grade-level narrative and a fifth grade-level expository text with equal proficiency.
Format of reading: Instructional or Independent?
When a fourth grader reads a fourth grade history textbook, her teacher provides background information before the reading, explanations during the reading, and comprehension questions after the reading. She is not expected to completely comprehend the text without the aid of her teacher because it is written at her instructional level, meaning that she needs some assistance to fully grasp it. The book she might select for free reading may be a third grade-level chapter book, which is appropriate because this time she is reading it by herself and has only her own reading skills from which to draw to understand it. Just as it is expected that children will read narrative and expository texts on different levels, it’s appropriate for a child to read independently at a higher level than she is able to read by herself.
A note about independent reading
It is critical that students read independent books that are easy for them to comprehend. Parents may be tempted to offer their children only grade-level books for free reading, but the value of free reading lies in the opportunity it affords students to practice reading skills that have been learned, not to build new ones. Developing readers need to increase fluency, vocabulary, and experience through understanding of texts. Challenging books, if read independently, will not allow them to build any of those skills; instead, they will struggle simply to understand the words and the basic story line.
Taking all of this into consideration, here are a few tips for parents:
Ask questions. If a professional tells you that your child is reading on a particular grade level, inquire about the context. (“Does Nathan read at a second grade level independently, or with instruction?” or “What is his expository reading level?”)
Expose your children to plenty of expository texts. The earlier they begin to hear and read informational texts, the more experience they will be able to gain with different text structures. Simple articles in magazines like Ranger Rick or Sports Illustrated for Kids can be great choices.
Pick a topic that is highly interesting to your child. Allow children to read books they can manage easily when they read for leisure. They may look like they aren’t being challenged, but they are improving their reading rate, adding words to their sight word banks, and absorbing the meanings and spellings of hundreds of words. And allowing children to read books that are fun and easy for them will help foster a true love of reading.