For the first time in 25 years, Read Naturally founder Candyce Ihnot has moved her reading lab to a new school. In a series of blog posts, Candyce will share “stories from the lab,” in which she describes the successes, challenges, and surprises of operating Read Naturally Live in a new setting. She’ll sprinkle each post with bits of wisdom from decades of creating Read Naturally materials and using them with the beloved students she keeps at the center of her work. In this post, Candyce shares a story that highlights the importance of checking initial placement to ensure a student is working in the correct level.

Thinking Outside the (Placement) Box

Our reading lab is chugging right along, and I have so many stories to share. But first, I need to make good on my promise to delve a little deeper into the topic of placement. I wish I could tell you that placement is an exact science. I have placed thousands of students in my career, and I am pretty sure I know the placement table by heart! Still, I get it wrong sometimes. There is always at least one student every year whose initial placement I get wrong. This year it was a little boy named Mathias (not his real name).

Mathias came into the lab with fluency and phonics issues. I used a phonics assessment to confirm what his phonics issues were. When I sat down to place him in Read Naturally Live, I was pretty sure I was going to start him in a phonics level. I tested him on the 1.5 placement passage, and his score fell within the range. Phonics level 1.3 addressed his phonics difficulties with long vowels, so that level seemed like a good fit. I could have stopped there.

But I decided to keep testing. I had a hunch Mathias could read some harder passages. Sure enough, his scores on a subsequent passage indicated that he could also work in level 2.0. But 1.3 was the right level to address his phonics needs. What should I do? I had to make a judgment call.

I decided to place Mathias in 1.3 to be sure his phonics needs would be met. I didn’t like to place a third grader in such a low level—especially since his fluency was better than that—but I knew I could correct it during the checking initial placement process if I had made a mistake. I knew it would be better to place him low initially and then quickly raise his level if the material was too easy. Conversely, if the initial placement was too high and I needed to lower his level later, it could be a blow to his self-esteem.

Well, when I checked Mathias’s initial placement after he had completed three stories, it was clear he was in the wrong level. His cold timing scores were on the high end of the range, his hot timings were almost 50 wcpm higher than his cold timings, and he was consistently getting 100% on the comprehension questions. Mathias wasn’t being challenged at all! Even though his phonics needs were being addressed, this level wasn’t doing enough to help him meet his fluency potential.

I decided to bump Mathias up to level 2.0—the right level to accelerate his fluency. We have a 1.8 phonics level, but Mathias needed different phonics skills than the ones taught in that level. So, I gave Mathias a new routine. For 10 minutes each day, he does specific Word Warm-Ups exercises that address his phonics needs. After that, he works in Read Naturally Live. By using a combination of Read Naturally Live and Word Warm-Ups, I was able to give Mathias targeted phonics practice on his specific issues without compromising his potential for growth in fluency.

Guess what? Mathias is doing beautifully. And when I told him I was raising his level, he just beamed.

Kids want to be challenged. They don’t want to be frustrated, but they do want to be challenged. In this way, placement is a tricky dance. You don’t want to place them too high and then end up needing to lower the level. But, as we saw with Mathias, placing them too low isn’t great either. In retrospect, I wish I’d thought of the Word Warm-Ups solution at the beginning.

Clearly, placement is so much more than a numbers game. If you focus only on the placement table and what’s inside that box, you could be compromising your students’ success. It’s a good thing we have the checking initial placement process and an even better thing that we have the judgment to—literally—think outside the box.

Click the links below to access Candyce's previous posts:
Behind the Scenes
Who Signed Me Up for This?"