How Hong Kong parents can ensure their kids are advancing their reading skills

Don’t worry - children can still be making progress in their literacy even if they are declared to be ‘below year-level expectations’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2016, 1:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2016, 1:45pm

At my last parent-teacher meeting, I was told my child is reading below year-level expectations. What does this mean?

Feedback sessions are a chance for your child’s teacher to tell you how well they have progressed during the year, but also how much your child is achieving – not learning – in relation to others.

A child should be making similar progress to their peers, so if a child started lower in the class, for any reason, they may well be reading below the norm in the class but still progressing well.

A child may have made significant progress but still be below year-level expectations. This is especially true if a child has entered a school where the medium of instruction is a second language that they are weak in. They may have learned the language but may not yet be able to apply the sound systems or character recognition adequately enough to read along with their peers.

Make reading a joy not a chore, Hong Kong parents and teachers urged

Generally, as language develops, reading will come up to a level similar to others in the class. Some children with several languages spoken in their home will take a bit more time to develop their reading skills, but will compare with similarly aged children after a few years of primary school.

Ask the teacher careful questions. Has your child made progress? Is that progress less than other children in the class. If most children have achieved an increase of six levels and your child has also improved by six levels, he may have started lower but is making good progress. If he entered at level two and others entered at level 10 he will be lower but still progressing in line with the class.

If overall language development is a problem, it may mean he is not able to absorb the lessons adequately to make progress. The teaching will only be repeated in the first few years, so if the child still has a problem progressing in the language, the learning may never catch up.

Reading with children is key, says researcher in response to Hong Kong parents’ fears about bilingual environment

Many schools only focus on phonics in the first two years. If a child is learning the language during this time then by year three they are ready for the phonics instruction. But it will not be taught in year three as they are moving on.

In smaller groups and guided reading sessions, the teacher can deliver more specific instruction, such as a particular phonic sound or text type, to that group. Your child should be grouped with others at the same level and given simpler or more repetitive texts so he can become more confident in them.

If his reading has improved little, and he is lagging behind his group, then you need to be concerned. It means the instruction is not working for him. This can be a sign you need to speak with the teacher and see what they can suggest. Seeing a specialist may be helpful.

There may be resources within the school, such as specialist teachers that are trained in other more specific assessments. Not all schools have such resources but they can suggest educational psychologists and other specialists to consult. Ask who, at the school, is qualified to investigate further. Follow up on the results. Make sure that you understand them and that the information is being used to support your child better and more directly. Ask what is being done and how you can follow up at home. If assessments are not available in the school, arrange to have them done elsewhere.

'Jolly Phonics' teaches children to read English by using synthetic phonics

These specialists may check that your child is hearing all levels of the sound spectrum well enough to differentiate the phonics instruction. If he cannot hear the subtle difference between a “b”, “d” and “p” it can cause problems with reading. Hearing and vision problems are generally easier to assess and support. Glasses can be bought quickly, hearing can be supported with amplification, operations or focused instruction. If speech is a problem then a speech therapist will give you exercises to do.

A child may have problems segmenting and blending the sounds, eg understanding that “f”, “r”, “o”, “g” blend together to form a word he knows. In spelling they need to break the sounds apart, segmenting, and putting them back together to form a word. This may be from weak teaching of phonics, your child having been sick during a crucial week of school, or other reasons. You need to know where the problem lies and get that information to the teacher or support it with your own tutors.

Reading for pleasure can help students deal better with pressure

If progress is in line with the class, the other issue is simply where his readings skills fall in relation to the norm. There are norms within the classroom, norms for his age group compared to children who speak his mother tongue, norms for children his age who are reading in a second language, etc. Ask the teacher how the year-level expectations are set. If it is a high performing school he may be below year-level expectations, for that school, but still reading at an age-appropriate level when compared to other, say eight-year-olds in Britain reading in their mother tongue.

Many Hong Kong schools pride themselves on being well above British standards, but this may be because of the local demographics of the school not the teaching. Usually a norm has a top, middle and bottom, if the assessment tool is extremely generalised. Some reading tests assign a “reading age”, which helps editors create books in the right subjects for those age groups and give teachers a way of comparing one student to others, but that does not always mean a lower score is worrying.

It is something that is hard to interpret and you may need to ask the teacher directly: how is that expectation level set, should I be worried about it, will it cause problems with his learning in other subjects, are their assessments that will help us pinpoint the problem, and what can I do about it? Don’t be worried about understanding the terms the teacher is using. Be direct. You want to help the teacher do a better job, help find out what the problem is, and follow the solution through.

Kris Gienger teaches at a Hong Kong primary school