Is my kid reading at grade level?


Home-Schooled Children and Reading at Grade Level

Many homeschooling parents are concerned that their children are not reading at grade level. Frankly, they should be worried. I teach online on the edge between homeschool and regular school. Children frequently come to me before they enroll in a public school or to prepare for a private high school. Many of them are lagging behind their public and private school counterparts in both reading and writing. More importantly, many of them are not developing to their potential or exploring great ideas because they haven’t been challenged. They have never been assigned a difficult text or a complicated essay. They have never forced themselves to master material for a test.

Don’t homeschool children out perform their public school counterparts?

We have all seen the statistics that show how homeschooled children consistently outperform their public school counterparts. There is one particularly often–cited study by Lawrence Rudner called “Achievement and Demographics of Home School Students: 1998. His study “is not a controlled experiment,” and “does not demonstrate that home schooling is superior to public or private schools and the results must be interpreted with caution.”

Nonetheless, the data from the study is frequently cited and seldom accurately presented. How do homeschooled students really do? Rachel Coleman has studied the studies conducted on homeschoolers and conclusively found that we have little conclusive data. No one really knows how homeschoolers perform. Anecdotal evidence is all that we’ve got, so my anecdotes will do as well as anyone’s. I have seen a lot of homeschooled kids. Many of them are ready for high school. Many are not. I have talked to a lot of public school teachers, who are astonished by how far behind homeschooled kids often are. Perhaps when you compare homeschooled kids to the average public school kids (in a country with struggling schools) they are above average. When you compare them to competent students in good school districts, they are not.

What decisions have you made?

Everyone makes value decisions. Perhaps, for you, it is more important for your children to be really good at karate than to be competent readers. Maybe their current happiness is more important to you than their future income potential. Maybe it is more important for them to be frolicking among the trees than to understand that planet earth is going to bake like a potato.

Nonetheless, the least that we can do is be sure that they are equipped to participate in the global society if they want to, by insuring that they are competent and critical readers. Let’s not bake because no one taught the children to carefully read the news.

Maybe you have realized that it ain’t looking good for planet earth and you are ready to break out the sour cream and bacon bits. That is fine. I understand. I consider this option, myself. However, make the decision; don’t let it just happen to you (and to your children, and to my children). Then let your children make their own decision by making sure that they can read and interpret with sufficient competence to be able to understand the news and function in a democracy.

What does it take to function in a democracy?

According to me favorite social critic, Neil Postman the best thing that schools can do it prepare future citizens to be expert “Crap Detectors.” In Postman’s classic address “Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detecting (reprinted here) he poignantly outlines the various forms of Bullshit. Hilariously enough, Crap Detecting does align with several of the Common Core Standards for Middle School, including being able to:

-“Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts)” and

-“Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.”

All students (including students with mild learning issues) if adequately educated, should be on the road to functioning in a democracy by the time that they are done with middle school. This means that they should be able to:

  1. Question the authority of a text. They should always ask:

-Who wrote this?

-Why did they write it?

-What was their goal?

-Are they qualified to comment on the topic at hand?

  1. Seek the ulterior motives of the author.

-Is there a less obvious reason for writing this?

  1. Have sufficient vocabulary and comprehension skills to read the newspaper and informational text. I could tell you what “Reading Level” various papers are, but the best thing to do is just read the paper! Talk about it with your kids and make sure that they understand what is happening.

  2. Have a basic understanding of how their government works. This includes understanding how a bill becomes a law and how national and local decisions are made.

  3. Have a decent understanding of how the media works to manipulate what we have access to and what we think is important. The Media Education Lab has some great resources for this.

Getting children to this level of competence

To end up with an 8th grader who has sufficient comprehension and vocabulary skills to read critically, check their reading level as they grow. There are a myriad of online tests with quick assessments, such as those listed here. Essentially, they are lists of site words and passages with questions. If your kids can read them fluently, the quiz declares them “at grade level.” If they struggle, they are below grade level.

I prefer to look at what the kid is reading. Many books have the reading level written next to the price tag and ISBN number. You can also pop the title in the Book Wizard, which will tell you what level the book is at. If your kid is generally reading books at our about his grade level, he is on the road to competence.

The Common Core Standards call for much more than simply reading and comprehending. They also require students to make inferences, provide a summary, and “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.”

Seek help if your kid is behind

For many children, learning to read is a gentle unfolding. Each year, they become more competent and confident until they can easily read and discuss The New Yorker. For many children, though, this is not the case.

If you have a slight suspicions that your child has learning issues, contact your school district and request an evaluation. A label is better than a lifetime of feeling stupid.

Homeschooling is not easy

While I am all for “learning by doing” and allowing children to “explore their passions,” homeschooling (and all schooling) is hard work. The teachers in public school think long and hard about how to help students become better readers and writers. They prepare and implement curriculum that does work for many kids. It is not simply reading with kids and talking about the books. This is not to scare homeschoolers, but I do want you to take the responsibility seriously. It takes time and effort to do it right. Sometimes, the kids do not want  to learn. Often, the kids do not know what is important. That is when you have to make decisions for them (and for the future of humanity).  I do not want to know about global warming or the impending collapse of the market economy or the abduction of Nigerian girls. However, I do learn about these things, because I am a responsible citizen of the world. Likewise, whether they want to or not, all kids should learn to read.

Successfully raising children who can participate in society is not that hard, but it does take a consistent, sustained effort over many years.


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at

1 thought on “Is my kid reading at grade level?

  1. Interesting read. My kids have been to public, private and now for the last 3 yrs homeschooled. We live in one of the “best” districts. In my opinion they were not pushed to potential at all. I had a soon to be 6th grader that didn’t know ANY multiplication at all, yet they kept pushing him through. He was barely adding and subtracting (and again that was something I taught him at home, not school) And my other son who always performed fine on tests had skills all over the place because nothing was ever taught to mastery. No grammar or English was taught besides learning the basic parts of speech, noun, verb, and etc. Neither child had a grammar or English book besides “spelling” from K-5th grade. I find that crazy since middle school and high school (and college!) is all writing. My niece who is in our same district learned geography in 9th grade….. doesn’t that just sound crazy?
    I completely agree with you that the public school “standards” are one thing, but actually teaching it and having students learn it, is quite another. Another thing I find interesting is that my kids didn’t know the first thing about helping themselves learn when we first started homeschooling. Neither had ever had to look anything up in a dictionary or an (internet linked) encyclopedia. My mission (may sound ridiculous) for homeschooling was to teach my kids how to help themselves. They are doing that, they are seeking out the information without constant “hand holding” which I find so refreshing. And am so thankful!

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