It's one of the most loaded questions you can be asked at the school gate. It's not a demand to know your religious or political views. Nor is it about how much you earn or how old you are. Nope it's the seemingly innocuous: 'What reading level is he/she on?'
If your child is just joining reception, you might not have been initiated into the wonderful world of reading scheme books but if you have, you'll know this inquiry really means 'is your child doing better or worse than mine?'
And such is the level of desperation of some to gain the gen on whether their kid is more or less of a genius than yours, that it's not unknown for parents to stoop to snooping in visiting children's book bags during post-school playdates.
So why all the fuss? Reading scheme books are central to the learning to read process in primary schools. The most popular ones, Oxford Reading Tree, are reportedly used in four out of five schools, and mostly feature the curiously named characters of Biff, Chip and Kipper. The series starts with books with no words at all – just pictures – (see below for more on these), moves onto those with just one or two words per page and then to longer, wordier texts. They're typically used right through the infant school years (reception and Key Stage One) and sometimes beyond.
It's the speed children progress through the levels which seems to be such an emotive subject. Presumably this is, in part, fuelled by a hunger for more feedback than some schools can give about children's progress - after all two 10 minute parents' evenings and a report at the end of the summer term isn't much for a whole year. And reading scheme levels are satisfyingly quantitative compared to those sometimes woolly statements such as 'X is meeting age-related expectations'.
A bit of healthy interest is fine and understandable, but the problem is, it's easy to get too embroiled in what level they're on versus others in the class. This sort of thinking can in turn lead to children feeling pressured or being rushed through stages before they're ready.
Indeed, Kim Thomas, author of Primary School – A Parent's Guide, warns about the perils of over-analysing reading levels and what, when and how your child reads: 'The worst thing you can do is to turn reading into a chore - it risks turning your child off books altogether.'
Kim adds that, whilst it's important to read scheme books with your child, they're not the be-all and end-all. She recommends looking at a wider range of material - this could include simple poems and rhymes or non-fiction. Any reading which enthuses your child is valuable – even the back of the cereal packet counts.
Remember that, if our role as parents is to do anything in this, it's to help create a love of books in our children - pressuring them to zoom through reading levels can do more harm than good. So, as long as they're making reasonable progress and enjoying books, leave the obsessing about whether they're still on level 3 or starting on War and Peace to those book bag snoopers.
My reception child hasn't had any books home yet. Why not?
Some reception class teachers send books home from the first week, others wait until after October half term or Christmas, whilst a few hold off until the last term or even year 1 so that children are really confident with their underlying phonics skills. In the meantime it's best to continue enjoying your own books or those from the library together.
My son is in reception and has been sent home with a book which only has pictures – how can a book with no words help him learn to read?
The first level of ORT books starts with picture-only stories and these are designed to help develop some of the foundations for good reading later on. Cathy Beck, a teacher from Nottingham, says "among the many 'pre-reading' skills that help to make learning to read easier and quicker are such things as familiarity with story structure, character and setting, prediction, deduction and vocabulary development. There are also the conventions of front-to-back and left-to-right orientation when handling books. Parents can discuss the stories with the children in any way they like, talking about what happens, what might happen next, what the child thinks."
How do I know if my child is on the right level?
As a guide, they should be able to read around 90 to 95% of the words without help. Teacher and phonics expert, Debbie Hepplewhite who runs www.phonicsinternational.com, says however that 'teachers may have different reasons for the type and level of books they send home. They may be sending home books at a particular level to improve the child's comprehension and speaking and listening skills.'
With this in mind, even if a book's vocabulary seems too easy, rather than letting them just zip through it, Debbie suggests taking the time to talk about the book, ranging from its features such as 'title page', 'contents page' and so on, to the type of book it is (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, instruction book etc.), and discussions about story lines.
The occasional 'too easy' book isn't the end of the world even if you're child's comprehension is already very good.
At the other end of the scale, if they're getting frustrated because there are a lot of words they can't manage themselves, speak to the teacher, otherwise there's a risk your child will be put off reading.
My six-year-old is still struggling with reading and it's turning into a real worry for both of us as he's now conscious that he's 'behind' others in the class.
Cathy advises: "If a child still isn't reading by the end of year 1 it may be worth asking for advice, but certainly not worrying overmuch; otherwise parents are best advised to try hard to keep their worries hidden from their child, read to him/her as much as reasonably possible and not do anything to turn reading into a competition or an endurance test. And never, ever, even secretly, compare children (but I've done it!!)." Plenty of children just take a little longer to 'click' with reading but for the vast majority it does happen, even if it's a bit later on.
My friend's daughter is in the same year (year 2) at another school and from what the mum says, the reading levels in their class seem to be far ahead of ours. Why?
Different schools and teachers take varying approaches to reading books. Some will want children to be really secure at a particular level before moving them on, others will speed through faster. Comparing between schools, or even classes in the same year at one school isn't helpful.
How many books should they get sent home each week?
There's no right answer to this and again it varies between teachers and schools. If you feel your child isn't getting enough opportunity to read and he or she is keen to do more, supplement the school books with others at home. Some research suggests 'normal' books are more effective in helping children learn to read anyway.
If for some reason you prefer scheme books and want more, either mention this gently to the teacher, head to the library or check out the website www.readingchest.co.uk – an online reading scheme rental service.
What am I meant to write in the reading record/ diary?
Most schools send a reading diary home, with a list of the books a child has read so far and space for parents to add comments. If you're not sure what to write, Debbie says: 'Include simple descriptions about how the child responded to reading the words and to the content and meaning of the book. Any achievements and new vocabulary could be noted and concerns or messages for the teacher. Bear in mind, however, that teachers have a very difficult job taking responsibility for many young children and it is not helpful to sound harsh or critical towards the teacher or their methods via the reading diary!' Given that sometimes a written note can be misinterpreted, if you do have concerns, it might be better to raise them with the teacher in person.
My child is reluctant to read their school book, what can I do?
Help raise their confidence and enthusiasm about reading by encouraging them to look at comics, magazines, film tie-in books, board game instructions – in fact anything which taps into their interests. Football mad kids could read the football scores online for instance or news about their favourite player (well as long as it isn't about the sort of thing a certain Mr Rooney has been up to recently...).