So…you’ve got a Level A/B reader in your classroom, it’s the middle of the year, and you’re both stuck. You’ve tried every activity under the sun, and you’re giving them tons of repetition and using multi-sensory activities left and right. But they’re still at Level A/B…what should you do?

One of the most common questions I get asked by teachers from all over the world is - “How can I move readers out of level A/B?” Moving early readers past that first hurdle and getting the needle moving can be difficult with some students because something is missing.

More often than not, when a student is stuck at Level A or B, he hasn't gotten the concept yet of the alphabetic principle and he has very poor sound-symbol processing, or sound-based decoding. He just doesn't get how each sound he hears in a word matches up to one of the squiggles on the page.

But not to worry, he won’t be stuck forever! In this blog post (and video below), I explain why some readers struggle to move past Level A/B as quickly as their peers. Plus, I give you an easy 3-step solution for moving students out of Level A/B rapidly!

{To watch the video where I discuss this topic in more detail, hit play below, or read on for a detailed overview.}

Wh​at are the roots of word identification problems? 

The Level A/B reader is stuck at that level because her word identification achievement is weak, right? Perhaps she can't decode unfamiliar words. Perhaps she can't memorize high frequency words.

If you understand how these elements of word identification fit together, then you can target your instruction better. Sight word activities may actually not be the ticket, for instance! Let's get super clear on what we should target by looking at the 3 categories that students who are developing in word identification may fall into. 

1. Phonological Processing

If a student has a phonological processing problem, they don’t perceive the sounds in the words that they hear. They are not strong at segmenting words into their individual sound. They may not be able to hear individual sounds and blend them together to make a real word. They will likely be poor at manipulating sounds in words, such as how to swap the vowels out to turn "crash" into "crush."

They also don’t get how those sounds and words relate to print. For instance, someone with this issue might listen to the word ‘GROW,’ and they don’t quite get that each sound (i.e., /g/  /r/  /oa/) represents a letter or letter-combination (i.e., "g" "r" "ow").

Most students who are stuck at Level A/B are poor at phonological processing, which will be important information for us to discuss as we continue...

2. Orthographic Mapping

Another vital domain of word ID learning is orthographic mapping, which is the process of connecting sounds in words to the spellings in memory. Think of it as the process of remembering spelling patterns and even complete words in our written language.

"Orthography" has to do with our spelling system. As a student develop her ability to read words, she has to "map" particular spellings to their respective sounds. A learner needs to connect the /sh/ sound in "show" to the letter combination of "s" and "h." As she connects these sound and symbols together, she is "mapping" them in her mind--memorizing that that pair go together.

Kids that are poorer with orthographic mapping have trouble remembering spelling patterns of our language, at the letter-sound level (i.e., "s" or "oi"), the chunk level (i.e., "ing" or "spr", and the whole word level (i.e., "spring" or "coil"). They find it difficult to remember that ‘sh’ is ‘shhh’ and ‘s’ is ‘ssss,’ etc. Knowing how spelling relates to sound enables orthographic mapping. The young reader must learn to memorize the visual symbols that map onto their respective sounds.

3. Both!

Yes, unfortunately, some students may have challenges with both of these domains--phonological processing and orthographic mapping! There’s a good chance that your Level A/B readers are having problems with phonological processing and orthographic mapping. Chances are, they don’t perceive the sounds and words (phonological processing). And, when they are trying to memorize individual spellings and whole words, they can’t map that information easily (orthographic mapping). They could be weak with both components which makes the task of learning to read more daunting. 

But, have no fear, there is a solution.

The ONE Route to Successful Reading

If your kiddos are stuck in Level A/B, ensure that you guide them through the 1 evidence-based route to successful reading. Research has demonstrated in countless ways that good readers develop by mastering phonological processing, which allows them to orthographically map letter-sounds and words more automatically (examples here and here). 

So, first, zero in on the phonological domain with sound-based decoding activities. 

Moving Level A/B Readers

A BIG mistake I see time and time again is when teachers focus most of their efforts on visual-only approaches. The problem with this is that using visual aid alone isn’t going to help build the right neural pathways in the child’s brain to help him improve as a reader.

Hundreds of studies have shown that good readers have sounds and symbols tightly connected (see this for instance). However, those who are still poor readers lack these strong connections among sounds and symbols. The good news is that when these poor readers are given instruction in sound-based decoding (beefing up their phonological processing), they learn how to make these connections. Indeed, brain imaging studies have shown visible evidence of the brain changes that occur when a poor reader becomes a good reader. 😮 It's pretty wild stuff!

So, when we teach weak readers how to read using a sound-based decoding approach, their brain changes. They are enabled to "see" how sounds and symbols connect through improved phonological processing. THEN, they are enabled to "map" more and more spellings in their brain (orthographic mapping). Thus, the right neural pathways begin to form together, and they become good readers. Yeah!!

But you may be wondering....

How can I do that?

The key is making sound-symbol links explicit so the reader's sound-based decoding is developed. And I recommend a simple formula for building these sound-symbol links so even kids with poor phonological processing will be able to memorize more and more spellings, and words. 

Rather than providing isolated oral-only phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, select activities that integrate these processes to make sound-based decoding much easier to acquire. Just 3 key steps can make this process work for your students...

3 Steps for Moving Students Out of Level A/B

If you’ve been a part of the Reading Simplified community for a while, you’re probably already familiar with these word work activities. They work together and will help move kids beyond Level A/B fairly rapidly.

1. Switch It

Switch It works by asking your student to switch individual sounds (phonemes) in and out of words while focusing on sound-symbol correspondence. If you watch the video on the top of this blog post, you’ll see Switch It (and Read It) in action!

When a Level A/B reader does Switch It, he uses phonemic segmentation and phonemic manipulation to identify the correct letters to switch out and replace. It’s great brain training for early readers because it helps him to develop the skills he needs to attack unknown words not only now, but well in adulthood too.

This activity also emphasizes letter-sound knowledge, the alphabetic principle, left to right tracking, decoding, and spelling. Switch It is a first, but powerful, step towards establishing strong sound-based decoding (and strong phonological processing).

2. Read It

The second activity to enfold is Read It--a core Reading Simplified activity that teaches the Blend As You Read strategy. Instead of using the ‘sound, sound sound = word’ approach, we use a simple continual blending strategy that encourages kids to put the sounds together as they go.

As the teacher, you can take a card to cover the 3rd or 4th sounds of the word. Then, use your finger to emphasize the first two sounds so that the child knows to blend them together.

Once they successfully blend the sounds, you can begin to reveal more letters until the entire word is uncovered. Read It will complement Switch It in making the connections between sounds and symbols explicit. Those that have weak phonological processing benefit from the teacher's guided support of the Blend As You Read strategy.

3. Guided Reading of Mostly Decodable Texts

Mostly decodable texts are great, for a season, when you want to help kids develop their orthographic mapping and phonological processing skills. Decodable texts provide a systematic approach to reading that helps to teach things like phonics information while developing a deeper understanding of the relationship between letters and sounds.

Giving young readers opportunities to practice with mostly decodable texts is vital for developing sound-based decoding skills. The reader is able to practice the skill she has been learning during Word Work activities. Transfer is much more likely when the target sound(s) of Word Work aligns with the target sound of the guided reading text.

For example, when one is teaching students the short "a" sound, which type of text would be most likely to spur transfer?

Zac is a rat.
Zac sat on a can.
The ants ran to the can.


I like to go to the zoo.
I like to go to the playground.
I like to go to school.

Obviously, the mostly decodable text about Zac from provides actual practice of the newly taught vowel sound "a." Thus, students will be far more likely to memorize that spelling pattern with this type of practice.

For your beginning readers, I recommend a simple guided reading routine to increase the likelihood of improving both sound-based decoding and orthographic mapping:

  1. The teacher supports the students' reading aloud from a mostly decodable text that aligns with their Word Work focus.
  2. Afterwards, the teacher asks a student to summarize and then the teacher models reading the text slowly but with expression, with the students following along with their eyes.
  3. Students head off to work independently, or with a partner or teaching assistant, to practice re-reading the same text several times. Ideally, they take the text home for homework. 
  4. Students return the following day and re-read the text (or text selection) to the teacher to kick off their small group instructional time together.

This routine builds up both sound-based decoding and orthographic mapping. When you follow this for a week or two, you should notice new insights in your Level A/B readers. Enjoy watching them slide into Level C, then Level D, then....

What do YOU think? Have you seen these activities help accelerate your readers out of the early stage of reading development?

If not, do they seem as if they're worth a try? Please comment below--I love to hear from you!