Top Trump Assessment – What Reading Levels Can Tell Science Teachers

Unpicking Reading Levels
Top Trump Reading Skill

So, Mary is a level 4b reader….

Your year seven’s reading level is a little like a Top Trump score: it probably means something, but it’s a bit of a mystery.

Athletes are often good at many sports. But it’s unlikely they are equally good in all sports. A measure of general athletic ability is only useful to a rugby coach if she understands how that score was calculated.

Similarly, a general reading ability score is only useful to a subject teacher if she knows what it means.

I was a secondary science teacher for 18 years and now I teach primary pupils. I know how Top-Trump-Reading scores are calculated and I know what they mean. I wish I had known this while I was still a secondary teacher – I could have made more use of it.

The reading level you receive comes from a one hour test. The reader has no help either reading the questions or the texts. The most support we can give is an encouraging “keep going!” Some eleven year-olds struggle with this so we train them a lot.

The pupils are given a reading booklet and an answer sheet. The reading booklet has several texts: a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, increasing in challenge. The topics are unusual so that pupils who are ‘experts’ don’t have an unfair advantage. The intention is that readers come to the texts cold. This is likely to be different to how you use texts; most likely, you will have taught the big ideas of a subject before you ask your students to read about it.

The test explores the following aspects of reading:

AF2 Understand, describe, select or retrieve information, events or ideas from texts and use quotation and reference to text

Retrieving information counts towards about 35% of the marks. It is generally regarded as a lower-level skill, although it is common in GCSE papers. I expect your level 5 readers at year 7 could have a good go at these questions from a GCSE paper. Please let me know if try this.

AF3 Deduce, infer or interpret information, events or ideas from texts

Another 35% of the marks are for interpretation. In fiction the question might be: How does the girl feel about the bear? In non-fiction, the reader might be asked: Octopuses can squeeze into small spaces. How does this protect them? (July 2014). I’m sure this same question could be asked in a GCSE exam.

AF4 Identify and comment on the structure and organisation of texts, including grammatical and presentational features at text level

Understanding the layout of a page in a textbook is an important skill in a science classroom, because the information is not necessarily presented in a linear manner. It takes skill and practice to read this type of page. Web pages are similar, with embedded diagrams and hyperlinks etc. This skill represents 5% of a KS2 reading score.

KS3 Textbook Page (Pearson)
KS3 Textbook Page (Pearson)

AF5 Explain and comment on writers’ uses of language, including grammatical and literary features at word and sentence level

Science writing has a range of uncommon features, including nominalisation (turning a verb into a noun – e.g. filter becomes filtration) and the use of passive voice (e.g. ‘we filtered the solution’ becomes ‘the solution was filtered’). It is worth making this part of your teaching because it can confuse readers, especially those reading below level 5. In the KS2 reading paper, this skill represents about 15% of the marks.

AF6 Identify and comment on writers’ purposes and viewpoints, and the overall effect of the text on the reader

This is generally considered a higher level skill and often only assessed in fiction texts. It is worth 5-10% but usually only accessed by pupils reading at level 5. It probably isn’t going to impact on your students’ ability to interpret a text in science.

AF7 Relate texts to their social, cultural and historical contexts and literary traditions.

Historical or biographical texts with questions appear frequently in GCSE papers and in textbooks. This skill represents around 5% of the KS2 score and probably about the same in GCSEs.

Have a go at a test here.

Next year, the results will mean something else! However, the breakdown isn’t very different (you can read it in depth here) and the scores will give you similar information about your students.

Unpicking Sally’s Reading Level

I wish I had made more use of texts in my science classes. I can see now how important reading is for independent learning. The reading score your students arrive with tells you how effectively each students can use texts. They come with reading skills that could boost their learning in KS3 and 4, if only science teachers knew it!

So, Sally is a level 4c reader…. she has skills in retrieving information from texts and interpreting meaning although she will find this easier with content she is familiar with. She has knowledge of how to find her way around a page of information. She is likely to need help with terminology and interpreting passive (the solution was filtered) and nominalisation (filter/filtration). She is capable of using appropriate texts to support her learning. She might let you think she can’t but she can. Good luck!



  1. ” She is capable of using appropriate texts to support her learning. She might let you think she can’t but she can. Good luck!”

    Hmmm…don’t you be too sure of that.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if her Teacher Assessment at the end of KS2 was actually 3a. I ran a reading intervention at Sec. for 10 years (using Freshstart) and in my experience, Teacher Assessments for pupils on the L3/4 borderline were generally both lower than their test level and much more realistic. Also, the level descriptor for a L3, while it might have been accurate for ‘advanced’ readers at the end of KS1, in no way matched the actual (complete lack of) reading skills of a ‘L3’ pupil. I worked with all the Y7s who came to us with L3 or below and, looking at your exemplar page from a KS2 NCT, not one of them could have read it with anything approaching ease or fluency. It would have been a miracle if they could have read one page unaided, let alone the whole of the reading task.

    We did our own reading testing on entry in Y7; no ‘reading test’ is really reliable but a recognised standardised test gave a much clearer picture of pupils reading capabilities.

    Not sure what happens now that ‘levels’ have been abolished.


    1. It’s a balancing act – i’d love science teachers to make more use of reading in and out of lessons, but the pressure of curriculum and lack of specialist knowledge are an obstacle. If colleagues are encouraged to make an informed start, the need for more specific science based assessment models should follow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s