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The Difference in Student Levels: Grade Level, Instructional Level, and Ability Level

Understanding the differences in a student’s levels can lead to more effective teaching, improved comprehension, and increased student success.

And not only does understanding the “level language” help the child, but it also helps you write better IEPs.

When it comes to how a student can and will learn and at what “level”, you have to think of 3 things:

  • Grade Level
  • Instructional Level
  • Ability Level

And for neurotypical students, teachers don’t often have to think about all of these different terms. But special education teachers, we do.

Because we could have 10 students in our class, on 4 different grade levels on 10 different instructional levels, on 10 different ability levels. And that’s a lot of moving pieces to think about when it comes to lesson planning – and ultimately writing a child’s IEP.


The Definition of Student Language Levels

There are many terms thrown around when discussing a student’s language level. Each of the terms is important to understand so that teachers and parents know what to expect in terms of intervention and current levels.

Here are the definitions of some of the most common language level terms used in IEPs:

Grade Level

The term Grade Level refers to the grade in which a child is placed and the expectations for students in that grade. This term can vary by state, so if a child moves during the school year, the original grade level parameters may not apply.

Instructional Level

While Grade Level refers to a student’s current grade, Instructional Level refers to where they are instructionally. The Instructional Level usually falls somewhere between their Ability Level and their Grade Level for students with language goals.

For many students, the Instructional Level is one level above their Ability Level. Consider this level to be the “growing” level to work towards Grade Level.

It is important to note that the Instructional Level material should not be so complex that the student frequently reaches their frustration threshold. Still, it should keep them moving forward and progressing toward their grade level goal.

Ability Level

Ability Level refers to where a student’s current abilities are at that time. It is what they can currently do independently with a high percentage of accuracy. Ability Level is sometimes referred to as Independent Level as it relies on the student completing the work with no assistance.


How Student Language Levels are Addressed in IEPs

When a student has a language goal, there is a lot of data that must be collected beforehand to make sure that the goal is addressing the need. If the goal is too low, the student will make little progress. If the goal is too ambitious, the student will reach his frustration threshold before making progress. It is a bit like Goldilocks and finding just the right fit for each student.

IEPs will typically list the student’s Ability or Independent Level first. This should include data about the percentage of accuracy over time and demonstrate that the student has mastered this level.

The Grade Level expectations may be addressed next as a baseline for what students in the current grade are expected to complete independently with a high degree of accuracy. This is important because the ultimate goal is to help the child reach that Grade Level proficiency and “catch up” to his peers.

When discussing the Instructional Level and goals in the IEP, there should be clear, specific, measurable goals that can be accurately assessed throughout the school year. They should include a percentage of accuracy and indicate what constitutes success.

Without understanding where a student’s Ability Level is and what the Grade Level expectations are, it is nearly impossible to write goals at the appropriate Instructional Level.

“Needs drive goals, and goals drive services.”

Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley of Dyslexia Training Institute

Without understanding the needs, it is impossible to create appropriate goals. Without appropriate goals, the services provided will most likely not drive the student forward.

For a reading level correlation chart, go here.

The Importance of Educating Parents

Teachers may understand the language used to describe student levels, but it is equally as important that parents understand. Take the time to educate your students’ parents on what the levels mean and why each must be given space in the IEP.

When families know what you are referring to, it makes them feel included and part of the IEP team.

How do you explain this to families during IEP meetings or conferences? Tell us in the comments below!


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I'm a special education teacher, presenter, curriculum writer, and educational blogger behind Mrs. D's Corner.
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