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Reading test and related information

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Reading test and related information is a supplementary document to how to teach a child to read using phonics [synthetic phonics] / teaching reading with phonics.
on teaching reading how to teach a person number, arithmetic, mathematics

reading test from 1938 (Burt)

Ladybird keyword list
calculating magic quotients
vocabulary comprehension and count test
how many words do you know?

reading test from 1938

reading age [1] reading test words
  to is he at up
  for an of his or
  sun went just big my
  that girl day pot one
  boys no water some told
  wet things sad carry now
  nurse quickly love scramble village
  shelves return terror known journey
  beware twisted luncheon explorer obtain
  tongue steadiness projecting serious commenced
  scarcely domineer labourers fringe nourishment
  belief trudging exhausted formulate overwhelmed
  universal circumstances urge destiny glycerine
  motionless events reputation perambulating melodrama
  apprehend ultimate humanity contemptuous atmosphere
  perpetual theory excessively emergency philosopher
  autobiography economy binocular fatigue exorbitant
  champagne melancholy physician efficiency influential
  atrocious terminology mercenary renown refrigerator
  encyclopædia constitutionally unique contagion palpable
  hypocritical fallacious phlegmatic microscopical eccentricity
  subtlety alienate ingratiating poignancy phthisis

A reading test like this, while useful, will only give you an approximate guide. Language usage changes over time and among sub-cultures. You will not use all the words that you know in everyday speech. Different words will be used in conversation. The objective, as stated in Teaching reading using phonetics, is to get the person to the stage where they can read on their own while investigating and expanding their vocabulary.

The early words learned will have a disproportionate number of non-phonetic words, as they have been in language for a very long time. This is one of the factors that has motivated teachers to use look-say, though it is not a good excuse. It is for reasons like this that you will find word lists, such as those in Teaching reading using phonetics, useful in the early stages of teaching a child to read.

Much teaching ‘theory’ is far too eager to make the child ‘succeed’, as if learning to puzzle out words is not fun on its own and in some fear that the child has to be tempted into finding learning to read interesting or useful.

Doubtless, by the time the child comes to reading, it will usually be interested in holding conversations and can be told that interesting conversations of all types may be found in books. Overplay of ‘how very important’ it is to read to your child can become a passive way of making it less necessary for the child to have to read itself. Further, a great deal of what is read to children is fictional rhubarb. There is plenty enough in the real world to get a child’s interest without filling their head with invisible and scary nonsense.

The Ladybird series is structured to appease the look-say lobby by suggesting that early words are taught by the Chinese character method. Unless you are caught up in the fashion, there is no reason that you should give it more than passing awareness. Many of the reading schemes prior to the Chinese fashion are, instead, structured to open up with phonetically more regular words. Of course, any child, with repetition and experience, will start to recognise Chinese characters like who, thus incorporating their own self-built collection of look-say awkward words.

According to Ladybird support literature, the average adult knows approximately 20,000 words. An advanced dictionary will contain at least twenty times that number of words, maybe half a million before considering derivations. The diagram below represents the 20,000 words in an average vocabulary. The frequency of use of the words is indicated by area. As you will see, about twelve words make up about twenty-five percent of the words used in a child’s vocabulary, while about a hundred words make up about half their vocabulary. The Ladybird reading scheme (and the words used) are derived from a large number of different research findings into children’s language. Do not be reticent to add your own words to the child’s growing vocabulary. While this list is structured in detail for the Ladybird series, naturally the producers of readers going back a hundred years were not unaware of children’s vocabulary and tended to improve ‘their’ readers during experience and practice.

ladybird keyword list

Ladybird keyword list, by frequency of use
Ladybird keyword list, by frequency of use © Ladybird Books Ltd 1969

Below is the same list made clearer to read.

12 most common words in the average vocabulary a and he I in is it of that the to was
next 20 most common words all as at be but are for had have him his not on one said so they we with you
next 68 most common words about on back been before big by call come can come could did do down first from get go has her here if into just like little look made make me more much must my no new now off only or our over other out right see she some their them then there this two up want well went who were what when where which will your old
next 150 most common words After Again Always Am Ask Another Any Away Bad Because Best Bird Black Blue Boy Bring Day Dog Don’t Eat Every Fast Father Fell Find Five Fly Four Found Gave Girl Give Going Good Got Green Hand Head Help Home House How Jump Keep Know Last Left Let Live Long Man Many May Men Mother Mr. Never Next Once Open Own Play Put Ran Read Red Room Round Run Sat Saw Say School Should Sing Sit Soon Stop Take Tell Than These Thing Think Three Time Too Tree Under Us Very Walk White Why Wish Work Woman Would Yes Year Bus Apple Baby Bag Ball Bed Book Box Car Cat Children Cow Cup Dinner Doll Door Egg End Farm Fish Fun Hat Hill Horse Jam Letter Milk Money Morning Mrs. Name Night Nothing Picture Pig Place Rabbit Road Sea Shop Sister Street Sun Table Tea Today Top Toy Train Water

calculating magic quotients

There are two major ways to calculate human abilities. Both methods are referred to at times as I.Q., reading quotient, etc. When dealing with children, it is often thought useful to compare them with their age peers in the culture. To this end, a reading age assessment is made by comparing the child’s present performance to the assessed average age of a child who meets that performance standard, and then perhaps generate a quotient to make it look ‘scientific’. This can be done by the following calculation.
Reading Test calculation

      Reading age
       division bar   x   100    =
Actual age

The second major method is to calculate the spread of abilities at a particular age and then assume those abilities fall ‘randomly’. Then, by varieties of jiggery-pokery, make sure they do fit such a distribution. If you care enough to start swimming in these murky waters, you may enjoy yourself by reference to Intelligence: misuse and abuse of statistics and to Is Intelligence Distributed Normally? By Cyril Burt, 1963.

Experience has shown that using the age quotient, a standard deviation of somewhere around fifteen points appears, if you care to make the assumptions inherent in the second method - no don’t worry about it, unless you really are up for the murky swim. You can teach a child to read perfectly well, without knowing anything much at all about these magical potions.

vocabulary comprehension and count test

The vocabulary comprehension and count test below is from the 1916 Terman-Binet I.Q. Test. You will get a rough idea of how many words you know by multiplying the number of correct definitions in either the left-hand or right-hand 50-item test by 360. Else, you can multiply the total score on both tests by 180.

As you will see, one or two of the words are not in very common use 90 years later.

  1. gown
  2. tap
  3. scorch
  4. puddle
  5. envelope
  6. rule
  7. health
  8. eyelash
  9. copper
  10. curse
  11. pork
  12. outward
  13. southern
  14. lecture
  15. dungeon
  16. skill
  17. ramble
  18. civil
  19. insure
  20. nerve
  21. juggler
  22. regard
  23. stave
  24. brunette
  25. hysterics
  26. Mars
  27. mosaic
  28. bewail
  29. priceless
  30. disproportionate
  31. tolerate
  32. artless
  33. depredation
  34. lotus
  35. frustrate
  36. harpy
  37. flaunt
  38. ochre
  39. milksop
  40. incrustation
  41. retroactive
  42. ambergris
  43. achromatic
  44. perfunctory
  45. casuistry
  46. piscatorial
  47. sudorific
  48. parterre
  49. shagreen
  50. conspiracy
  1. orange
  2. bonfire
  3. straw
  4. roar
  5. haste
  6. afloat
  7. guitar
  8. mellow
  9. impolite
  10. plumbing
  11. noticeable
  12. muzzle
  13. quake
  14. reception
  15. majesty
  16. treasury
  17. misuse
  18. crunch
  19. forfeit
  20. sportive
  21. apish
  22. snip
  23. shrewd
  24. repose
  25. peculiarity
  26. conscientious
  27. charter
  28. coinage
  29. dilapidated
  30. promontory
  31. avarice
  32. gelatinous
  33. drabble
  34. philanthropy
  35. irony
  36. embody
  37. swaddle
  38. exaltation
  39. infuse
  40. alderman
  41. declivity
  42. laity
  43. fen
  44. sapient
  45. cameo
  46. theosophy
  47. precipitancy
  48. palæology
  49. homunculus
  50. limpet

Such a test is fairly easy to construct.

  1. Select a dictionary.
  2. Decide how many words you want on your list.
  3. Write down how many pages of words there are in the dictionary.
  4. Work out how many word definitions there are on a page. (Many words will have subsidiary words. For example, patriot may include the word ‘patriotism’, whereas another dictionary may place this as two words.) It depends on how deep you want to go and how you intend to count as to how much you concern yourself with such problems. Here, I will assume attending only to prime entries.
    4 a. This is usually done by counting the number of words on ten, or twenty, pages at random, and then dividing the number by the number of pages that you sample. I will assume that your average number of words per page came to 27. (Some computer dictionaries will do a full count on a dictionary for you.)
  5. Divide the number of pages by the numbers of words that you want in your list. The more words that you have on your list, the greater the reliability will be for that particular dictionary, but the longer your list the more boring it will be to give or receive.
  6. Assuming that your dictionary has 1,200 pages and you want a list of 40 words, then divide 1,200 by 40, which gives you 30.
  7. Next decide how you will select the pages and the words. This can be done with random number tables, or with dice, or just by taking every 30th page. Likewise, you can select which word on the page to choose. For instance, the first word, the seventh word, or in order as you go through the dictionary , the first, the second, the third word, and so on. Note: here you may have to have a special rule for the last page for each of the 26 letters, where part or all of the page may be blank.
  8. You now have your 40 words. Now you may assemble them in alphabetical or in random order, or in approximate order of difficulty as in the above tests; and that is your basic test.
  9. To work out how many words each word in your list represents, you have 1,200 pages times an average of 27 words, that is 32,400 words. You then divide this number by the number of words in your test list, which is 40. Therefore, each of your test words represents 810 words in your dictionary.

how many words do you know?

You will see from the vocabulary test above that it has come from a (small) dictionary with approximately 18,000 words [180 x 100 words]. The table on p.310 of Terman suggests that the average sixteen year old, at the time the test was standardised, was able to score about 65 correct definitions, that is about 12,000 words. This seems more realistic to me than the 20,000 words suggested by some sources.

If you have reached this far, remember that in any substantial dictionary a word may have subsumed variants. For instance, the word ‘wait’ may have words such as ‘waited’, ‘waiting’, ‘waits’, and thus counting the number of words a person knows depends on pre-assumed definitions.

In the days when such tests were regarded with more magical awe, sixteen years of age was rather arbitrarily taken as the age at when intellect stops developing. Naturally, any reasonably intelligent adult goes on learning new words for the rest of their lives.

Whether the average number of words known by a sixteen year old in 2007 is greater or less than in 1916, I haven’t checked in detail. In 1916, vocabulary and spelling were high in the priorities of any teacher within their dull classrooms. In those days, the school-leaving age was fourteen and often younger.

Now, with technology exploding in every direction with the associated vocabularies, with research access to the world widely available, my guess is that the modern citizen has approximately the same number of words at sixteen. There is an increasingly large proportion of the population going on to advanced education. Nevertheless, conversation, which in 1916 was a considerable part of normal life, has now been widely supplanted by passive visual media. In the modern world, education is more directed to teaching people how to find what they want, rather than merely memorising.

My guess is that the average vocabulary hasn’t, in fact, changed much over the intervening years. Thus the test is not entirely destroyed by the passing of time.


  • Reading with phonics, teacher’s edition by Julie Hay and Charles E. Wingo
    J.B. Lippincott Company, 1948 reprinted 1968, 0397432968

  • Keywords to literacy by J. McNally and W. Murray
    Schoolmaster Publishing Co. Ltd, 1962, 0900642343

  • The standardisation of a graded reading test by P.E. Vernon
    University of London Press Ltd, 1938, reprinted 1962

  • Teaching reading by W. Murray
    Ladybird Books Ltd, 1965, 0721402615

  • Terman-Binet I.Q. Test materials, 1916

  • McGuffeys’s first eclectic reader,
    John Wiley and Sons Inc., first printed 1879, 0471288896
    $9.95 [amazon.com] {advert} / amazon.co.uk

  • The intelligence of school children by Lewis M. Terman,
    George G. Harrap and Co Ltd, 1921
    Note: pages 308 to 312 give some notes on the vocabulary test shown above.

  • Green eggs and ham by Dr SeussGreen eggs and ham by Dr. Seuss
    Random House, 1960, 0394800168

    $8.89 [amazon.com] {advert} / amazon.co.uk

    [Green eggs and ham is one of 16 books in the Beginner books series of Dr Seuss books. Other Beginner titles include The cat in the hat, One fish two fish red fish blue fish, There’s a wocket in my pocket.]

click to return to the index

end notes

  1. The numbers in this column mean: the average age at which a person can read up to here - 4 years old (no words!), 5 years old etc. One extra word approximates to one-tenth of a year. If the child cannot read the word effectively, then you go on checking forward until it is obvious that they will not be able to tackle further words, adding one-tenth of a year for each word managed. You must not assist the child in any way to read the word.

    The test should not be applied more than every three to six months, in order that the child forgets the test. Any specific teaching of the test words in between times will invalidate the test. Naturally, if the child has, meanwhile, come across, learnt or become able to interpret the word, this will not invalidate the test.

    Remember, different people reach these levels art different times, depending upon their ability, experience and education.
Related links for further reading:
how to teach a child to read using phonics
a phonetics chart for british english
Book reading lists
reality, laying the foundations for sound education
aristotle’s logic - why aristotelian logic does not work
citizenship curriculum
introduction to franchise discussion documents The logic of ethics
franchise by examination, education and intelligence power, ownership and freedom

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2810 words
prints as 8 A4 pages (on my printer and set-up)

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