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Sunday, April 10, 2011
While in graduate school, I worked with Jack Pikulski and became interested in the theory of instructional level. That’s the idea that text has a particular level of difficulty and that students learn best when they are matched with text in a particular way. If text is too hard, they won’t learn to read and if text is too easy they won’t make any progress. The difficulty levels in between those extremes (and there are usually levels and not a single level), are thought to be the levels at which instructional progress would be optimum.
It makes logical sense. If text is too easy, there is nothing to be learned from it, and if it is too hard, it would be like trying to catch knives.
And yet, I was surprised to find that text difficulty is hard to measure exactly (our measures have improved a bit since I was in grad school), and that readers’ levels of proficiency were pretty approximate too (this hasn’t improved much). The biggest surprise was the lack of clear research evidence showing the benefits of matching texts to kids (Jack tried such a study when I was there, but it fell apart over reliability issues and never was published).
As a young professor, I wrote about how instructional level theory had entered the field seemingly through research (at least that was the claim), but I revealed that research base to be a chimera.
In the 1980s, whole language influenced school books emerged. The state of California required the use of previously published literature as the basis of reading instruction (no research supporting that idea either) and banned any adaptation of such literature. So, publishers couldn’t adjust the readabilities of reading books, like they had with high school text books, and text levels got hard for a while. So hard in fact, that kids had trouble learning to read; especially first-graders. Teachers met the challenge by reading the books to the kids rather than having them do the reading themselves. Parents and grandparents rebelled. Their older children could read books that hadn’t already been read to them already, why couldn’t this younger group?
One offshoot of this debacle was the growth of “guided reading” as an approach to teaching. Teachers certainly have preferred it to throwing kids in the deep end while fervently hoping mom and dad had already taught them to swim (a pretty good summary of the whole language ideology of that time). Fountas and Pinnell came up with a weakly validated measure of text difficulty and claimed that kids had to be matched to it to succeed. They counseled the minimization of explicit teaching and encouraged teachers to simply have children read texts at the correct level and that learning would simply happen for most as they read those matched books (to their credit they did support providing explicit help when progress did not ensue automatically).
Given how widely used guided reading is, and how much sense it makes, particularly for beginning readers, one would think we have many studies showing the benefits of such an approach. In fact, the data are murkier than when I was in graduate school. It is not that various studies (such as those by Alissa Morgan, Renata O’Connor, and William Powell) haven’t pointed to optimum book-student matches, but that they have all pointed in different directions.
Now, the common core standards are insisting that text difficulties be stiffened and that teachers not just move kids to easier books when the going gets tough. My fear, of course, is that such a fiat could simply lead us back to the 1980s, with teachers reading hard books to kids (guided reading is obviously preferable to that).
First, the common core is probably setting levels that are too hard for beginners. There is a lot to be figured out by those kids with regard to decoding, and overwhelming them with really hard books is not going to facilitate their phonics progress. I hope we can persuade publishers and school districts to allow the path to be smoothed a bit for the little ones (I think they’ll progress faster under those circumstances). Second, for older students, the common core highlights some pretty important ideas: (1) that there is no particular level of text difficulty that has been consistently identified by research as being optimum; (2) that always having students reading text on their so-called reading level is like relegating them to training wheels forever; and (3) that most teachers don’t have a clue as to how to scaffold children’s learning from hard books. Mandate whatever you want, it won’t make teachers know how to implement any better.
Later entries to this blog will pursue this idea, as teachers are going to have to grow new wings if they are going to make this flight successfully.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The main point of “guided reading” is to make sure kids are being taught from books that are not too far beyond their skills. If a book seems like hieroglyphics to a kid, then not much learning could be expected. (Likewise books can be too easy… presenting neither challenge, nor much to learn). Trying to get kids into the “just right” reading level has been an issue of long interest in the field of reading.
The independent/instructional/frustration level scheme has now been around for about 60 years (since Emmett Betts described these levels in his landmark textbook). Frustration level is the point at which books are too hard to learn from, independent level is the level when books are too easy to be used as instructional texts, and instructional level is in the space in between.
So, in guided reading, teachers place children into books that are arrayed across difficulty levels. This is a really terrific plan when kids start out because beginning readers are a bit fragile (they get overwhelmed by too much new stuff). It is also a reasonable idea overall, even with much older readers—as no matter how well you read, it would be possible to come up with a text that would simply be too darn hard.
The theory may be good, but it’s execution in guided reading leaves much to be desired. First, the book leveling schemes that are being used are pretty dubious. I’m not talking about Lexiles or other well-validated readability schemes, but the book-leveling schemes for guided reading are pretty shaky.
However, that isn’t really the big problem… the real problem is the theory itself, since the notion that kids have to be matched to the right book for them to learn is not consistent with actual data (at least once you get beyond the very early levels of reading achievement). The basic problem is that there are too many levels and that there is apparently too much overlap in the levels. Teachers sacrifice way too much instructional time trying to provide kids teaching at their exact level. So, you’ll see teachers spending 15-20 minutes each with groups at level “L” and “M” that frankly aren’t different. In such cases the teacher would be better off spending 30-40 minutes with the two combined groups.
Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books! My point isn’t that we shouldn’t group kids by book levels; but that when we do this there is a tendency to overdo it (to make these levels a kind of fetish). I certainly don’t want to see a fifth-grader who reads at a second-grade level trying to negotiate the fifth-grade reading textbook on his own, but I likewise don’t like seeing children getting much less interaction time with a teacher simply because they know a few more or less words than the other kids (it just doesn’t make that much difference).
Certainly, I would place kids in different levels of books when it is inexpensive of teacher time (such as paired reading or independent reading). And I would place kids in different books when their reading levels lag far behind (in grades 2-3, I’d strive for placements within a half-grade level of the child’s reading level, in grades 4-5, within a year, and above that I’d aim for within two years). And, finally, make sure you don’t fractionate your class with so many different levels of placement that you can’t provide much instruction. Groups are necessary perhaps, but the fewer groups the better.
Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade
delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.
O’Connor, R.E., Bell, K.M., Harty, K.R., Larkin, L.K., Sackor, S.M., & Zigmond, N. (2002).
Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 474-485.