This weekend, there was a flurry of discussion on the National Reading Conference listserv about how to place students in books for reading instruction. This idea goes back to Emmet Betts in 1946. Despite a long history, there hasn’t been a great deal of research into the issue, so there are lots of opinions and insights. I tend to lurk on these listservs rather than participating, but this one really intrigued me as it explored a lot of important ideas. Here are a few.
Which ways of indicating book difficulty work best?
This question came up because the inquirer wondered if it mattered whether she used Lexiles, Reading Recovery, or Fountas and Pinnell levels. The various responses suggested a whiff of bias against Lexiles (or, actually, against traditional measures of readability including Lexiles).
So are all the measures of book difficulty the same? Well, they are and they’re not. It is certainly true that historically most measures of readability (including Lexiles) come down to two measurements: word difficulty measure and sentence difficulty. These factors are weighted and combined to predict some criterion. Although Lexiles include the same components as traditional readability formulas, they predict different criteria. Lexiles are lined up with an extensive database of test performance, while most previous formulas predict the levels of subjectively sequenced passages. Also, Lexiles have been more recently normed. One person pointed out that Lexiles and other traditional measures of readability tend to come out the same (correlations of .77), which I think is correct, but because of the use of recent student reading as the criterion, I usually go with the Lexiles if there is much difference in an estimate.
Over the years, researchers have challenged readability because it is such a gross index of difficulty (obviously there is more to difficulty than sentences and words), but theoretically sound descriptions of text difficulty (such as those of Walter Kintsch and Arthur Graesser) haven’t led to appreciably better text difficulty estimates. Readability usually explains about 50% of the variation in text difficulty, and these more thorough and cumbersome measures don’t do much better.
One does see a lot of Fountas and Pinnell and Reading Recovery levels these days. Readability estimates are usually only accurate within about a year, and that is not precise enough to help a first-grade teacher to match her kids with books. So these schemes claim to make finer distinctions in text difficulty early on, but these levels of accuracy are open to question (I only know of one study of this and it was moderately positive), and there is no evidence that using such fine levels of distinction actually matter in student learning (there is some evidence of this with more traditional measures of readability).
If anything, I think these new schemes tend to put kids into too many levels and more than necessary. They probably correlate reasonably well with readability estimates, and their finer-grained results probably are useful for early first grade, but I’d hard pressed to say they are better than Lexiles or other readability formulas even at these levels (and they probably lead to over grouping).
Why does readability work so poorly for this?
I’m not sure that it really does work poorly despite the bias evident in the discussion. If you buy the notion that reading comprehension is a product of the interaction between the reader and the text (as most reading scholars do), why would you expect text measures to measure much more than half the variance in comprehension? In the early days of readability formula design, lots of text measures were used, but those fell away as it became apparent that they were redundant and 2-3 measures would be sufficient. The rest of the variation is variation in children’s interests and knowledge of topics and the like (and in our ability to measure student reading levels).
Is the right level the one that students will comprehend best at?
One of the listserv participants wrote that the only point to all of this leveling was to get students into texts that they could understand. I think that is a mistake. Often that may be the reason for using readability, but that isn’t what teachers need to do necessarily. What a teacher wants to know is “at what level will a child make optimum learning gains in my class?” If the child will learn better from something hard to comprehend, then, of course, we’d rather have them in that book.
The studies on this are interesting in that they suggest that sometimes you want students practicing with challenging text that may seem too hard (like during oral reading fluency practice) and other times you want them practicing with materials that are somewhat easier (like when you are teaching reading comprehension). That means we don’t necessarily want kids only reading books at one level: we should do something very different with a guided reading group that will discuss a story, and a paired reading activity in which kids are doing repeated reading, and an independent reading recommendation for what a child might enjoy reading at home.
But isn’t this just a waste of time if it is this complicated?
I don’t think it is a waste of time. The research certainly supports the idea that students do better with some adjustment and book matching than they do when they work whole class on the same level with everybody else.
However, the limitations in testing kids and testing texts should give one pause. It is important to see such data as a starting point only. By all means, test kids and use measures like Lexiles to make the best matches that you can. But don’t end up with too many groups (meaning that some kids will intentionally be placed in harder or easier materials than you might prefer), move kids if a placement turns out to be easier or harder on a daily basis than the data predicted, and find ways to give kids experiences with varied levels of texts (from easy to challenging). Even when a student is well placed, there will still be selections that turn out to be too hard or too easy, and adjusting the amount of scaffolding and support needed is necessary. That means that teachers need to pay attention to how kids are doing, and responding to these needs to make sure the student makes progress (i.e., improves in what we are trying to teach).
If you want to know more about this kind of thing, I have added a book to my recommended list (at the right here). It is a book by Heidi Mesmer on how to match texts with kids. Good luck.