You are, indeed, supposed to teach kids in harder texts than you have been teaching them. Keep these six guidelines in mind and you'll do a better job of that.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
I’m confused. Our standards say that we have to teach kids to read at 820 Lexiles, but my third-graders aren’t even close to that. They are instructional at Level N on the Fountas & Pinnell gradient that my school uses. This makes no sense. How can I get my kids to such a high level in the time that we have?
I receive few letters on this, but when visiting schools this confusion is often apparent. Teachers either ignore the level specifications of the standards or assume that teaching kids at "level N", as they have been doing, must be the best way to reach the standards levels. As one young teacher said to me, “The standards can’t mean that we are supposed to teach with harder books. These are hard enough.”
But the standards actually do mean that teachers need to teach students to read harder texts than in the past. Just teaching level N books well won’t be sufficient. Kids’ reading is now being tested on texts at those higher levels--that’s part of the reason why reading scores dropped so much this year. If kids spend all their time reading easy texts, don’t be surprised if they struggle when immersed in more complicated language and ideas.
Reading harder texts is a boon for kids who in the past would have been limited to Level N. Most 8-year-olds who are not permitted to venture beyond Level N are missing out on age-appropriate content and intellectual demands. However, it is not enough to just throw kids in harder text. The theory of instructional level teaching is that kids will largely figure out how to read better on their own, simply by practicing reading with texts that are pretty easy for them (think about it: instructional level means kids could read such a text once--without any teacher assistance--and comprehend it with 75-89% comprehension). The theory of teaching with harder texts, on the other hand, depends more on teaching; kids will need support to learn from more complex texts.
1. Have kids read a lot within instruction. Students should be reading and writing during reading lessons—and during social studies, science, math, and health lessons, too. Too often the reading lesson time is just talked away, but kids need to read when there is a teacher there to monitor and support their reading. Perhaps set an arbitrary target: kids will read 50% of the time during reading lessons; or they will read at least 4 pages of mathematics or 8 pages of science per week. Lots of reading of lots of texts; every day; every week; every year.
2. There is no instructional level. Despite claims by authorities in reading and special education, no procedure for matching texts to kids has been found to reliably provide any learning advantage. Kids can learn from harder books than we have taught with in the past—but that means more scaffolding. Don’t limit kids’ reading to texts at their “instructional levels” (~95-98% accuracy in fluency; 75-89% comprehension), or to any of the new levels now being advanced (90-95% accuracy).
3. Vary the difficulty levels. Past claims about the instructional level made it sound like you would harm kids if you taught them in books that were “too easy” or “too hard” and so the notion was that all the productive reading work would be done at the instructional level. I suspect that learning to negotiate the complexities of text is probably more like learning to run faster or to swim farther. Athletes don’t do all of their training at one level of difficulty or intensity. They vary routines to build strength and stamina, and I think we should do the same with reading. The texts we use to teach reading should vary in difficulty and length—with kids reading some hard texts, followed by easier ones, followed by even more difficult ones. Text difficulty levels should go up and down, but the average difficulty over time should climb. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the level that your grade level is supposed to reach: if third-graders are supposed to learn to read 820 Lexiles, 820 is not the highest level text we should introduce.
4. Be prepared to give more help when more help is needed. I’ve criticized our programs before for providing the greatest help when kids are asked to read easy texts and the least support when they take on the hardest ones. If I’m weightlifting with light weights, I don’t worry much about having a spotter. But if I ‘m trying to push myself to the limit with heavier weights or a greater number of reps than I’m used to, I want assistance. So why do kids work in small groups with a teacher when reading relatively easy texts and we save our harder texts (like the science book) for whole class instruction?
5. Try to anticipate why a text will trip kids up and then question them watchfully. What do I mean by watchfully? Question them in ways that will reveal whether they figured out what you thought was complex. I know you already ask questions about the overall meaning of the story or article, but I’m suggesting even closer questioning than that. For instance, if you think a sentence is complicated, ask a question that depends on making sense of that sentence. If you are concerned that kids will miss a confusing cohesive link or an implied causal connection or a subtle sarcastic tone, then probe those things. If they are tripped up, then take them back to the text to figure out how it works.
6. Require rereading. The more challenging a text is, the more it has to be reread. Reading it once (or twice) to figure it out, and then reading it again without so much support can really improve one’s reading ability. Yes, it takes extra time, but time that pays learning dividends. Such rereading does not need to be done immediately. It is okay to go back to a selection that one read last week or last month (though the longer the interval, the greater amount of teacher support that will likely be required on a reread).
Sunday, August 30, 2015
I’ve read your posts on the instructional level and complex texts and I don’t think you understand guided reading. The point of guided reading placements is to teach students with challenging text. That’s why it is so important to avoid texts that students can read at their independent level; to make sure they are challenged. The Common Core requires teaching students with challenging texts—not frustration level texts.
I’m having déjà vu all over again. I feel like I’ve covered this ground before, but perhaps not quite in the way that this question poses the issue.
Yes, indeed, the idea of teaching students at their instructional level is that some texts could be too easy or too hard to facilitate learning. By placing students in between these extremes, it has been believed that more learning would take place. In texts that students find easy (your independent level), there would be little for students to learn—since they could likely recognize all or most of the words and could understand the text fully without any teacher help. Similarly, texts that pose too much challenge might overwhelm or frustrate students so they could not learn. Thus, placing them in instructional level materials would be challenging (there would be something to learn), but not so challenging as to be discouraging.
Or, at least that’s the theory.
So, I do get that the way you seem to be placing kids in books is meant to be challenging. But please don’t confuse this level of challenge with what your state standards are requiring. Those standards are asking that you teach students to read texts of specified levels of difficulty—levels of difficulty that for most kids will exceed what you think of as challenging.
This means that everyone wants kids to be challenged. The argument is about how much challenge. You may think that a student will do best if the texts used for teaching is only so challenging that he/she’d make no more than 5 errors per 100 words of reading, and your state may think the appropriate challenge level is grade level texts that represent a progression that would allow the students to graduate from high school with a particular level of achievement. That means in many circumstances the state would say kids need to read book X, and you’d say, “no way, my kids make too many errors with book X to allow me to teach it successfully.”
The Lexile levels usually associated with particular grade levels are not the ones that the standards have assigned to the grades. The Lexile grade-designations from the past were an estimate of the level of text that the average students could read with 75-89% comprehension. Those levels weren’t claiming that all kids in a particular grade could read such texts successfully, but that the average ones could. Thus, you’d test the individual kids and place them in books with higher or lower Lexiles to try to get them to that magical instructional level.
The new standards, however, have assigned higher Lexile bands to each grade level. That means that even the average kids will not be able to read those texts at an instructional level; some kids might be able to at those grade levels, but not the majority. That means teachers would need to teach students to read books more challenging than what have typically been at their instructional levels. In other words, plenty of kids will need to be taught at their frustration level to meet the standards.
I do get the idea that instructional level is meant to be challenging. But for the majority of kids, teaching kids at their instructional level will not meet the standards. That degree of challenge undershoots the level of challenge established by your state (and that they will test your students at). Perhaps you can take solace in the fact that research has not been able to validate the idea that there is an instructional level; that is, kids can be taught to read successfully with texts more challenging than you’ve apparently used in the past.
Monday, May 18, 2015
A reader wrote:
My main response is toward your general notion of the research surrounding teaching kids "at their level."
My main response is toward your general notion of the research surrounding teaching kids "at their level."
First, I think the way you're describing instructional/skill levels obfuscates the issue a bit. Instructional level, by definition, means the level at which a child can benefit from instruction, including with scaffolding. Frustrational, by definition, means the instruction won't work. Those levels, like the terms "reinforcement & punishment" for example, are defined by their outcomes, not intentions. If a child learned from the instruction, the instruction was on the child's "instructional" level.
Where we may be getting confused is that I think you actually are referring to teaching reading comprehension using material that is in a child's instructional level with comprehension, but on a child's frustrational level with reading fluency. This is a much different statement than what I think most teachers are getting from your messages about text complexity, to the point that I think they're making mistakes in terms of text selection.
More generally, I'd argue that there is copious research supporting using "instructional material" to teach various reading skills. Take, for example, all of the research supporting repeated readings. That intervention, by definition, uses material that is on a child's "instructional" level with reading fluency, and there is great support that it works. So, the idea that somehow "teaching a child using material on his/her instructional level is not research supported" just doesn't make sense to me.
In terms of this specific post about how much one can scaffold, I think it largely depends on the child and specific content, as Lexiles and reading levels don't fully define a material's "instructional level" when it comes to comprehension. I know many 3rd graders, for example, that could be scaffolded with material written on an 8th grade level, but the content isn't very complex, so scaffolding is much easier.
The broad point here, Dr. Shanahan, is that we're over-simplifying, therefore confusing, the issue by trying to argue that kids should be taught with reading material on their frustrational level, or on grade level despite actual skill level. People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text - that skill level or lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.
First, you are using the terms “instructional level” and “frustration level” in idiosyncratic ways. These terms are not used in the field of reading education as you claim, nor have they ever been. These levels are used as predictions, not as post-instruction evaluations. If they were used in the manner you suggest, then there would be little or no reason for informal reading inventories and running records. One would simply start teaching everyone with grade level materials, and if a student was found to make no progress, then we would simply lower the text difficulty over time.
Of course, that is not what is done at all. Students are tested, instructional levels are determined, instructional groups are formed, and books assigned based on this information.
The claim has been that if you match students to text appropriately (the instructional level) that you will maximize the amount of student learning. This definition of instructional level does allow for scaffolding—in fact, that’s why students are discouraged from trying to read instructional level materials on their own, since there would be no scaffold available.
Fountas and Pinnell, for example, are quite explicit that even with sound book matching it is going to be important to preteach vocabulary, discuss prior knowledge, and engage children in picture walks so that they will be able to read the texts with little difficulty. And, programs like Accelerated Reading limit what books students are allowed to read.
You are also claiming that students have different instructional levels for fluency and comprehension. Informal reading inventories and running records measure both fluency AND reading comprehension. They measure them separately. But there is no textbook or commercial IRI that suggests to teachers that they should be using different levels of texts to teach these different skills or contents. How accurately the students read the words and answer questions are combined to make an instructional text placement—not multiple text placements.
If we accept your claim that any text that leads to learning is at the “instructional level,” then pretty much any match will do. Students, no matter how they are taught, tend to make some learning gains in reading as annual Title I evaluations have shown again and again. These kids might have only gained .8 years in reading this year (the average is 1.0), but they were learning and by your lights that means we must have placed them appropriately.
Repeated reading has been found to raise reading achievement, as measured by standardized reading comprehension tests, but as Steve Stahl and Melanie Kuhn have shown, such fluency instruction works best—that is, leads to greater learning gains—when students work with books identified as being at their frustration levels rather than at their so-called instructional levels. That’s why in their large-scale interventions they teach students with grade level texts rather than trying to match students to texts based on an invalid construct (the instructional level).
You write: “People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text -- that skill level or Lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.”
In fact, I am saying that beyond beginning reading, teachers should NOT attempt to match students with text. I am also saying that students should be reading multiple texts and that these should range from easy (for the child) to quite difficult. I am saying that the more difficult a text is, the more scaffolding and support the teacher needs to provide—and that such scaffolding should not include reading the text to the student or telling the student what the text says.
I am NOT saying that skill level or Lexile are irrelevant, or that “instructional level” is simply a bit more nuanced then people think. It is useful to test students and to know how hard the texts are for that student; that will allow you to be ready to provide sufficient amounts of scaffolding (and to know when you can demand greater effort and when just more effort will not pay off).
Saturday, February 28, 2015
Please provide the research about how teaching students using instructional level texts does not yield results! I am a literacy coach with five years of successful guided reading with below-level ELL's, working with them at their instructional level for TWENTY MINUTES A DAY. The rest of our two-hour block is spent with students immersed in either an independent book of their choice (also about 20-25 minutes) or in grade level text (1+ hours). I feel confident that I am teaching CCSS Standard 10 because my students read complex text in whole group with my scaffolding. I understand you've probably posted it many times, but please post it again here so I can see the research about why these 20 minutes of my students' day, where I see them growing by leaps and bounds, is actually preventing them from achieving the Common Core standards!
I’ve never written that no learning results from being taught from texts at one’s instructional level. In fact, the majority U.S. kids are currently taught in that fashion—and most American kids are learning to read, albeit not as well as we want them to. I have no doubt that your students are learning something from the instructional level teaching that you are offering them.
But the real issue has to do with what’s best for kids, rather than what works. The men and women who manned the “iron lungs” of the 1950s did much for polio victims. No doubt about it. But they didn’t do as much as Sabin and Salk who took a different approach to the matter. Iron lungs worked. Polio vaccines worked better.
Teaching kids at their instructional level works. But you can often do better if you give kids the opportunity to learn more by placing them in more challenging texts.
You don’t indicate which grade level you teach, so it’s important to stress that instructional level appears to matter initially—that’s when kids are first learning to read—but it doesn’t seem to matter after that. Perhaps you are working with first-graders or kids who are reading at a first-grade level, in which case, I think you're going the right direction. (Of course, if you’re talking about kids who can read at a second- grade level and up, then I’d question why you are teaching everyone as if they were first-graders.)
Your instructional use of time seems peculiar to me. Two hours of reading class with no explicit instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension? I know there are fans of the idea that we just learn to read by reading, and I’ve certainly been critical about the lack of reading within instruction, but the research records on explicit teaching of the skills noted above--including to English learners--are just too good to ignore. Teaching any of the skills listed above has several times the impact on kids’ reading growth than having them off reading on their own. (I do encourage kids to read independently when I don’t have a highly skilled teacher available to work with them, but having them off reading separately from instruction when I do have such a teacher available seems wasteful.)
Unlike what has been traditionally proposed by guided reading advocates, I have supported the idea of teaching kids with texts at multiple levels. That is, not all of the required reading should be at a student’s instructional level. Learning and consolidation come from taking on different levels of challenge—varying the workload from easy to strenuous. I like that you are intentionally having students read texts at multiple levels of demand.
Nevertheless, I’m puzzled as to why you work so closely with children when you believe they will have little or no difficulty with a text (you indicate that you work in small groups with kids in books at their instructional level—in other words, texts—that if left to their own devices—they could read with 75% comprehension). But when students are required to read texts more likely to be at a frustration level, then you only provide scaffolding on a whole class basis (oh, how I wish you would have described that explicitly).
My approach to this is different: when children need a lot of help to carry out a task (such as when asked to read a text that they can’t manage on their own), I think it’s best to provide a lot of close support. And, when they can do reasonably well without me, I try to step back a bit and give them their head. You apparently believe the opposite—you are close by with few distractions to interfere when they don’t need you, and you are more distant and removed when real and immediate support would be beneficial. I find that puzzling.
Ultimately, the only thing that matters in this is how well your students can read. If they can successfully read the text levels set by your standards—on their own—then what you are doing sounds great to me. But if many of them can only do such reading successfully—with adequate word recognition and comprehension—when you’re scaffolding for them, then you might want to rethink some of your approaches. Your kids might be growing by “leaps and bounds” (I’d be happy to examine the evidence), but if they aren’t growing sufficiently to reach the standards, then I’d encourage you to be less dedicated to particular instructional approaches and more dedicated to helping your kids reach particular goals.
Finally, you requested some research sources. There are many bodies of research that nibble at the edges of this topic, including studies that have challenged the accuracy and reliability of the ways that we identify children’s instructional levels, examined correlationally the relationship between how well students are matched to books and student learning, relationships among text levels and student interest, and the effectiveness of the kind of group instruction that you describe including its impact on various demographic groups like high poverty populations or African American children. Those bodies of research aren’t particularly kind to the instructional level theory, but here I’ll only provide citations of studies that have directly compared the effectiveness of teaching students (second graders and up) with instructional level texts and with frustration level texts. I’d gladly include similar studies that have found instructional level teaching to be more effective; unfortunately, no such studies exist at this tim in the scientific literature.
Kuhn, M.R., Schwanenflugel, P.J., Morris, R.D., Morrow, L.M., Woo, D.G., Meisinger, E.B., Savrik, R.A., Bradley, B.A., & Stahl, S.A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.
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., Swanson, H. L., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1–19.