Showing posts with label instructional level. Show all posts
Showing posts with label instructional level. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text

            Boy, oh, boy! The past couple weeks have brought unseasonably warm temperatures to the Midwest, and unusual flurries of questions concerning teaching children at their, so-called, “instructional levels.” Must be salesman season, or something.

            One of the questions asked specifically about my colleague Dick Allington, since he has published articles and chapters saying that teaching kids with challenging text is a dumb idea. And, a couple of others queries referred to the advertising copy from Teachers College Press (TCP) about their programs. Both Dick and TCP threw the R-word (research) around quite a bit, but neither actually managed to marshal research support for their claims, which means that the instructional level, after 71 years, still remains unsubstantiated.

            What I’m referring to is the long-held belief that kids learn more when they are matched to texts in particular ways. Texts can be neither too hard, nor too easy, or learning is kaput. At least that has been the claim. It sounded good to me as a teacher, and I spent a lot of time testing kids to find out which books they could learn from, and trying to prevent their contact with others.

            According to proponents of the instructional level, if a text is too easy, there will be nothing to learn. Let’s face it, if a reader already knows all the words in a text, and can answer all of the questions already with no teacher support, it wouldn’t seem to provide much learning opportunity. Surprisingly, however, early investigations found just the opposite—the less there was to learn from a book, the greater progress the students seem to make. This was so obviously wrong, that the researchers just made up the criteria separating the independent and instructional levels.

            Likewise, the theory holds out the possibility that some texts can be too hard. In other words, the more there would be to learn in a text, the less the students would be able to learn from it.

            But what is too easy and what is too hard?

            Back in the 1940s, Emmett Betts, reading authority extraordinaire, reported on a research study completed by one of his students. He claimed that the study showed that if you matched kids to text using the criteria he proposed (95-98% word reading accuracy and 75-89% reading comprehension), kids learned more.

            Unfortunately, no such a study was done. Betts sort of just made up the numbers and teachers and professors have rapturously clung to them ever since. Generation after generation of teachers has been told teaching kids at these levels improves learning.  (Though, due to Common Core, at least some programs have been advancing—arbitrarily—new criteria, perhaps in hopes of matching more students to books at the required levels.)

            Over the past decade or so, several researchers have realized that this widely recommended practice is the educational equivalent of fake news, and have started reporting studies on its effectiveness. And, the instructional level has not done well; it either has made no difference—that is the kids taught from grade level materials do as well as those at an instructional level—or the instructional level placements have led to less learning. Instructional level placements have the tendency to limit kids’ exposure to the linguistic and textual features that they don’t yet know how to negotiate; the practice reduces their opportunity to learn. The kids not so protected, often do better.

            It still makes sense to start kids out with relatively easy texts when they are in K-1, since they have to learn to decode. Beginning reading texts should have enough repetition and should provide kids lots of exposure to the most frequent and straightforward spelling patterns in our language. But, once that hurdle is overcome, it makes no sense to teach everybody as if they were 5-years-old. The studies are pretty clear that from a second-grade reading level on, kids can learn plenty when taught with more challenging texts.

            Here are some related questions that have been asked of me over the past 2-3 weeks:

But my kids are learning to read and they have for years. Why change now?
            Because of the opportunity cost; your students could do even better. Students often tell me that they hate reading specifically because they always get placed in what they call the “stupid kid books.” If kids can learn as much or more from the grade level texts—and they can—we should be giving them opportunities to read the texts that are more at their intellectual levels and that match their age-level interests.

Isn’t it true that the studies in which the kids did better varied not just the book levels, but how the students were taught?
            Yes, that is true, and instructional level proponents have raised that as a complaint about these studies. However, no one is claiming that students will just learn more from harder books. As students, confront greater amounts of challenge the teaching demands go up. One suspects that part of the popularity of the instructional level idea is that the teacher doesn't have to do as much (since the kids start out knowing almost all the words and can read the texts with high comprehension with no teacher support).

What about older kids who are still “beginning readers?”
            Anyone—at whatever age level—who is just starting to learn to read, is still going to need to master decoding. Teaching such older students with more demanding texts will just make it harder to master the relations between spelling and pronunciation. Definitely stay with relatively easy books with older readers who are reading at a kindergarten or first-grade level.

Are you saying no more small group teaching?
            No, small group teaching is fine, unless the purpose of that grouping is to teach students with different levels of books. In fact, I think providing small group teaching to students when they are in the harder materials makes greater sense than how we tend to do it now (which is to put kids in easier materials when they work closely with the teacher—I’d do the opposite).

So you don’t believe in differentiation?
            I believe in differentiation, but I don’t believe that means placing kids in different levels of books. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that we could more profitably vary the amount and type of scaffolding for the needs of different students.  

Dick Allington has admitted that some studies do show that kids can learn more from more challenging texts, but that the scaffolding in these studies is simply too demanding for the average teacher. What do you think?
            Dick was referring to studies done by Alyssa Morgan and Melanie Kuhn (and their colleagues). In both, the frustration level placements led to more learning than the instructional level ones. In the Morgan study, she used paired reading, and the scaffolding was provided by untrained 7-year-olds (though they were the relatively better readers). I suspect most teachers can scaffold as well as a second-grader, and don’t find paired reading interventions to be beyond most teachers’ skills levels. I asked Melanie Kuhn directly about this criticism. She was surprised. Teachers in the original study had so easily used their teaching routines that Kuhn and company decided to collect data for an additional year. I reject the idea that only the most elite teachers can provide this kind of teaching.

So you totally reject the instructional level idea for anyone but beginners?
            No, I’ve come to believe that the instructional level would be a great goal to aim at for at the completion of a lesson. If, when you are finishing up with a text, the kids know 75% or more of the ideas and can read 95% or more of the words, then you have done a terrific job. One of Linnea Ehri’s studies found that the kids who did best ended up with 98% accuracy, for instance. Of course, if you keep starting with texts at those levels, then you would have little to teach. Start kids out with complex texts that they cannot read successfully; then teach them to read those texts well.

Should all the texts that we teach from be at the levels that Common Core set?

            No, I would argue (based on very little direct evidence—so I’m stretching a bit here) that students should read several texts across their school days and school years. This reading should vary greatly in difficulty, from relatively easy texts that would afford students extensive reads with little teacher support, to very demanding texts that could only be accomplished successfully with a great deal of rereading and teacher scaffolding. I believe that much is learned from that kind of varied practice.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971;  Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

            Language learning doesn’t work that way.

            That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:
           
1. No, easier text is not more motivating.
            Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.
            One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.
            Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.
            And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).
            If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.
            If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.
            In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.
            Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.
            I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.
            If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.
            I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.
            Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.
            I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.

References 
Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, 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, L. H., & 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.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Laying Waste to 5 Popular Myths about Reading Instruction

"Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping, and the cotton is high..." 

It is summer and not a good time for a long blog on literacy teaching. So, I took the time to write a short one. I didn't want to get worked up in the summer heat, so have provided a pithy critique of 5 popular myths about reading instruction. 

1.  No, the fact that you do not use a textbook to teach reading does not make you a good teacher. 
The idea that good teachers don’t follow a program and weak ones do has been around since well before I became a teacher. It is absolutely silly. The good teachers are the ones who manage to teach kids a lot and the poor ones accomplish less. That has nothing to do with whether a program is followed or not.
           
2.  No, the fact that you have regularly scheduled free reading time in your classroom does not mean the kids will improve in reading. 
Kids can learn something from reading on their own. But they tend to learn much more from reading instruction (reading a book along with other kids discussing it with a teacher, and writing about it). Free-choice reading time—SSR, DEAR, SQUIRT—ranges from having no affect on learning to having very tiny effects. Encourage free reading when teachers aren’t available to work   with kids and encourage teaching when they are.

3.  No, focusing only on reading—ignoring writing and content instruction—is not the best way to raise reading achievement for struggling readers.
The idea that kids who struggle with reading need more literacy instruction makes sense and is supported by research. But often this is offered at the cost of other kinds of instruction. Writing about text has been found to have bigger comprehension effects than reading alone, reading and rereading, and reading and discussing. Skipping writing instruction and activity for extra reading is obviously a bad idea. And, though it might be necessary to pull kids out of some content instruction to get the reading help they need, the bad effects of this should be reduced by making sure the texts used for this instruction is content rich.

4.  No, assigning students (in grades 2-12) to reading books at “their reading levels” does not facilitate learning to read.
I’m still finding teachers who are sure there must be research supporting the idea of teaching kids with texts of particular levels of difficulty (such as those they can read with 95-98% accuracy). There isn’t. Kids can learn from a wide range of text difficulties, and it makes sense to guide them, within instruction, to make sense of texts that they would struggle to read on their own.

5.  No, reading to kids does not teach them to read.
There are few activities that I enjoy as a parent, grandparent, or teacher than reading to children. And, yet, studies show that such activity has positive impacts on children’s vocabulary (kids who are read know the meanings of   new words). However, the idea that reading to kids teaches them to read is a bad idea—and one not demonstrated in the dozens of studies on reading to kids. I definitely would continue to read to children, but not instead of reading instruction. Reading picture books or chapter books to kids should not take the place of any part of the reading and writing instruction block.


Pennsylvania June 2016 Powerpoints

Laying Waste to 5 Popular Myths about Reading Instruction

"Summertime and the living is easy, fish are jumping, and the cotton is high..." 

It is summer and not a good time for a long blog on literacy teaching. So, I took the time to write a short one. I didn't want to get worked up in the summer heat, so have provided a pithy critique of 5 popular myths about reading instruction. 

1.  No, the fact that you do not use a textbook to teach reading does not make you a good teacher. 
The idea that good teachers don’t follow a program and weak ones do has been around since well before I became a teacher. It is absolutely silly. The good teachers are the ones who manage to teach kids a lot and the poor ones accomplish less. That has nothing to do with whether a program is followed or not.
           
2.  No, the fact that you have regularly scheduled free reading time in your classroom does not mean the kids will improve in reading. 
Kids can learn something from reading on their own. But they tend to learn much more from reading instruction (reading a book along with other kids discussing it with a teacher, and writing about it). Free-choice reading time—SSR, DEAR, SQUIRT—ranges from having no affect on learning to having very tiny effects. Encourage free reading when teachers aren’t available to work   with kids and encourage teaching when they are.

3.  No, focusing only on reading—ignoring writing and content instruction—is not the best way to raise reading achievement for struggling readers.
The idea that kids who struggle with reading need more literacy instruction makes sense and is supported by research. But often this is offered at the cost of other kinds of instruction. Writing about text has been found to have bigger comprehension effects than reading alone, reading and rereading, and reading and discussing. Skipping writing instruction and activity for extra reading is obviously a bad idea. And, though it might be necessary to pull kids out of some content instruction to get the reading help they need, the bad effects of this should be reduced by making sure the texts used for this instruction is content rich.

4.  No, assigning students (in grades 2-12) to reading books at “their reading levels” does not facilitate learning to read.
I’m still finding teachers who are sure there must be research supporting the idea of teaching kids with texts of particular levels of difficulty (such as those they can read with 95-98% accuracy). There isn’t. Kids can learn from a wide range of text difficulties, and it makes sense to guide them, within instruction, to make sense of texts that they would struggle to read on their own.

5.  No, reading to kids does not teach them to read.
There are few activities that I enjoy as a parent, grandparent, or teacher than reading to children. And, yet, studies show that such activity has positive impacts on children’s vocabulary (kids who are read know the meanings of   new words). However, the idea that reading to kids teaches them to read is a bad idea—and one not demonstrated in the dozens of studies on reading to kids. I definitely would continue to read to children, but not instead of reading instruction. Reading picture books or chapter books to kids should not take the place of any part of the reading and writing instruction block.


Pennsylvania June 2016 Powerpoints

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Six Pieces of Advice on Teaching with Complex Text

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).


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.