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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

More on the Instructional Level and Challenging Text

Teacher question:
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.

Shanahan response: 
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

An Argument About Matching Texts to Students

A reader wrote:
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.

My reply:
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

More on the Teaching with Books at the Students' Reading Levels

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.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

IRA 2014 Presentations

I made four presentations at the meetings of the International Reading Association in New Orleans this year. One of these was the annual research review address in which I explained the serious problems inherent in the "instructional level" in reading and in associated approaches like "guided reading" which have certainly outlived their usefulness.

IRA Talks 2014

Friday, January 18, 2013

Q & A On All Things Common Core

Recently, I participated in a webinar for McGraw-Hill about teaching with the common core standards. Participants sent in some questions and I have provided answers to those questions. Thought you might be interested in the wide-ranging conversation. Here is a link to the webinar itself in case you want to start there.

Any suggestions as to how raising text levels will work for students that are learning English? Are the same ideas relevant? I suspect that it isn’t that different across languages in terms of how this works generally or how well it will work. What needs to be scaffolded might differ, however. Usually second language learners will need more vocabulary support or grammar support than will be needed by native speakers (but there can be a lot of individual variation in this). Second language experts have long expressed concerns about text placements that under shot ELL students’ intellectual capacities; that problem will definitely be improved by this approach. For more info on English learners and common core visit

With the huge emphasis on increased text level, it seems that the amount of reading done will decrease significantly. What are your thoughts on this? That is a real possibility and it could be a problem. I think it is something we will need to be vigilant about. I continue to stress the idea that NOT all student reading needs to in the common core ranges and the importance of varied reading difficulty across the school day and school year. Obviously when one is dealing with very hard text, it makes sense to work with smaller doses of that (because it takes longer to figure it out)… with easier text the doses can be bigger. By working with a mix of texts, it is possible to get practice with both the intensity and extensiveness to increase student reading levels and reading stamina.

  David Coleman suggests reading 50% informational and 50% literary text. When we present students with "reach" texts, would you suggest we put more informational than literary texts in their hands? No, I generally wouldn’t say that, though in practice it might turn out that way. Kids will need experience in handling a wide variety of more challenging texts. However, I’ve been looking at the texts that elementary teachers report using with kids. The informational texts that they use tend to be harder than the literary texts… so if the harder texts that are available in your classroom are the informational texts, then these texts might very well be the ones that you use as reach texts.

If the vast majority of students in a classroom is reading two grade levels below current grade level, and the teacher is exposing the students to grade level shared text, is this enough? Should the shared text be ABOVE current grade level in this case? I don’t think there is a specific match of text to students (in terms of text difficulty) that facilitates learning. It will always be three variables: how well the student reads now, how hard the text is, and how much thoughtful support the teacher provides to help the student figure the text out. Working with materials two years harder than we would have used in the past is likely a sufficient distance to allow learning – now it is up to the teacher to provide enough support to encourage learning.

What would be the accuracy percentage you'd recommend when you suggest students read at their frustration level/"reach" level? See previous question. There is no set level. William Powell’s work suggests that these accuracy percentages might vary by grade levels, but that they were often in the mid 80-percents for the students who made the greatest gains (which is much lower than we would have encouraged in the past).

What is the role of literary nonfiction? If you want to prepare students to read well you should give them opportunities to work with a wide variety of text types—so they gain experience dealing with different language, text features, purposes, structures, etc. Literary nonfiction—essays, biographies, speeches, criticism—is wonderful and important. However, literature and non-literary informational text (science, history, etc.) are important, too. I fear that many schools will increase literary nonfiction, but will not increase the reading of non-literary informational text. (I also fear the pressure in some schools for the English Department to take on science and history reading—which makes no sense to me).

Can you put a percent on the maximum amount of time allowed for out-of-level reading? No. We definitely don’t know what the best mix of challenging and less challenging might be.

Do these shifts also apply to early intervention reading programs in all grade levels? Early intervention programs focus on learners in preschool, kindergarten, and grade one. I don’t think it would be a good idea to ramp text difficulty up for these students. Stay with the kinds of materials and student-text matches that we have traditionally used at these levels. (For later interventions, I like the idea of the highly skilled intervention teacher in an advantaged situation—smaller groups of children, for instance, working with harder text. Remember to learn from such text a lot more support is needed, so shifting to difficult text in the high support situation makes greater sense.

If this is true for grades 2-12, is it the role of grades K-1 to teach ALL students to the point of being on grade level expectations of CCSS? Grades PreK-1 have a lot to accomplish. The reason why we don’t ramp up the difficulty level of texts is to ensure that students develop their beginning reading and writing skills (e.g., phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, comprehension). Let’s not try to hurry past that part of the process (by raising the texts levels), but let’s give kids he skills that will allow them to benefit from the more challenging texts they will face later.

Using grade level texts (not a steady diet of out of level) is a big shift in thinking. As a literacy coach, how do I convince teachers that what we have been telling them to do is not the CCSS way anymore? I can feel a revolt coming on! However, it makes good sense to me. Are there studies there about how this shift impacts students' achievement? 
AND this one: 
During the webinar, I asked about research that supported asking students to read above their instructional levels. Dr. Shanahan indicated that there were a few studies. Could you give me the names of some of those researchers?

Here are a couple of past blogs that provide this information.

I work in a small district in Cedar City Utah as a school literacy specialist. Our district does not even have a core reading program that it requires all schools to use. (I use to work in Granite School district in Salt Lake City) My teachers want new curriculum in order to teach these new standards. Any suggestions on how to get the district to realize that new material is a real need with new standards?

 The Common Core is requiring the use of more challenging texts than has been common in the past. It is requiring substantially greater attention to informational text and literary non-fiction. It is requiring greater attention to connections across texts, and to the use of texts that have sufficient intellectual depth to support close readings. I can’t imagine schools reaching the common core without making changes to their texts (how big those changes will need to be will depend on what is in place now, of course).

I would like to ask Dr. Shanahan if the three read, first for key ideas/details, second for craft/structure, and third for integration of knowledge/ideas works for informational text as well as literary? AND Can you briefly describe what a close reading in science might look like?

Yes, attention to those three kinds of thinking makes sense with both kinds of reading though the specifics may differ a bit (a key idea in one type of text is not necessarily a key idea in another). Early on a close reading of science is not that different from other close readings, but as students move up through the grades – and science texts gets more specialized—it can look pretty different. However, the structure of close reading can be pretty similar even when some of the specifics change. Thus, initially, it is important that students be able to identify the main idea and key details. This means students have to learn to focus on the key scientific information that would allow them to summarize the text adequately (so far, not that different from literary reading, and yet what kind of information matters most differs even at this point—character motive is pretty important in literary reading, while material cause or causation without motive is essential to science). A deeper stab at reading science will then require attention to the nature of the author’s language and the structure of the text: this might include teaching students to understand the structure of an experiment or the kind of sentence-to-sentence analysis of text illustrated in Reading in Secondary Content Areas. Then to push even deeper, analyzing the connection among the parts of the text (such as the connections of the data-communication devices, tables and the like, to the prose) or comparing one scientific account with another.

What are your thoughts about using gradated texts? Texts on a variety of levels as a scaffold? I think reading multiple texts on a topic written at different levels of difficulty is a terrific scaffold for dealing with harder text. In the past, if a text was hard for students, reading teachers would have encouraged using a different text to be used “instead of.” The idea here is not to flee from the hard text, but to read some easier “in addition to” texts on the same topic and to climb these easier texts like stair-steps.

Where do learning disabled students fit with regard to these shifts? I think teachers who work with these students may rely less on simply putting kids in easier texts as their response to these students’ needs, and more on trying to help them to deal with whatever they are struggling with.

What recommendations do you have for getting a student, who may be reading 1-2 years below their grade level, to read at their grade level in the shortest amount of time? I would make sure the student had about 3 hours per day of reading and writing work and this should engage the student in reading every day; reading something relatively easy and something challenging. The work with the challenging text needs guidance and support from a teacher with a lot of attention and explicit work on vocabulary. I would also argue for substantial fluency work (that could be with the same challenging text—repeated oral reading of some form or other). Depending on the age and skill level, I might push for explicit decoding instruction. I would encourage/require a lot of writing, too. Yes, it does, but what is a key idea in one kind of text may not be in another.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What is the Biggest Literacy Teaching Myth in 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.