More on the Instructional Level and Challenging Text

  • author awareness balanced literacy
  • 30 August, 2015

Blast from the Past: This posting originally appeared on August 30, 2015 and reposted August 19, 2023. Issues about whether students should be taught at grade level or instructional level continue to plague the field of reading education. Since this first posted, more research has accumulated showing that it is important -- for the sake of learning -- that we give students opportunity to learn to read harder texts than we dared in the past. Sadly, many advocates of guided reading continue to misinterpret the "challenging text" requirements of their state standards. Here i explain why the instructional level theory is reasonable, but that it errs on its definition of what constitutes challenging text. This 8-year-old blog is as relevant today as when first published. Oh, and by the way, be sure to read the comments and responses -- that is one of the best parts of these blogs.

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 those extremes, the hope was that more learning would take place. In texts that students find easy (what you refer to as the independent level), there would be little for students to learn—since they would recognize all or most of the words and could understand the text fully without any help from the teacher. Likewise, texts that pose too much challenge might overwhelm or frustrate students preventing learning. Placing students in instructional level materials was meant to be challenging (there’d be something to learn), but not so challenging as to discourage.

At least that’s the theory.

So, I do understand that the way you are placing kids in text is meant to provide them with an appropriate degree of challenge.

But please don’t confuse this level of challenge with what your state standards are requiring, and don't assume that your criteria for determining the appropriate level of text challenge to be correct.

Your state standards obligate you to teach students to read texts of specified levels of difficulty—levels of difficulty that for many kids will exceed your notions of what is sufficiently challenging.

In other words, everyone wants kids to be challenged.

The argument is about how much challenge we need to provide.

You may believe that students do best if the texts used for teaching reading would be so easy that they'll err no more than 2-5 times per 100 words. But your state has planted a flag saying that the appropriate challenge level is a level of demand that if accomplished would ensure that the students will graduate from high school with a sufficient level of achievement. That means in many circumstances your state says teach kids to read books at level X, and you’d respond, “No way, my kids make too many errors with book X. That is not at their instructional level.”

It is important to note that the Lexile levels usually associated with the grade levels are not the ones that the state standards have assigned to the grades. Those older Lexile grade-designations were meant to estimate the levels of text that average students could read with 75-89% comprehension (your instructional levels).

Those Lexile designations weren’t claiming that all kids in a particular grade could read such texts well, only that the average students would. Teachers like you (and me, by the way) would then test our individual students and place them in books with higher or lower Lexiles in our efforts to match them to books at their magical instructional level.

The new standards have assigned higher Lexile bands to each grade level than the ones you might be familiar with.

That means that even the average kids will not be able to read those texts at an instructional level; some kids will, but the majority are unlikely to. That means teachers will need to teach students to read books more challenging than in the past.

If you were a teacher who tried to teach reading with grade level texts, you can continue that, but understand, the grade level texts are going to be a bit harder for kids than in the past.

If you were a teacher who tried to teach reading at the instructional level -- teaching students with books that were supposed to facilitate their learning -- doing so will mean that your kids are unlikely to meet the state standards (and more importantly, your kids are not likely to leave school able to participate and benefit fully from our highly literate society).

In other words, if you do what the states have asked, you will need to find ways to teach many children to read at their frustration level.

I do get the idea that instructional level is meant to be challenging.

But for most kids, teaching them at their instructional level will not meet the standards, nor will such reading experiences provide the greatest learning advantages.

That degree of challenge (instructional level) undershoots the level of challenge established by your state – the level at which they will test your students.

My point? You really need to change your approach.

Perhaps you can take solace in the fact that research has increasingly shown that instruction with more challenging texts than you have dared use in the past leads to higher reading levels.

I will spare you references to those studies, but you can find them on this site in other blog entries as well as articles and Powerpoints in the publications section.



See what others have to say about this topic.

EdEd Jun 13, 2017 01:52 AM


The fastest way to meeting state standards, no matter how high, is through good instruction. Period. We can't simply say, "Well, kids need to be able to read at a higher level now, so we're just going to instruct on that level." Kids won't magically be able to read at whatever level we tell them to simply because folks at the state house want them to. In short, if we want kids to read complex text, we need to teach them how to do it. We do this by providing the maximally challenging material kids can successfully engage. This, by definition, instructional level.

Again, you point to "research" regarding instructional level - there's plenty of it, if you know what "instructional level" means and what research is using that construct. Broadly considered, instructional level means what I said before - teaching kids at the most challenging level possible given their current skill level. Thousands upon thousands of evidence-based programs do this. I'll point to just one for starters that's been supported by independent research and has been included in the What Works Clearinghouse - S.P.I.R.E. (note - I have no affiliation with this company).

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 01:52 AM



The problem with your letter is that your definition of instructional level is idiosyncratic. It is not the definition used in the field (look at any textbook on reading instruction or the literacy dictionary). While your definition is sensible (it is instructional level if students learn from it), it is post hoc (meaning you can't know whether the placement was appropriate until after instruction has taken place) and it ignores the idea of optimum learning (yes, learning took place with this placement, but was it the most learning that could have been expected?).

Instructional level is also a concept that refers to the texts students read to learn to read. It does not have anything to do with phonological awareness or phonics instructions. Thus, there aren't really thousands of studies of instructional level, but there definitely are many programs that rely on instructional level (the concept used in the field referring to a specific and generalizable match of students with texts aimed at optimizing learning) that have been found to be effective, but not necessarily because of these placements.

Tiffany Aug 19, 2023 02:23 PM

What suggestions do you have for determining what a “grade level” text is? That also feels tricky when the qualitative and quantitative measurements are completely valid or reliable. What criteria was used to create appendix b?

Andrew Biemiller Aug 19, 2023 02:44 PM

There are 3 "reading levels" to be considered:
1. Decoding level--text that a child can read with 95% accuracy;
2. Comprehension level--text a child can understand if heard. (Note that by middle and high school, many can understand texts in print that are more complex than when heard.)
3. State determined "grade level" text difficulty. Students vary widely in their vocabularies and reading comprehension at specific grades. Some know vocabularies several "grades" ahead of their grade. Others can be several "grades" below their grade level.
"Comprehension difficulty" is largely determined by vocabulary level--as children grow, they acquire larger vocabularies, and know increasingly complex words (academic vocabulary). The spread in reading comprehension ranges is roughly equivalent to grade level. Thus at 6th grade, 10th percentile children are at 3rd grade equivalent level while 90th percentile children are at 9th grade equivalent reading comprehension. (Norms from Iowa Test of Basic Skills data.)

Katie L Aug 19, 2023 02:50 PM

Could you speak to using leveled readers with MSV as primary literacy instruction in Kindergarten and First without a systematic phonics program. I think this post could be used for some educators to think it is recommended to use leveled readers with a sprinkle of phonemic awareness and phonics especially at the Kindergarten level. Thanks:)

Cheri Aug 19, 2023 03:46 PM

Great points in the article, and to me, it highlighted one of our biggest current challenges; how do we move away from teaching with reading levels, and towards teaching genre/content/format specific skills? Reading levels vary from text to text, shouldn't our skills focus on ways to approach any type of text, and then funnel down to sub skill sets? Of course we need to working in appropriate text, but that often depends on the student, not the grade!

Timothy Shanahan Aug 19, 2023 04:03 PM


Every facet of a text that is a barrier to comprehension is a potential reading lesson. That includes vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, structure (and all of there parts), print formats, content features and so on. Pay attention to features that may block your students and then assess whether that happens (ask questions aimed at revealing problems, misunderstandings, etc.). Then show kids how to deal with that difficulty.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 19, 2023 04:07 PM

Katie --

First, primary literacy instruction in kindergarten and first grade should include phonemic awareness and phonics (it is mean to kids not to). Second, texts for beginning readers should be easy -- easy because of the decodability of the text and easy because of the amount of single word repetition. There is nothing wrong with using leveled readers as part of that beginning diet, as long as you avoid using predictable text that encourage kids to ignore the print and depend upon the pictures.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 19, 2023 04:12 PM


I would go with the Common Core (yep appendix b and the later update). Those levels were set in terms of what level we want kids to reach by the time they graduate (levels needed to enter military, participate in the workplace, succeed in higher education). They backed down from there to set grade level targets. Undershooting those leaves kids underprepared. I would strive to get kids to those levels. Most reading textbooks have set their levels based on those.


Harriett Janetos Aug 19, 2023 04:22 PM

When I found myself five years ago teaching a third grade class one day a week, I was influenced by your recommendations and wrote about my experiences: From Play-doh to Plato: All students need to grapple with grade-level text.

"National Reading Panel participant Timothy Shanahan has written extensively on this topic. “Placing kids in easier, below grade level books reduces their opportunities to learn, but learning will only take place with accommodative and supportive instruction.” Just to be clear: “No one is claiming that just placing kids in harder books leads to greater learning—clearly harder books require instructional adjustments by teachers that are an important part of the equation,” so the emphasis is placed on teacher-scaffolded grade-level texts . . . Timothy Shanahan asks: “If low-performing fourth-graders are to be taught from second grade books, when do they catch up?” Certainly, this was the question I kept asking myself about my struggling students

cary wright Aug 19, 2023 05:13 PM

When it comes to introducing students to more challenging reading material, we need to be careful. This is especially true for schools that serve students who may face additional obstacles. Sudden changes to harder texts without enough support can actually make the achievement gap even wider. To make sure every student has a fair chance, we need to take a balanced approach.

- What specific scaffolds and supports can we use to help diverse learners access challenging texts? How might these be implemented effectively?

- How can we build the background knowledge and academic language that students from less affluent backgrounds often lack before introducing complex texts?

- What strategies can we use to make grade-level texts more accessible while still pushing students' abilities?

- How much time and explicit instruction of foundational skills will students need if we introduce harder texts earlier?

- Has research been done on the effects of this approach specifically on low-income minority students? What were the results?

- How can we engage parents and communities to support students reading increasingly complex texts? What culturally relevant enrichment experiences might help?

- What formative assessments can teachers use to identify student needs and target instruction to support reading achievement with challenging texts?

- How can schools obtain funding for extensive professional development and curriculum materials needed to implement this effectively?

Steve Burdin Aug 19, 2023 06:47 PM

The whole idea of reading being on levels has always been unclear. It is commonly used to describe where a kid is, if they're where they should be, and most often in special ed. how far below grade level they are. Since reading proficiency is the term used to describe where we as reading educators would like all students to be, I wish there was a clear criteria of what that would look like. I have often wondered if a K-5 timeline could be effectively developed to show what and when certain components of literacy skills should be in place for kids to become what we define as proficient before they leave 5th Grade. With a concise timeline or growth continuum, we could also pinpoint when and how to implement preventive or remedial interventions. Is this just a " I wish there was"? Thanks.

Timothy Shanahan Aug 19, 2023 07:44 PM

The more I have studied this, the more I believe there is no such thing as an appropriate level to teach students (in terms of advantaging the learner). There is the level of text we want kids to be able to handle and there is the student's proficiency with such text. Teaching needs to focus on that space -- enabling students to deal with those text features not already under their control.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 19, 2023 07:52 PM


Research has shown that from grades 2-12, students do better in learning to read when taught with. texts we, in the past, would have judged to be frustration level. Indeed, to accomplish this you have to teach the students to read the texts instead of just assuming they can already do it. There is actually no research showing that teaching students at their instructional level is beneficial though the practice has been widely encouraged for several decades. Look up challenging text on this site and you can find many articles on how to facilitate such teaching.


Jo Anne Gross Aug 19, 2023 10:38 PM

Houghton Mifflin bragged about raising Lexile levels in a promotional piece re one of their teach a student to read technologies.
I looked up the books recommended for K Lexile- whole language !
8 books came up!!!!

Katie L Aug 20, 2023 01:40 AM

Thank you!! Could you give me an example of a leveled reader in kindergarten that is not predictable and how you would use it for instruction?

Timothy Shanahan Aug 20, 2023 02:25 AM

Katie- decodables aren’t predictable, controlled vocabulary aren’t predictable. Studies show that predictable LOWER literacy so those are a bad choice.


Timothy Shanahan Aug 20, 2023 01:36 PM

'With the exception of those predictable books with beginning readers, the problem is not the books -- it is the limiting instruction to books (in grades 2-12) on the supposed instructional levels. All books do have levels -- some are easier than others -- so no matter what you teach, the books will have levels. Your approach makes sense.

Nechama Aug 20, 2023 04:08 PM

I love it! Mr. S you are so fun to read. Let's call it the Nietzsche Reading Method: What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.

Dr. Bill Conrad Aug 21, 2023 10:32 PM

As usual, Tim does a great job in explaining the many permutations of text complexity. A useful guide!

But pity the poor teacher who has to deal with all of it! Frustration levels, Challenge levels, state standard levels, grade levels, Lexile levels. Yada Yada Yada!

Shame on the research community and educational leaders who put teachers in this labyrinth of levels that need to be disentangled!

And we wonder why illiteracy abounds! My research shows that almost 50 million 4th grade students are illiterate over 20 years as measured by NAEP!

Read The Fog of Education!

Cindy Matthews Aug 20, 2023 11:36 AM

Dear Dr. Shanahan, First I just want to say that you have been the voice of reason for me through this resurgence of a reading war.
I would just like to add to the conversation that I recently packed up a leveled book room to put on library carts which will be housed near classrooms. In this process, I drew upon the thinking of Claire Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan in their book, It's All About the Books. Thus, I went about creating leveled bands, A - E, for example. I created themed book sets. I found the leveled books at this band included themes of Animals, Our Pets, Family, Friends, Our Community, Out and About, Playing, Sports, Earth, Space. Now I have the task of encouraging the teachers that this is a useful way of presenting books to kids. I anticipate some pushback. However, I also believe that this method will facilitate another move I would like to make with the book sets which is to develop mentor texts as part of the sets to build knowledge. So for example, I put together all nonfiction books also in level bands around topics such as dolphins, whales, octopus, etc. I am planning on bundling these books with books about the ocean which a teacher could use to introduce the aquatic animals bundle. Any feedback would be welcomed.

Maple Aug 22, 2023 09:33 PM

You mentioned an update to Appendix b. I haven’t been able to find it. Can anyone post the link?

Timothy Shanahan Aug 23, 2023 03:51 PM


Usually these can be found on the Chief State School Officers website under Common Core State Standards, but currently they are redesigning that part of the site. However, I was able to find a copy of what you need on the Los Angeles school system site. This should work for you:

Good luck.


Jarina Lowe Sep 01, 2023 08:35 PM

I agree with the aspect of research , continuous research helps with future development. Lexile levels will continue to stay stagnant without proper research , and changes made.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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More on the Instructional Level and Challenging Text


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