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.
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 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.
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