Snappy Responses or Challenging Text Debate

  • balanced literacy
  • 28 September, 2014

Last week, Valerie Strauss devoted her Washington Post space to an article challenging idea of teaching with challenging text, including my articles. The posting got lots of response showing fundamental misunderstandings of the issues on this. I am reprinting some of those responses along with my rejoinders to those. I will continue this over the next couple of entries since I think it will help teachers and parents to understand what this issue is about.

Basically, many reading experts have claimed that it is necessary or optimum to teach students using texts that are at the students’ so-called “instructional levels.” A text would be said to be “instructional” if students could—on their own--recognize approximately 95% of the words and answer 75-90% of the questions about the passage. Texts harder than that were considered to be “frustration” level. Accordingly, most elementary teachers report trying to teach students at their instructional level rather than their grade level. 
The controversy has been brought about by Common Core, since those standards are specific about the difficulty level of the texts that students need to learn to read. Unlike past standards that ignored what students could read. CCSS specifies particular levels of text difficulty for each grade two through twelve. They did this basically because if students were taught at their instructional levels all the time, how would they ever reach college or career readiness by the time they leave high school. 
Below are some of the letters from the Washington Post site, and my rejoinders in italics.
I do both leveled reading and introduce grade level complex text that we all work through together for deep comprehension. I don't see a conflict with the standards at all. The reality is that not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room. A teacher needs to make the adjustments needed to differentiate or at least have times when students are reading at instructional level, i.e. guided reading and one on one reading. I have students reading complex texts now independently because they can. The others participate in close reading exercises in whole group and just because they can't read every single word or read it fluently, that doesn't mean they can't understand the nuances in the text that are on the analysis or inference level. Some of my best critical thinkers were not the best readers and they contributed more to our conversations about text than some of those readers reading above grade level.  
  I have read the standards thoroughly for my grade level and I don't see that they are saying the students should be reading at a frustration level all the time. I use my own instructional judgment in my classroom and they are in line with the standards.

            This writer is correct that CCSS does not explicitly state that teachers need to teach with frustration level texts. However, they do specify text difficulty levels in grades 2-12, and since those are part of the standards, students will be tested using texts of those difficulty levels. Teachers can spend the year teaching fourth graders to read second grade texts—many do because “not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room”, but that  means the teacher is not even attempting to teach the fourth grade standards. Teachers are expected to teach their state’s standards and that means trying to teach students to read grade level texts; if they do this, given the current “reality,” that means many students will be working in frustration level texts.          
            The confusion evident here is a common one: the point is not to frustrate kids. The point is to teach students to make sense of texts of particular levels of difficulty. 
            I agree with this writer’s idea of teaching students with multiple levels of text; I’ve called for that repeatedly on this site and in presentations and articles. I would point out that this position contradicts the popular notion that students should be taught at their instructional level all the time). However, this writer’s description of how to do this makes no sense. Students need the greatest scaffolding and support from the teacher when reading the hardest texts. If complex texts are assigned to the whole class and instructional level ones to the small reading groups, then you are doing the opposite: you’re making sure kids get help when they don’t need it, and that they don’t when they do.
It is the instructional shifts, philosophy of proponents who do not like guided level reading and of course the tests. Keep doing what you are doing. You are doing right by your students.
            This is an example of someone who has fallen in love with a particular way of doing things—in this case, guided reading—and, therefore, resists the possibility of teaching successfully in any other way. I’m always befuddled    when a principal commits to a teaching activity with no research support, especially given the results that we are getting. The only study I’ve found on the effectiveness of guided reading was one in which guided reading was the comparison condition. Kuhn & Stahl (2006) reported that students who had worked with grade level texts did better than those in the guided reading instruction—oops). Teachers should pay attention to evidence—not opinion.
I completely agree that these "few" are attempting to dictate instruction. I don't like it. Every child is different. Educators should gear their teaching to fit their students. Some students may not do well with "frustration level teaching." Like I said, I'm afraid that those are the students that will choose to give up...that may seem like the easier route. Maybe it's the word "frustration" that doesn't sit well with me. I don't know.
            This writer makes a good point: much of the commentary on the Washington Post site focused on the idea of “frustration” and how bad it was to frustrate kids. Misunderstanding of educational jargon is the source of this concern, however. Studies show that the text levels labeled as “frustration” by reading experts are inconsistently related to actual measures of physiological or psychological frustration, and that mild levels of frustration are requisite for learning. 

            The issue isn’t whether kids should be frustrated, but whether the teacher   can assign texts at grade level. Students may struggle to read such texts initially, but more than 20 studies show that they can work with such texts without frustration if the teacher provides appropriate support. 

More to come...


See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:23 AM


I'd like to add a couple things to your discussion of guided reading. If you take away the label "guided reading," and just view it as a teacher giving feedback to a small group of students as they read orally and/or demonstrate comprehension, I think there is plenty of research to support it. John Hattie's research showed feedback and small group instruction are both powerful teaching techniques.

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:23 AM

Thank you for this helpful analysis.
I also think it's important to expand the discussion of the CCSS's shift in text complexity beyond Lexile ranges. I frequently encounter the claim that Hemingway novels and stories, for example, will be lost to the CC because they are not sufficiently complex. This ignores the fact that the CCSS encompass qualitative as well as quantitative complexity and that literature with complex characters and plots, symbolism, irony, interrelated themes, etc. is still complex text--regardless of its Lexile score.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:23 AM


Yes, much too much attention has gone into considering some of the limitations of readability measures--and not nearly enough attention has been paid how to teach with complex text. Lexiles--or any of the other formulas for estimating text difficulty--are imperfect. So what? We can easily recognize whether an estimate is too low or too high and if we guess wrong, we can always change texts or not use that one again. How do you teach students to read text that they find challenging? That's the right question

Anonymous Jun 15, 2017 11:24 AM


Indeed. I went off to college with a 4.0 GPA and little more than book report skills. I did a lot of sinking before I learned to swim. Most of college classmates were much better prepared than I was.

Jo Anne Gross Jun 15, 2017 11:25 AM


The issue simply is that a person who shows a difficulty learning to read in the early grades won`t get better with Leveled text.

They`ll get better when a teacher who knows how to teach a struggler with brain based instruction.Are they blending,do they have weak phonemic awareness,are they trying with feverish effort to memorize every word so they can read rather than "process" their language in their brain so they can read any level text eventually.
Sadly,like so many,Valerie Strauss knows nothing about research based reading instruction so inflaming with opinions that are frail aren`t really worthy of an answer.
Rather,we need to insist on instruction that gets students reading early and intervene like mad when we notice the child can`t do it.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 15, 2017 11:25 AM


The problem with the term "guided reading" is that it has become synonymous with leveled reading, directed reading, and small group instruction--three distinct concepts. I will write about this soon to help teachers to distinguish these ideas.

You are correct that small group instruction is usually found to confer a clear advantage and Hattie's analysis of these data is accurate. However, that analysis doesn't consider the impact of the practice. For example, studies by Sorenson & Hallinan have found that kids learn more during small group instruction, but then they have to do more seatwork (so the teacher can work with other small groups) and the limited amount of learning away from the teacher balances out the benefits of small group instruction. That's may be why Slavin's many analyses of the effectiveness of within-class reading grouping have never found any benefit. There is no more learning in the schools that provide this than in the schools that do not.

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Snappy Responses or Challenging Text Debate


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