The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text

  • adolescent literacy author awareness balanced literacy
  • 07 February, 2017

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.



See what others have to say about this topic.

Brandi Noll Apr 05, 2017 06:07 PM

Even as an AVID Allington fan, I can say that I DO agree with almost all of what you have stated here...
BUT what I wish you would have ended this post with is the following paragraph:
"Every time we talk about levels of both students and texts we must step back so we can see the forest among the trees. Leveling is JUST ONE consideration we teachers make when choosing texts for our readers - it is not the ONLY one and it definitely isn't the absolute starting point!
Other things we must consider: topics (are they relevant to the grade level content areas or do they match students' interests?), type of text (does it provide an opportunity to read electronically or in a hard copy book or a magazine article?), genre/sub genre (is it a great example of a genre which you are currently teaching within?), standards match (is a great text for teaching text features?). multicultural components (does it allow for some of your students with disabilities to connect with a character with the same? does it provide an opportunity to expose your student to a culture outside of your community in a high quality way?).
Instead of considering what a book has to offer based heavily on what level it is, we should consider what a book has to offer from all aspects of what reading is truly about - what ideas and life lessons can be gained from your specific students reading the text. 2/8/2017

Zachary Wilson Apr 14, 2018 06:29 AM

Interesting argument! For the record, I was taught in graduate school that differentiating texts for students based on readiness level is an effective practice, but I find myself relatively convinced by a lot of what you're saying here. Your argument is more nuanced than it seems initially. I think students need time to read independently, and that for this purpose, it's necessary to provide students with harder and easier texts, and that it makes sense for students with high readiness levels to (generally) read more challenging texts and for students who are several grade levels behind to read more simplistic texts. That said, I really like what you have to say about the importance of doing the hard work of scaffolding and re-teaching grade-level texts, as well. It's definitely possible to use small group instruction, scaffolding, and re-reading, etc. to help struggling readers to push themselves and grow, and teachers should! I agree that the idea of frustration levels existing at a specific percent of the text seems arbitrary, and that it's important to read at frustration level (Like getting through all the imaginary slang in a Clockwork Orange!) and that this is where some of the best skill instruction happens. In my own classroom, I'll strive to utilize the methods you've talked about for discrete skill instruction, while continuing to encourage students to read texts that are more generally suitable to their comprehension level during the rest of reading workshop (which is more about reading for pleasure). Thanks for the great work!

Nicole Mitchell Apr 17, 2018 05:06 PM

When you discuss the necessity of using grade-level text with students are you suggesting this is the text level a teacher should use in whole group reading instruction? What about small group reading instruction? Should a teacher use a text that is at the student's instructional level, or choose one that is a bit more difficult and scaffold the instruction where necessary?

Mary Jackson Sep 20, 2019 03:36 AM

When setting up small groups, do you use fluency and comprehension data as your guide?

Mary Jackson Sep 20, 2019 03:42 AM

When setting up small groups, do you use fluency and comprehension data as your guide?

Joan Cris Mar 06, 2020 08:50 PM

I am looking for more research on the importance of small group oral reading for learners at all levels, in all subjects, and how to implement oral reading opportunities effectively in middle school and high school lesson planning

Shannon Brown Mar 29, 2021 04:57 AM

nice write up here and thanks for sharing this

Kel Murphy Mar 28, 2021 03:18 AM

The challenge I have in my class is that I have students 1 to 2 years below grade level, as in at least half. So, I had been catching grief from my principal saying to differentiate, but according to this, when they are with me in a teacher group, they should be reading more challenging, or for them, their grade level, reading texts.
Thanks for the article, very interesting.

Jackie Apr 01, 2021 01:48 PM

I agree with the fact that differentiation is not leveled books for different level readers!! However, a lot of school districts and principals believe that is what differentiation is!! I agree that we need to vary amount and types of scaffolding to meet the needs of different students.

Melissa Jackson Apr 03, 2021 01:37 AM

I feel that varying the text is the best method. You have to get the students interested and engaged before you introduce complex text that makes them feel defeated. I want to create a love for reading in my class, and so many kids these days really do not like to read, or find it difficult. This makes them give up.

Tim Shanahan Apr 03, 2021 02:47 AM

Melissa— That sounds good but research suggests that you are approaching the program from the wrong end. Making students better readers does more for the love of reading than the reverse. Your emphasis on love over expertise undermines both.



Roslyn Reed Sep 04, 2022 07:32 PM


In the research you have referenced, What data or information was collected on social emotional needs, self esteem, motivation and self starting skills when text 'appears' to challenging. A child who struggles with sight words or sounding out words who is given a hard piece of text will shut down and refuse to try.

I am also curious about how this practice provides an entry point into a text? I believe that when learning new things or challenging your students, there always needs to be a door in which a student feels they can open.

At what 'reading level' would you suggest transitioning them from the beginning (K-1) focus groups to the more fluid way of teaching reading you are discussing?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 23, 2022 09:08 PM

There are studies of motivation and text difficulty with older students and they find no consistent pattern of relationship. In many cases, the students prefer the more challenging texts. I think the mistake that we make in this area is to assume that motivation and barriers to motivation are simple. For instance, students -- if interested in the topic -- may prefer a challenging text to a simple one. Or students may be willing to work with a challenging text if the task in engaging or they believe something good is coming from it.

I have no doubt that if students were struggling endlessly with text with neither benefit nor respite, they would be worn down by the experience and any initial motive would dissipate. However, that is not what is being recommended. Students engagement with difficult text should be mediated by a supportive and encouraging teacher who is teaching them how to read such a text and building those skills -- rather than just having the kids read and quizzing them on it.

I don't recommend engaging in such practices until Grade 2 (and with kids who have their basic decoding skills in place -- able to read like a late year first-grader or beginning year second grader). Most of the evidence on the effectiveness of these teaching comes from second grades.

Stephanie Moran Mar 21, 2024 06:18 PM

Doesn't the concept of leveled texts align with Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 21, 2024 06:49 PM

No, Stephanie, not at all. Vygotsky did not buy into the American notion of readiness for learning or that there was some particular level of performance that had to be accomplished before learning could begin. Vygotsky rejected the notion that if something was challenging that you taught something else instead, but argued that the amount of instructional support should change.


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The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text


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