The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text

  • 23 March, 2024

Blast from the Past: This piece first posted on February 7, 2017, and was reposted on March 23, 2024. Nothing to change or update here, but given recent questions and discussions on social media, I think it would be worthwhile to revisit the topic. I’ve been beavering away at a book manuscript that will go into much greater detail on this topic, that I hope will be available to everyone in 2025. It won’t reach different conclusions either, even given new scholarship on the issue.

Boy, oh, boy! The past couple weeks have brought unseasonably warm temperatures to the Midwest, and an unusual flurry of questions concerning teaching children at their, so-called, “instructional levels.” Must be salesman season, or something.          

One question was 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. A couple of others referred to advertising copy for Units of Study, a program published by Teachers College Press. Both Dick and TCP had thrown the R-word (research) around quite a bit, but neither managed to conjure up any studies that supported their claims. That 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. The claim is that learning is squelched if a text is too hard or too easy. I bought into it as a teacher and spent a lot of time testing kids to find out which books they could learn from and trying to prevent their contact with the verboten ones.

According to proponents of the instructional level, if a text is too easy, there is nothing to learn. Let’s face it, if a reader already knows all the words in a text and can answer a bunch of questions with no teacher support, that wouldn’t be much of a learning opportunity. I buy that. Surprisingly, however, early investigations found the opposite — the less there was to learn from a book, the greater progress the students seemed to make. Yikes! This was so obviously wrong, that the researchers rejected their own findings and made up some criteria for separating the independent and instructional levels.

Likewise, the theory posits that texts can be too hard – preventing children from learning and crushing their tender motivation.

But what’s too easy and what’s too hard?

Back in the 1940s, Emmett Betts, reading authority extraordinaire, reported on a research study completed by one of his students. He implied 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, there was no such study of learning. Betts just made up the numbers and teachers and professors have rapturously clung to them ever since. Generation after generation of teachers has been told that teaching kids at their instructional levels improves learning.  

Over the past decade or so, some scholars have begun to realize that this widely recommended practice is the educational equivalent of fake news and have started reporting studies into its ineffectiveness.

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 placed at an instructional level — or the instructional level placements have led to less learning. This is probably because easier texts tend to limit kids’ exposure to linguistic and textual features that they don’t yet know how to negotiate. 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 must learn to decode. Beginning reading texts should have enough repetition and clear 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-year-olds. From Grade 2 on, it appears that kids can learn plenty when taught with more challenging texts.

Here are some related questions asked of me over the past 2-3 weeks:

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 reason to reject that evidence. However, no one is claiming that students learn more simply by being placed in 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 is that teachers don’t have to do as much (since kids already know most of the words and can comprehend the texts on their own).

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 older students with a steady diet of more demanding texts may make it harder to master the relations between spelling and pronunciation. Stay with relatively easy books at least part of the time 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 can be productive, unless the purpose of that grouping is to teach students with different levels of books. I think it would make more sense to work with small groups when teaching with harder texts, since this would facilitate greater teacher support. We do the opposite now. We place kids in relatively easy text and then place them in small groups to get the extra attention that isn’t needed under those circumstances.

You don’t believe in differentiation?

I believe in differentiation, but not if that mainly means teaching kids with different levels of books. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that we would be better off varying the scaffolding provided to different students who are working with the same books.

Dick Allington admits that kids can learn more from more challenging texts but says that the scaffolding to do this would be too demanding for an average teacher. What do you think?

Dick was referring to studies done by Alyssa Morgan and Melanie Kuhn. In both, the frustration level placements led to more learning. In the Morgan study, the treatment was paired reading. That means the powerful instructional scaffolding that was provided was delivered by untrained 7-year-olds. My hunch is that the average teacher can scaffold as well as a second grader (I think there is a TV show about something like that). This is not for elite teachers only.

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, you have done a terrific job. One of Linnea Ehri’s studies found that the kids who did best ended up with 98% accuracy. Of course, if you start with texts at those levels, that leaves little to teach. Start with texts students cannot yet read successfully; then teach them to read those texts so well that people would think those texts were at their instructional levels. Make it the outcome, not the input.

Should all the texts that we teach from be at the levels that Common Core set?

No, I’d argue (based on little direct evidence) 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.

LISTEN TO MORE: Shanahan On Literacy Podcast


See what others have to say about this topic.

Teacher Mar 23, 2024 12:08 PM

What do you think kids should read to develop fluency and stamina?

Lisa Caldwell Mar 23, 2024 12:10 PM

Thank you for this post. How do you define independent, instructional and frustrational levels? Our district uses F&P’s BAS to determine these. Sharing your knowledge on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

Barney Brawer Mar 23, 2024 03:37 PM

I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that the essay above focuses almost entirely on the reading LEVEL of the materials students would be reading. There is scant mention of the CONTENT of the reading material. I'm a retired elementary teacher and school principal, and it has been my experience that students are often thrilled to read materials whose content they find interesting or unique. Our school was located in a public housing project in Boston, but it was also the site of an often-neglected holiday called Evacuation Day -- based on the date the the occupying British soldiers left Boston, back in the day. The British were evicted by the arrival of cannons that Henry Knox (the guy Fort Knox was later named after) had brought all the way across the Hudson River and then all of Massachusetts, and snuck up the hill that happened to be behind our school, overlooking Boston. By coincidence, the date of this event was March 17 ... and its significance was later eclipsed by the arrival of huge numbers of Irish immigrants, who celebrated St. Patrick's Day on the same date! As our students became experts about this holiday, based on the READING they had done of books I found on Amazon . . . that seemed to me to be an important series of reading (and writing) lessons. The students were sufficiently proud of their developing knowledge of an event that even public officials barely understood - - - that the value of READING was obvious to the students. And the rewards of interest and endless praise from adults certainly helped! The skills of reading are very important; the content of the reading material is truly important as well!

Nancy Nesbitt Mar 23, 2024 03:56 PM

I think what you are saying is that the zone of proximal development can mean several different things (decoding, content, interest, supported reading) when it comes to choosing texts. I also find that "leveled" texts are vastly different than decodable texts, and since I teach young students with dyslexia or other developmental delays, I have to use decodable texts in my lessons.

Justin Mar 23, 2024 04:16 PM

What are some effective types of scaffolding that would benefit students who are struggling to read? My first thoughts would be to pre-teach challenging words, practice breaking words into syllables, and choral reading the text together. Is there anything else that you would suggest/take away to help the struggling readers?

Jacob Shiffrin Mar 23, 2024 04:23 PM

When I read Dr. Shanahan's comment on opportunity cost, I was reminded of another opportunity cost embedded within leveled literacy approaches- the unbelievable amount of teacher and student time spent giving students long assessments to determine "reading level." Many schools give these leveled literacy assessments every 6-9 weeks and the test administration each time can take between 1-2 weeks. Imagine if instead schools used this time to engage in meaningful literacy instruction!

Timothy Shanahan Mar 23, 2024 05:13 PM


There are many others. If you go into the publications section of this website, you can find several articles that describe some of these scaffolds (look in the print publications).


Timothy Shanahan Mar 23, 2024 05:14 PM


The zone of proximal development can be quite large and multivariate. It isn't a set level.


Timothy Shanahan Mar 23, 2024 05:16 PM

The content of the texts used to teach reading are often greatly limited by trying to use texts at just the right reading level. Less attention to leveling and more attention to content is the way to go.


Timothy Shanahan Mar 23, 2024 05:27 PM


There are several very similar ways of estimating an instructional level (Betts, Gickling, Clay-F&P). What is important to know about all of them is that none of them specifies a level that optimizes or improves learning.


Stephanie J Pratt Mar 23, 2024 05:30 PM

Totally off topic, but can I just say I LOVE the artwork you choose for your newsletter :)

Timothy Shanahan Mar 23, 2024 05:31 PM

This depends on the level -- beginning readers need texts with lots of word repetition (not pattern repetition) and reasonably high decodability. Beyond a first grade level, fluency is best developed with texts that students are disfluent with initially and they should work with those texts enough to become fluent with them. It is also a good idea to have kids doing some relatively easy reads that are longer than the texts you would use to practice fluency with.


Ann Mar 23, 2024 05:47 PM

Beginning readers need scaffolding that is carefully constructed (as Tim points out.) They also need complex read alouds that are content or theme based. Reading and rereading a series of books on bats, talking, drawing, and writing about bats, comparing bats to other animals, etc. creates opportunity for literacy and content development beyond the limited decoding in ‘the fat bat sat on a mat.’

Barney Brawer Mar 23, 2024 05:58 PM

I agree with your comments above about "less attention to leveling." It is often exciting to students for them to know they are learning "hard words" or "important words" or that they are reading something that is usually read at Grade X+2 instead of Grade X that they are in.

We also, throughout the school where I was K-5 principal, had a method called the "Personal Dictionary." Every child, K-5 was given a 5x7 notebook (the kind with a black and white marbled cover and pages that don't easily tear out) that would be her or his Personal Dictionary throughout the school year. This could never be taken home, so that it was always available in school. Often a second Personal Dictionary would be given, so that each child COULD take one home, with all the important words he or she had collected.

Whenever a spectacular word -- like "spectacular," for example -- came up in in-class reading or conversation, I would write the word, correctly spelled, on the blackboard and every child would be required to put it into her or his Personal Dictionary, and then to "spell it right for the rest of your life." As a result, fancy words like "spectacular" ( spelled correctly ! ) would show up frequently in students' writing. Juicy, interesting, or curriculum-related words could be regularly added (required) by all the students to their Personal Dictionaries, and would also begin showing up, repeatedly and correctly, in various students' writing. The students' interest in mastering -- and using -- spectacular words grew substantially! Moreover, their confidence in reading and writing with increasing sophistication grew. ("Open to the letter S page in your Personal Dictionary. Here, on the blackboard, is the word "sophistication." Please copy it into your Personal Dictionary. It means "doing things in a way that is fancy, or expected only for children older than you.") That's my method: easy to do, with results that feel good to the students and are impressive to adults, when done correctly by the student.

Thank you for your reply to my note earlier today.

Stephanie Wade Mar 23, 2024 06:23 PM

I love how you explain instructional level should be the goal of instructional time and not the beginning. It’s as if the mathematics are valid, just historically misused. The idea being that students are learning through the medium of reading for lifelong success, eventually independently, because they have learned how to decode and comprehend with all of this instructional practice.

Mat Mar 23, 2024 11:50 PM

Hi Tim,
You wrote that it makes more sense to work with small groups when teaching with harder texts, since this would facilitate greater teacher support. The instructional implications of this are confusing me.

In the UK a carousel approach where a teacher works with different groups on different days with books at different levels has been replaced by Whole Class Reading (WCR) where all students work together on a text. This could be without a copy of the text for younger students ie. read aloud style or with the text for older students.

Are you suggesting that it would be more effective for the students to be reading the same text/book but placed in small groups with the teacher moving around from group to group? Why not have the teacher work with the whole class on a text and create a dialogic discussion to unpack the text? If it’s done well, aren’t students getting more guidance from whole class reading than when the teacher works with a group at a time and can’t it benefit all students to be part of the rich discussions that come when engaging all students with a text?

Amy Geary Mar 24, 2024 02:43 PM

Thank you for this post. I do wonder what your thoughts are regarding Lexile levels. DRC LAS Link results recommend students get content materials at their Lexile levels. When one of our ELA teachers found various books at students’ Lexile levels and handed them out to the students, she was stunned that they still had difficulty with comprehension. As a fellow teacher, it's hard to convince others that there is more to reading than a “level,” primarily when published state-mandated assessments, like LAS Links and SBAC, place reading levels on students’ summative reports.

Timothy Shanahan Mar 24, 2024 07:04 PM

It certainly makes more sense to use something like Lexiles when trying to place students in texts that they need to easily comprehend. Unlike with reading, in which the purpose isn't to ensure easy comprehension but to teach students to read. In any event, there is a lot more to it than just placing kids in books that they are likely to read well (it is a prediction, not a certainty). There is a great deal of variation in individual performance and in what it is that might be making a text difficult. We should spend more time trying to understand why students are failing to comprehend and then what to do about that than testing kids to place them in just the right books.


Timothy Shanahan Mar 24, 2024 07:08 PM

You can teach reading as you describe in whole class and do quite well. However, small group instruction can allow for greater intensity (though it sacrifices instructional time to accomplish that). My point was simply that if some students needed greater support of more close observation, such lessons could still take place in small group (but not with the purpose of teaching with a different book).


Mark Mar 24, 2024 07:21 PM

Thank you for the article as I found many points insightful. I am a principal and we have moved away from completing DRA's on our students. This is the last year we will utilize this assessment as it takes a tremendous amount of time away from explicit instruction and the data is not completely relevant for our teachers. I still have one educator holding on. This is her last comment regarding these assessments. I would love your take on this as well. Thank you for your time and any comments. I enjoy your blog.

"Many students went up two and three levels. Students felt great pride and accomplishment when they were done. They knew their DRA levels and were excited to see how much they went up.
I believe they get a lot out of doing the assessment and seeing their results. Doing DIBELS doesn't give them the same feedback and pride. Title One students need to have positive experiences with assessments."

ST Mar 25, 2024 07:19 PM

Well, this is a bit disheartening. If reading authorities can make up research in the 40's that impact decades of teaching practice, why can't they today? Whom can we trust? I understand NOT being gatekeepers, holding kids back from reading books about topics they're interested in because the texts are not at their "instructional level." I've always hated that! I agree with giving ALL kids access to at- or above-grade-level texts and content and teach/scaffold until they can read them. I do that. I guess I'm left with more to think about, including, it seems, figuring out whose voices are trustworthy these days.

Mark Shinn Mar 28, 2024 02:19 PM

This topic—and these conclusions—have bothered me for years! Part 1. Defining “instructional level” by accuracy is bogus. 2 students can earn the same score in completely different ways. 9/10 = 90%. 90/100 = 90%. And I would add reading with 90% accuracy is terrible! Part 2. Define “learning.” What “learning” do you expect when students are “instructed” based on “instructional level?” Oops. And I forgot. What kind of instruction? For independent reading, I know I don’t want a book that is too difficult (defined as unknown words or unfamiliar content for me) without a LOT of scaffolds—and MOTIVATION) to finish. As an adult, I can put that article or book down. I can assure you, a lot of students do, too. If the “learning” is phonics, I’d hope it is teacher-led explicit instruction! It should be challenging. But there are scaffolds. But there also should be time for students to practice reading. What materials would you recommend? Isn’t THAT the real question here? There IS a role for INSTRUCTIONAL GROUPING! For portions of instruction, don’t you think?

Timothy Shanahan Mar 28, 2024 06:21 PM

Indeed, the text used for reading instruction are usually chosen by the teacher. Such texts should not be assigned as independent reading, but as text the teacher intends to motivate and scaffold. The idea that the teacher will assign such texts, introduce some vocabulary words, and then check to be sure the kids are doing the reading by asking questions is not particularly powerful instruction. Explicitly teaching students to make sense of text is much more powerful (and explicit phonics instruction is an important part of instruction). Small group teaching can be useful but not so that kids can be guided with different levels of text.


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The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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