The main point of “guided reading” is to make sure kids are being taught from books that are not too far beyond their skills. If a book seems like hieroglyphics to a kid, then not much learning could be expected. (Likewise, books can be too easy… presenting neither challenge nor much to learn). Trying to get kids into the “just right” reading level has been an issue of long interest in the field of reading.
The independent/instructional/frustration level scheme has now been around for about 60 years (since Emmett Betts described these levels in his landmark textbook). Frustration level is the point at which books are too hard to learn from, the independent level is the level when books are too easy to be used as instructional texts, and the instructional level is in the space in between.
So, in guided reading, teachers place children into books that are arrayed across difficulty levels. This is a really terrific plan when kids start out because beginning readers are a bit fragile (they get overwhelmed by too much new stuff). It is also a reasonable idea overall, even with much older readers—as no matter how well you read, it would be possible to come up with a text that would simply be too darn hard.
The theory may be good, but it’s execution in guided reading leaves much to be desired. First, the book leveling schemes that are being used are pretty dubious. I’m not talking about Lexiles or other well-validated readability schemes, but the book leveling schemes for guided reading are pretty shaky.
However, that isn’t really the big problem… the real problem is the theory itself since the notion that kids have to be matched to the right book for them to learn is not consistent with actual data (at least once you get beyond the very early levels of reading achievement). The basic problem is that there are too many levels and that there is apparently too much overlap in the levels. Teachers sacrifice way too much instructional time trying to provide kids teaching at their exact level. So, you’ll see teachers spending 15-20 minutes each with groups at level “L” and “M” that frankly aren’t different. In such cases, the teacher would be better off spending 30-40 minutes with the two combined groups.
Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books! My point isn’t that we shouldn’t group kids by book levels; but that when we do this there is a tendency to overdo it (to make these levels a kind of fetish). I certainly don’t want to see a fifth-grader who reads at a second-grade level trying to negotiate the fifth-grade reading textbook on his own, but I likewise don’t like seeing children getting much less interaction time with a teacher simply because they know a few more or fewer words than the other kids (it just doesn’t make that much difference).
Certainly, I would place kids in different levels of books when it is inexpensive of teacher time (such as paired reading or independent reading). And I would place kids in different books when their reading levels lag far behind (in grades 2-3, I’d strive for placements within a half-grade level of the child’s reading level, in grades 4-5, within a year, and above that, I’d aim for within two years). And, finally, make sure you don’t fractionate your class with so many different levels of placement that you can’t provide much instruction. Groups are necessary perhaps, but the fewer groups the better.
Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., and Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.
O’Connor, R.E., Bell, K.M., Harty, K.R., Larkin, L.K., Sackor, S.M., and; Zigmond, N. (2002). Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 474-485.
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