What does the Easter Bunny have in common with the independent reading level?

  • reading levels independent reading level
  • 13 February, 2021

Teacher question:  I know you criticize the instructional reading level. But what about the independent reading level? Should we make sure that when children are reading on their own that they select books at their independent level or doesn’t that matter?

Shanahan response:

Back in the 1940s, Emmet Betts was trying to figure out how to improve reading instruction. The idea of matching books to students’ learning needs had floated around for decades in the research community. The 1910-1920s had ushered in reading tests and readability formulas, which provided clear scientific evidence that both books and children varied in difficulty (books) and facility (kids).

If variations in text difficulty affected reading comprehension and speed, why not learning as well?

The teacher’s editions of the 1920s usually recommended grouping to adapt reading instruction to varied abilities. The educational journals even offered recommendations on how put kids in the right books.

None of those schemes captured the hearts and minds of many teachers. Some resisted the idea of adapting instruction altogether. Others, who may have embraced differentiation, found the schemes to be onerous and unlikely (such as hiring a psychologist to test everybody’s IQ). When teachers did differentiate, they tended to do this based on their own views of the matter (which likely ranged from thoughtful attention to the kids’ performance to any kind of bigotry one can imagine).

Betts’ effort in this arena was notable both because it was empirical (science over opinion) and authoritative – he was a big shot in the reading field.

Betts’ set out to determine an instructional level, and he did so, at least to his satisfaction. The independent reading level was a side effect or unintentional consequence of this process.  

The theory of the instructional level is pretty simple and fairly attractive: put kids in the right books and they will learn more. But what are the right books?

Betts’ surmised that level of difficulty was the key. On the one hand, if students could read a book well already, there wouldn’t be much opportunity to improve with that. And, if a book was especially hard then they might be discouraged or overwhelmed and that could undermine improvement, too. The trick, according to Betts, was to figure out which texts were in that sweet spot for a given student. His conclusion was that kids would do best if placed in text they could read the words with 95-98% accuracy and with 75-89% comprehension. That’s the scheme I learned early in my teaching career, and all these years later it is the scheme widely recommended by many reading authorities and programs.

My problem with that plan is two-fold. The way Betts chose those criteria (the 95-98%) was nonsensical and more recent studies have shown that matching kids to books like that doesn’t provide learning advantages. In other words, he did it wrong and it doesn’t work.

I’m not forgetting your question about the independent level. But a detour was necessary since that level was just an offshoot or by-product of the instructional level.

Betts thought students would improve their reading most from books they could already comprehend reasonably well. Where this idea came from is unknown. Years later no one could remember, but it’s fair to say he just made it up. So much for the science.

The oral reading accuracy part of the equation came out of a study of a Betts’ doctoral student (P.A. Killgallon) that examined 41 fourth graders to determine how many oral reading mistakes they could make and still reach Betts’ made-up comprehension levels. That’s where the 95-9% came from. Those students could usually err that much in oral reading and still answer 75-89% of the questions.

They never even evaluated whether such book placement was beneficial to the children. That’s why I think it to be a boneheaded approach. It makes teaching relatively easy since with such placements students can already read the instructional book reasonably before any teaching begins.

The independent level was just what was left over. In the Betts’ scheme a book is at a student’s independent level if it can be read with 99-100% accuracy and 90-100% comprehension. He was even particularly explicit about what such a placement meant. Years ago, Catherine Snow pointed out the flaw in the ointment… kids weren’t supposed to be able to learn much on their own from texts that were harder than the “independent level” and books at that level tended to not include much that the kids didn’t already know. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

What that highlights is that there is really no explicit theory of what an independent level is or how it works. If an instructional level placement is supposed to deliver maximum progress in learning to read, then what is it that an independent level promotes? Some possibilities include ease or minimal effort needed to gain information from a text, enjoyment, and, perhaps, a sense of well-being or competence for the reader. 

Unfortunately, research shows that except for the easy reading outcome, requiring students to stay to what they can read independently by these criteria fails to accomplish any of these other goals. Such independent reading usually doesn’t improve reading, provide enjoyment, or encourage a positive sense of self as reader

Not surprisingly, poor readers, when left to their own devices, tend to select books above their reading levels. This isn’t surprising since book availability is often skewed towards harder texts (a third-grade classroom will probably have more third-grade books than anything else). Then there is curiosity; a student who doesn’t read well is still likely to be interested in the same things that other students are. Then there is self-esteem and social standing; most kids wouldn’t be caught dead reading a “baby book.”

No, that is not surprising. What is surprising is that this tendency to frequently select difficult text for enjoyment is evident even with the better readers (Donovan, Smolkin, & Lomax, 2000). Studies find no relationship between student enjoyment of books and the degree to which the books match with their supposed reading levels, and students rarely refer to difficulty when they discuss their selection of books (Halladay, 2008).

We’ve known for a long time that interest can improve student reading performance, though it isn’t entirely clear how much of this is due to background knowledge and how much to motivation – since those tend to be so closely related.

The idea of kids selecting books that are “too hard” often bothers because of their fear that kids won’t read the words but just looking at the pictures. That is a legitimate concern with instructional texts, but not with self-selection. Let kids read what they want to read for independent reading or at least let them give it a try.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t provide guidance and advice. However, many teachers and librarians limit children's reading to this figment of the imagination "independent reading levels" -- instilling a dread of reading and a fear of failure.

“Jimmy, that’s a wonderful book about World War II. Are you interested in that war? I think some of the words might be hard for you – I usually recommend that one for fifth graders, but if you want to give it a try go right ahead. Tell me if you think it is too hard, and I’ll try to help you find an easier one about that war.”

Or, “Patty that’s a terrific story, but some second-graders tell me they find it hard to read. Why don’t you take this book along, too. It’s a really good story, so if you find that one too hard or just don’t like it, then give this one a try and see what you think (or read them both if you like).”

Of course, we want independent reading to support learning and to encourage future reading habits. But text leveling is not an effective way to go.

Encourage students to take on reading challenges – to read books that scare them a little. It’s a good thing to know that you can pursue your curiosity through reading, even if it doesn’t always work out on the first try. There is nothing wrong with discontinuing a book in the middle or to read it more than once to get what it says.

Independence is not a matter of text levels, but of desire and courage. Children often enjoy trying to meet a challenge; for them, easy doesn’t mean fun.

Oh, and the Easter Bunny? You’re too old to believe in either independent reading levels or the Easter Bunny – they’re made of the same stuff.


Betts, E. (1946). Foundations of reading instruction. Boston: American Book Company.

Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader–text match in first graders' self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21(4), 309-333.

Halladay, J. L. (2008). Difficult texts and the students who choose them: The role of text difficulty in second graders' text choices and independent reading experiences. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jen Greco May 12, 2021 06:26 PM

Amazing article! Independent reading levels can be fostered at home and can grow very quickly for students who learn phonics and phonemics! What do you think about using phonemics for early reading as young as two? I saw an interesting video about it: https://bit.ly/3obKmCl

Timothy Shanahan May 12, 2021 08:44 PM


Not a big fan of this. It tends to focus heavily on meaningless memorization. I’d worry about oral language development more than phonemics at the age of two. There is a reason why those aspects of language are suppressed for a while and it would wise not to interfere with that process (better to amplify the processes the development of which is underway).



Travis Feb 13, 2021 10:49 PM

I hope everybody reading this realizes that they see this everyday in schools who implement Fountas and Pinnell. However, F&P didn't make this up, they got it from Emmett Betts.

Timothy Shanahan Feb 14, 2021 12:06 AM


We all got it from Emmett Betts.


Kylie Brennan Feb 14, 2021 01:10 PM

We are made to have kids read good fit books daily through Daily 5. I think it's a form of baby sitting. To have them access pieces of text at year level is frowned upon because it is not differentiating the learning. This just handicaps our kids because they don't get to develop knowledge, vocabulary and syntax at appropriate level.

Cassie Gaisford Feb 14, 2021 02:17 PM

Hi, what about fluency practice? ReadLive is my go to web based fluency practice for students who are reading accurately and not fluently.
Students test in for leveling purposes.

Tim Shanahan Feb 14, 2021 07:26 PM


The research indicates that kids should be practicing fluency with text they cannot read fluently — in other words, frustration level texts not independent level ones.


Martha Ryan Feb 14, 2021 07:42 PM

What are your recommendations for English language learners - we follow the workshop model and it frustrates me to see an EL stuck reading low level text, due to problems with inflectional endings and comp questions that do not make allowances for the extra comprehension work an EL needs to do.

Tim Shanahan Feb 15, 2021 03:56 AM

There is some evidence that English learners can get some benefit from reading independently — especially if their contact with English is very limited (like native English speakers, independent reading in the home language has very limited payoff). But that
experience with English even on one’s own can have benefits... it is almost always better having a proficient English speaker to talk about that reading with... in any event, beginning readers generally and students with particularly low levels of English do benefit from some work with easier texts.


Amy Feb 15, 2021 03:19 PM

Thank you for writing these weekly articles that make me reflect my own classroom practices.

Currently I am assessing students in my school using an IRI. When reviewing students' errors, this particular inventory provides independent, instructional, and frustration level. I'm wondering if I should just report to parents their student's errors and no longer use the interpretative levels. What are your thoughts?

Also, since educators are often asked, "What is the student's reading level?" and reading levels are so ambiguous, what is the best way to answer this question?

Liz Lightner Feb 15, 2021 05:16 PM

What about Accelerated Reader’s claim to find the zone of proximal development?

This program is pushed heavily at my school (especially within my second grade team) and I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with it. My dislike is due to what you’ve noted above and my reluctance to reveal students’ reading levels determined by their Star Assessment. I also have issues with some of the quizzes. I do like that it does motivate some students and gives me some data on what they are reading and how they are scoring on quizzes.

Even though I use the language you suggest above when students are choosing books and make it clear they are not expected to take a quiz on everything they read, I still wonder if I am doing more harm than good.

Kim Brimm Feb 15, 2021 06:04 PM

As a reading interventionist in Waterloo, Iowa, I am interested in reading research. How sure are you that Fountas and Pinnell have not done research about reading levels and ranges? This is surprising to me that this is so random based on my own teaching experience and past training in Reading Recovery and CIM . I have found that most of the time groups do well with these ranges and when I get below the 90% it feels so much harder for the students to make sense or even get through the book. There are always a couple kids that I find can make more errors without loosing his/her comprehension AND maintain willingness and confidence, so I guess this is good news for them.

Christina Grayson Feb 15, 2021 08:08 PM

Thanks for the read! I'm a language and literacy specialist working with kids and teachers grades kinder through second.

What contextual guidance can you offer situating this post within the popular narrow interpretation of the science of reading as discussed in Reading Research Quarterly's September 2020 special issue, to which you contributed? I'm thinking about this blog post alongside the interpretation of "reading science" often used in the public debate and media. Policymakers, schools leaders, and teachers who, for all intents and purposes, treat reading science as "focused solely on word reading and the role of systematic phonics instruction in supporting reading achievement, particularly for developing readers" (ILA, 2020) might conclude you're saying texts that kids can self-select, decode and comprehend sufficiently on first read, and digest based on their schema without input from a teacher have no place in classrooms.

Is that what you are saying? If not, how might you respond to readers who interpret it that way?

Tim Shanahan Feb 16, 2021 02:19 AM


The errors won’t tell the parents anything (or you either). I have no problem if you indicated to parents that the child’s reading level is roughly what the IRI indicates to be the instructional level. Johnny does a reasonably good job reading 3rd grade text... and he usually has more trouble with 4th grade books... (but that is a description of what he can do, not at what level you should necessarily be teaching him).


Tim Shanahan Feb 16, 2021 02:20 AM


Like most programs, that one can work, too. Like you, I don’t think it is a great way to go (many kids, and parents, hate it).


Tim Shanahan Feb 16, 2021 02:24 AM

I’m 100 percent certain that they have done no research on those levels. These days they seem to be telling people that they only time they have to make sure the books are easy fir the kids when the teacher is available to help them (in other words if the teacher isn’t there to scaffold the kids can with text at any level of difficulty). Yikes. I want my kids to get more help when a text is hard and less when it’s easy,
Go to my publications section and read up on researc( in this area.


Tim Shanahan Feb 16, 2021 02:28 AM


No, I’m saying the science of reading has shown no benefit (to the students or to learning or to enjoyment) to limit kids’ independent reading to texts that they can read with 99% accuracy and 90% comprehension.


Blanca Lilia Campillo Feb 18, 2021 03:22 PM

Totally enjoyed this discussion! Thanks for showing that the emperor has no clothes! The whole point of reading should be to learn new words, ideas/concepts and get excited and inspired about learning more, not to keep rehashing something you already know about in those easy books for the sake of fluency. Same with the writing workshop and writing about yourself and small moments to find your voice? I already have a voice. School is about learning and discovering what you don't know so you can grow and be a better enlightened you. We now have a generation of people who sacrificed learning and gaining civics, history and science knowledge all in the name of reading just right books and to write for no other reason than to write.

Also, back in the 60’s I was an EL student in the 3rd grade, didn't speak a word of English. The best instruction I ever received from school was being read aloud to by my very animated teacher and to participate in discussions, writing about the literature with my classmates. That experience sparked my interest to read more on my own and from there my 2nd language developed, vocabulary grew and reading and writing improved. Never underestimate the power of discussions and action around powerful literature. It works at any age.

If you build interesting real world curriculum students will be motivated to learn. In Spanish we have a saying- El interés tiene pies- which translates into -Interest walks- but doesn't sound as nice.
So, let’s ask ourselves- What is interesting about our curriculum? How does it inspire and promote interest for every student?

Sofia Fenichell Mar 13, 2021 06:06 PM

Hi Tim,

Fabulous article thank you. I am wondering, should we narrow the selection criteria for kids reading levels in any ways? What if we offer them leveled readers but don’t tell them what the levels are so their confidence isn’t damaged. Any research on how to best curate books for kids in K-3?


What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

What does the Easter Bunny have in common with the independent reading level?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.