What text levels are appropriate for independent reading?

  • Book Buddies
  • 22 April, 2018

Teacher question:

I am a reading specialist and a parent. My daughter is in first grade. Her classroom teachers have all the books in the classroom library leveled, and students are not allowed to go beyond their reading level during "Independent" reading. If the teacher assesses a child inaccurately then that child is stuck reading texts that may be too easy or too challenging. Also, every child knows what reading level they are on as well as everyone else's reading level; this Talk creates competition and negative feelings toward reading! Reading turns into a contest and inevitably some kids are going to feel bad about themselves. What if a student really wants to read a higher-level book about, say, cats. Maybe the child knows a ton about cats, and really loves them so she is very motivated to read this particular book. The teacher then says, "No, that's not your reading level. You have to wait until you are a better reader before you can read that book." You’ve written a lot about problems with the instructional level, what about the independent reading level and these crazy instructional practices?

Shanahan responds:

I hate to hear this kind of thing. The teacher is trying to do a nice thing for your daughter—to make sure she spends her time reading books that she can understand and get good reading practice with—but her approach is not likely to be successful for all the reasons that you give. I feel your pain.

Research has suggested that “independent level” idea is problematic for more than 50 years.

Every reader is supposed to have an independent level… that is, since books can be arrayed on a continuum of difficulty of text levels then a given reader is supposed to have the ability to understand, enjoy, and learn from some levels, but not others. Since the 1940s reading experts have told students and their parents that kids had to be able to read 99% of the words accurately and be able to comprehend 90% of the content to be able to read such a text on their own. (Indeed, there are problems in testing this kind of thing accurately. Burns et al, 2015 found that more than half the students with the lowest reading skills were reading texts at frustration level, even though the teacher had tested them and placed them in “instructional level” texts.)

Of course, we test reading levels with general passages… they are on various topics with no particular match to any one child’s tastes, interests, or background experiences (even well-known ones such as gender differences).

But independent reading—if it is really independent—is driven by reader interest. I’m more likely to read about presidents of the U.S. than prime ministers of Great Britain; baseball than soccer; Bob Dylan than Amy Winehouse. I choose to read about those topics because I’m interested in them.

Studies have shown for decades that interest has an impact on reading comprehension, and oral reading accuracy, too (e.g., Asher, Hymel, & Wigfield, 1976; Baker & Wigfield, 1999; Bray & Barron, 2003-2004; Scott, et al., 1985).

One explanation of that impact is bound up in the relationship between interest and knowledge. I may have a greater desire to read about baseball, but I also know a heck of a lot more about Kris Bryant than Leonardo Bonucci. Is it my motivation that makes the difference or my prior knowledge? The studies haven’t satisfactorily sorted out the cause of that to my satisfaction, but the effect is well known and widely accepted by the research community, nevertheless.

What that means is that the teacher has an estimate of the difficulty of the text that a student was tested on (in terms of word frequencies, sentence lengths, or other factors that don’t have much to do with the reason someone would choose to read a book). She sees that the student made too many mistakes with such a text to believe that enjoyment of it is possible. Consequently, she cautions the student from all such books…. Books that they could read better than she assumes because of their knowledge and interest.

So, your intuition that reading levels don’t make much sense when it comes to independent reading because of problems of testing and the effects of motivation and knowledge is a good one.

My hunch is that this is not really meant as “independent” reading time. What the teacher is going for here is practice reading of texts that resemble those she is teaching with. If your daughter is trying to read books that are harder than that. then she won’t be practicing the same words and skills that she is being taught. That makes some sense with beginning readers—though how much sense it makes is uncertain according to various experts (Snow et al., 1998). It appears to be a decidedly weak approach to building reading skills: the teacher could advance your daughter's reading more effectively by taking a more active hand in the instructional activities.

Enjoyment of independent reading seems to be a decidedly tertiary (and expendable) goal in this case. That your daughter is put off by being prohibited from reading the same books her friends are reading is a tip off that love of reading is not the crux of what the teacher is aiming at with this activity. If love of reading were the teacher’s point, your daughter’s angst over her reading segregation would be a prime consideration.  

That fact may may allow you to negotiate for some latitude in this teacher’s practice. Perhaps your daughter can check out two books: one the teacher wants her to practice to gain the appropriate repetition of classroom skills and one to satisfy her own interests and aspirations as a reader. Sort of like allowing a piano student some time to try to play tunes while still putting in the requisite hours on the scales.

Your daughter’s aspirations as a reader are the problem here. Some kids are allowed to read the red-dot books and others are stuck with the baby books with the blue dots. She wants to be a red dot kid, to hang with the red dot kids, to be seen as a red dot kid… but her teacher can only see her as a blue dot kid and she must learn to stay to her own bookshelf with her own kind if she is going to succeed in this classroom.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Study after study finds that young readers select independent reading books that are harder than their “independent reading levels” (Donovan, et al., 2010). Of course, this is more likely for the lowest readers, but it is even true for many of the best ones, too. This teacher’s practices are exacerbating this problem by making it socially desirable to get to read the same books the other kids are.

As I’ve written before, I don’t really believe in this whole instructional level idea when it comes to teaching reading (except with beginning readers). There are big problems in validly and reliably measuring kid’s reading levels and the text levels (especially in grade 1); and the idea that there is a specific way to match kids to text that maximizes learning doesn’t appear to be valid either.

Given my skepticism, I may not be the best arbiter of this issue. Your question, perhaps, would be better asked of advocates of the reading level idea.

Actually, somebody has already done just that, putting those same queries to Gay Su Pinnell and Irene Fountas (Parrott, 2017). Their names seem to be synonymous with leveled reading, so their views on this may carry some real weight with such a teacher.

What did they say?

They vigorously and eloquently rejected both the idea of leveling classroom libraries and of prohibiting kids from reading particular levels of books for enjoyment. Here’s a link to that source: https://www.slj.com/2017/10/literacy/fountas-pinnell-say-librarians-guide-readers-interest-not-level/#_

Perhaps sharing their opinions of these practices with your daughter’s teacher might lead to a reprieve.

In the meantime, explain to your daughter that the teacher is trying to help her but that we teachers sometimes don’t get it right, and that you can’t always “fight city hall.”

For now, she should read the required "independent reading" books for her teacher and when she comes home she can read what she really wants to read. Perhaps you can identify some of those books that would allow your daughter to make the social connections she desires and put them on the home bookshelf. That puts a bit more pressure on you to support her reading habit, but you sound like a pretty committed Mom, so I suspect that’s going to happen anyway. I’m pulling for both of you.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Harriett Janetos Apr 24, 2018 06:35 PM

Can you please provide the complete Burns and Donovan citations? Thanks!

Rebecca Voigt Jul 08, 2018 05:42 PM

This put words to what as been a feeling in my gut for a few years, thank you.

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What text levels are appropriate for independent reading?


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