An Argument About Matching Texts to Students

  • author awareness challenging text instructional level
  • 17 May, 2015
  • 8 Comments

Blast from the Past:  This entry was originally published on May 17, 2015 and reposted on July 13, 2017.

Between the two publication dates much has occurred in the world of challenging text. Various authorities who tout schemes for matching kids to texts have made changes to how they do the matching. In other words, they took criteria for identifying the instructional level and changed the numbers so that kids would be in somewhat more difficult text. That's a good thing as it means more kids will now get opportunities to read materials at their interest levels or their intellectual levels, but it is still arbitrary and preserves the idea that there is some magical "instructional level" at which students need to be placed (there isn't such a level).

 

Teacher question/comment:

My main response is toward your general notion of the research surrounding teaching kids "at their level." 

First, I think the way you're describing instructional/skill levels obfuscates the issue a bit. Instructional level, by definition, means the level at which a child can benefit from instruction, including with scaffolding. Frustrational, by definition, means the instruction won't work. Those levels, like the terms "reinforcement & punishment" for example, are defined by their outcomes, not intentions. If a child learned from the instruction, the instruction was on the child's "instructional" level.
Where we may be getting confused is that I think you actually are referring to teaching reading comprehension using material that is in a child's instructional level with comprehension, but on a child's frustrational level with reading fluency. This is a much different statement than what I think most teachers are getting from your messages about text complexity, to the point that I think they're making mistakes in terms of text selection.
More generally, I'd argue that there is copious research supporting using "instructional material" to teach various reading skills. Take, for example, all of the research supporting repeated readings. That intervention, by definition, uses material that is on a child's "instructional" level with reading fluency, and there is great support that it works. So, the idea that somehow "teaching a child using material on his/her instructional level is not research supported" just doesn't make sense to me.
In terms of this specific post about how much one can scaffold, I think it largely depends on the child and specific content, as Lexiles and reading levels don't fully define a material's "instructional level" when it comes to comprehension. I know many 3rd graders, for example, that could be scaffolded with material written on an 8th grade level, but the content isn't very complex, so scaffolding is much easier.
The broad point here, Dr. Shanahan, is that we're over-simplifying, therefore confusing, the issue by trying to argue that kids should be taught with reading material on their frustrational level, or on grade level despite actual skill level. People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text - that skill level or lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.

Shanahan response:
First, you are using the terms “instructional level” and “frustration level” in idiosyncratic ways. These terms are not used in the field of reading education as you claim, nor have they ever been. These levels are used as predictions, not as post-instruction evaluations. If they were used in the manner you suggest, then there would be little or no reason for informal reading inventories and running records. One would simply start teaching everyone with grade level materials, and if a student was found to make no progress, then we would simply lower the text difficulty over time.
Of course, that is not what is done at all. Students are tested, instructional levels are determined, instructional groups are formed, and books assigned based on this information. 
The claim has been that if you match students to text appropriately (the instructional level) that you will maximize the amount of student learning. This definition of instructional level does allow for scaffolding—in fact, that’s why students are discouraged from trying to read instructional level materials on their own since there would be no scaffold available. 
Fountas and Pinnell, for example, are quite explicit that even with sound book matching it is going to be important to pre-teach vocabulary, discuss prior knowledge, and engage children in picture walks so that they will be able to read the texts with little difficulty. And, programs like Accelerated Reading limit what books students are allowed to read.
You are also claiming that students have different instructional levels for fluency and comprehension. Informal reading inventories and running records measure both fluency AND reading comprehension. They measure them separately.  But there is no textbook or commercial IRI that suggests to teachers that they should be using different levels of texts to teach these different skills or contents. How accurately the students read the words and answer questions are combined to make an instructional text placement—not multiple text placements.
If we accept your claim that any text that leads to learning is at the “instructional level,” then pretty much any match will do. Students, no matter how they are taught, tend to make some learning gains in reading as annual Title I evaluations have shown again and again. These kids might have only gained .8 years in reading this year (the average is 1.0), but they were learning and by your lights, that means we must have placed them appropriately. 
Repeated reading has been found to raise reading achievement, as measured by standardized reading comprehension tests, but as Steve Stahl and Melanie Kuhn have shown, such fluency instruction works best—that is, leads to greater learning gains—when students work with books identified as being at their frustration levels rather than at their so-called instructional levels. That’s why in their large-scale interventions they teach students with grade level texts rather than trying to match students to texts based on an invalid construct (the instructional level).
You write: “People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text -- that skill level or Lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range.”
In fact, I am saying that beyond beginning reading, teachers should NOT attempt to match students with text. I am also saying that students should be reading multiple texts and that these should range from easy (for the child) to quite difficult. I am saying that the more difficult a text is, the more scaffolding and support the teacher needs to provide—and that such scaffolding should not include reading the text to the student or telling the student what the text says.
I am NOT saying that skill levels or Lexiles are irrelevant, or that “instructional level” is simply a bit more nuanced than people think. It is useful to test students and to know how hard the texts are for that student; that will allow you to be ready to provide sufficient amounts of scaffolding (and to know when you can demand greater effort and when just more effort will not pay off).

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Anonymous
Jun 13, 2017 02:17 AM

5/18/2015
I agree with you, Tim, especially with repeated readings as an important part of the mix.

John Doty
Jun 13, 2017 02:18 AM

5/18/2015

It's difficult to tell that the italicized text is the complainant, and the non-italicized text is Dr. Shanhan's response. Perhaps a visual cue like "a reader writes" and "Tim's reply" would help this poor reader, for whom it took three readings to hypothesize that Shanahan's response was the latter part of the post.

Thank you very much for these articles. I use them and forward them to others often.
John H. Doty, Merced California

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 02:19 AM

5/19/2015

Will do, John.

thanks.

tim

Mary
Jun 13, 2017 02:19 AM

5/19/2015

You would not blithely advise that teachers assign frustration level text if you had experience taking data as a behavior consultant and saw each time you were in a classroom that students either "act out" or "tune out" as soon as they can not do work with 80 - 85% accuracy......or if someone gave you text with every fourth word in black and then expected you to extract meaning from the text.....or if you tested adults who had struggled in reading and listened to them cry about the humiliation they encountered in school when teachers gave them frustration level text (even worse when they might have to read it in front of their peers- bingo, how to get kicked out of class before that happened.) The most difficult part of teaching struggling readers in middle school who have learning disabilities or who experienced dysteachia and never had the explicit phonics they needed in kindergarten, is trying to get them to stop guessing at words in text which most of the time they do inaccurately. Giving students frustration level text only reinforces that guessing (as does Reading Recovery).

EdEd
Jun 13, 2017 02:20 AM

5/24/2015

Thanks Dr. Shanahan for posting my response and addressing my thoughts - I really appreciate your willingness to engage.

As one reader commented, I too am a bit confused about your response vs. my original comments. For example, I'm not sure if the comment about the idiosyncratic treatment of "instructional" & "frustrational" levels if your comments or someone else - it appears that you are responding with disagreement to that comment, but I personally didn't right that, so perhaps it was another comment?

In any case, in reading your comments and trying to find consensus and the root our agreement or lack thereof, here are some follow-up thoughts:

1) First and foremost, I'm sensing a disagreement with my claim that different reading skill/instructional areas can be on different skill levels. You mentioned that informal reading inventories combine elements such as fluency and comprehension into a single index, but I'd argue that each sub-skill area in reading can be considered/taught independently. As such, it makes sense to assess each sub-skill area independently and identify the child's instructional level for that skill.

For example, a child's skill level with decoding may be very different from vocabulary development. While an IRI may be able to come up with an overall index of skill development, if those two sub-skill areas vary too greatly, that overall index becomes significantly less helpful.

In this sense, while comprehension and fluency are related, they are independent constructs which can be assessed (and taught) separately. When skill levels diverge significantly, it would be best practice to provide targeted instruction in each sub-skill area (fluency & comprehension) based on the relative skill level, or instructional level, of each.

Am I getting your point accurately here? Are you advocating that it doesn't make sense to independently consider fluency and comprehension? If not, and you agree that they can be considered separately, our next area of disagreement continues to be instructional vs frustrational levels.

Again, not sure who was commenting on the poor use of the terms "instructional" and "frustrational," but they are indeed terms that do have a history of use within education, based on assessment, to identify ranges of skill instruction that a child could benefit from. Of course, a child is likely to derive some benefit from "frustrational" material, but instructional material is used to describe material that is both sufficiently challenging yet accessible. This is not a novel or bold statement, but quite common sense. We know there is material that's too easy, and material that's too hard. Material that is too hard is "frustrational." Incidental benefits of frustrational-level instruction notwithstanding, I don't see it extremely wise or useful to advocate for instruction in this area. I've not seen any research to suggest that children should be given the most complex material possible without consideration of their current level of development.

All of this gets back to the main question - what kind of materials should we use. It seems that you are continuing to say, "Grade level material" or "complex text" without regard to instructional level. I am saying, "the most challenging text possible within a child's instructional level." This may be grade-level or complex text, or it may not be.

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 02:20 AM

6/7/2015

Ed--
My use of the term idiosyncratic to describe your use of the term "instructional" to refer to performance levels with various specific skills is correct. You can definitely use the term as you are using it, but let's not confuse things. That is definitely NOT how the term has been used during its history in the fields of assessment and education. It is not how Betts, Gates, Durrell, Spache, Botel, Pikulski, Allington, Gambrell, Monroe, Pinnell, Fountas, Stahl, Johns, or dozens of other authorities on reading have used it (or as it is used in dozens, perhaps hundreds, of instructional programs or assessment instruments).

The use of the term to describe the difficulty level of text that students should be asked to read in school goes back to 1946 as it was used by Emmett Betts, and it is still used in the same manner (though various authorities may adjust his criteria or his assessment procedures). His claim was that an instructional level was text that students could read with 95-98% accuracy and with 75-89% comprehension. He claimed that students would learn optimally when matched to texts in this fashion. Your description of why it is a good idea (in terms of adequate challenge level, etc.) comes right out of that set of claims.

However, in the 69 years that educators have promoted the idea that there is an instructional level and that can be measured as 95-98% accuracy and 75-89% comprehension, there have been no studies done beyond grade 1 reading levels that have found any benefit from such placements. And, there are several studies done throughout the grades (referred to in past posts on this site) showing either that text placement are making NO difference in learning or that placements in more challenging (e.g., supposedly frustration level texts) are more supportive of learning.

That's the point that you are missing. You can redefine these levels of difficulty as being instructional since they are clearly more supportive of learning than the levels used in the field of reading for nearly 70 years, but redefining them now would just confuse matters. Teachers need to teach with more challenging text than what they are currently using.

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 02:21 AM

6/7/2015

Mary--

No one is blithely recommending anything. I have worked in schools for the past 45 years and was just as careful as you are trying to be about making sure that students can read the material easily. The problem with that is that it protects them from learning. The point isn't to just throw students into complex text, but to teach them to read it. Teaching and learning are easier, of course, if the kids can already read the text reasonably well (95% accuracy and 75% comprehension are darn good for texts read without instruction). The new standards are asking that we teach students to read more challenging texts, not just to keep them performing happily at the levels they already are reading well. I would never encourage a teacher to embarrass a child... you should never discourage a teacher from teaching one.

Allison K Sirovy
May 28, 2021 05:28 PM

I am searching for what to do with repeated reading as a whole class, in every content area, in grades 6-8. Next year, we have 60% of our students at "at-risk" or "some risk" according to aReading (FastBridge). FastBridge recommends Repeated Reading for many of our students, so that will be our school-wide intervention: science, social studies, math, and ELA with grade-level text for every repeated reading we do in our classes. I'm torn on the grade-level text because we have kids who will not be able to read the text fluently at all. They will be reading with their peers.

I understand it, but like Mary mentioned in her comment above: You would not blithely advise that teachers assign frustration level text if you had experience taking data as a behavior consultant and saw each time you were in a classroom that students either "act out" or "tune out" as soon as they can not do work with 80 - 85% accuracy......or if someone gave you text with every fourth word in black and then expected you to extract meaning from the text.....or if you tested adults who had struggled in reading and listened to them cry about the humiliation they encountered in school when teachers gave them frustration level text (even worse when they might have to read it in front of their peers- bingo, how to get kicked out of class before that happened.) The most difficult part of teaching struggling readers in middle school who have learning disabilities or who experienced dysteachia and never had the explicit phonics they needed in kindergarten, is trying to get them to stop guessing at words in text which most of the time they do inaccurately. Giving students frustration level text only reinforces that guessing (as does Reading Recovery).

Would giving the kids a text that is more challenging than their current instructional level instead of blanket grade-level texts in all of their classes be effective? I understand the research on it, but it's always a little different in how the same research can be applied in a real-life classroom.

Thanks for any advice you can offer.

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An Argument About Matching Texts to Students

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