More on the Instructional Level and Challenging Text

  • author awareness balanced literacy instructional level
  • 30 August, 2015

Teacher question:

I’ve read your posts on the instructional level and complex texts and I don’t think you understand guided reading. The point of guided reading placements is to teach students with challenging text. That’s why it is so important to avoid texts that students can read at their independent level; to make sure they are challenged. The Common Core requires teaching students with challenging texts—not frustration level texts.

Shanahan response: 

I’m having déjà vu all over again. I feel like I’ve covered this ground before, but perhaps not quite in the way that this question poses the issue.

  Yes, indeed, the idea of teaching students at their instructional level is that some texts could be too easy or too hard to facilitate learning. By placing students in between these extremes, it has been believed that more learning would take place. In texts that students find easy (your independent level), there would be little for students to learn—since they could likely recognize all or most of the words and could understand the text fully without any teacher help. Similarly, texts that pose too much challenge might overwhelm or frustrate students so they could not learn. Thus, placing them in instructional level materials would be challenging (there would be something to learn), but not so challenging as to be discouraging.

  Or, at least that’s the theory.

  So, I do get that the way you seem to be placing kids in books is meant to be challenging. But please don’t confuse this level of challenge with what your state standards are requiring. Those standards are asking that you teach students to read texts of specified levels of difficulty—levels of difficulty that for most kids will exceed what you think of as challenging.

  This means that everyone wants kids to be challenged. The argument is about how much challenge. You may think that a student will do best if the texts used for teaching is only so challenging that he/she’d make no more than 5 errors per 100 words of reading, and your state may think the appropriate challenge level is grade level texts that represent a progression that would allow the students to graduate from high school with a particular level of achievement. That means in many circumstances the state would say kids need to read book X, and you’d say, “no way, my kids make too many errors with book X to allow me to teach it successfully.”

  The Lexile levels usually associated with particular grade levels are not the ones that the standards have assigned to the grades. The Lexile grade-designations from the past were an estimate of the level of text that the average students could read with 75-89% comprehension. Those levels weren’t claiming that all kids in a particular grade could read such texts successfully, but that the average ones could. Thus, you’d test the individual kids and place them in books with higher or lower Lexiles to try to get them to that magical instructional level.

  The new standards, however, have assigned higher Lexile bands to each grade level. That means that even the average kids will not be able to read those texts at an instructional level; some kids might be able to at those grade levels, but not the majority. That means teachers would need to teach students to read books more challenging than what have typically been at their instructional levels. In other words, plenty of kids will need to be taught at their frustration level to meet the standards.

  I do get the idea that instructional level is meant to be challenging. But for the majority of kids, teaching kids at their instructional level will not meet the standards. That degree of challenge undershoots the level of challenge established by your state (and that they will test your students at). Perhaps you can take solace in the fact that research has not been able to validate the idea that there is an instructional level; that is, kids can be taught to read successfully with texts more challenging than you’ve apparently used in the past.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jun 13, 2017 01:52 AM


The fastest way to meeting state standards, no matter how high, is through good instruction. Period. We can't simply say, "Well, kids need to be able to read at a higher level now, so we're just going to instruct on that level." Kids won't magically be able to read at whatever level we tell them to simply because folks at the state house want them to. In short, if we want kids to read complex text, we need to teach them how to do it. We do this by providing the maximally challenging material kids can successfully engage. This, by definition, instructional level.

Again, you point to "research" regarding instructional level - there's plenty of it, if you know what "instructional level" means and what research is using that construct. Broadly considered, instructional level means what I said before - teaching kids at the most challenging level possible given their current skill level. Thousands upon thousands of evidence-based programs do this. I'll point to just one for starters that's been supported by independent research and has been included in the What Works Clearinghouse - S.P.I.R.E. (note - I have no affiliation with this company).

Timothy Shanahan
Jun 13, 2017 01:52 AM



The problem with your letter is that your definition of instructional level is idiosyncratic. It is not the definition used in the field (look at any textbook on reading instruction or the literacy dictionary). While your definition is sensible (it is instructional level if students learn from it), it is post hoc (meaning you can't know whether the placement was appropriate until after instruction has taken place) and it ignores the idea of optimum learning (yes, learning took place with this placement, but was it the most learning that could have been expected?).

Instructional level is also a concept that refers to the texts students read to learn to read. It does not have anything to do with phonological awareness or phonics instructions. Thus, there aren't really thousands of studies of instructional level, but there definitely are many programs that rely on instructional level (the concept used in the field referring to a specific and generalizable match of students with texts aimed at optimizing learning) that have been found to be effective, but not necessarily because of these placements.

What Are your thoughts?

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

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More on the Instructional Level and Challenging Text


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