New Evidence on Teaching Reading at Frustration Levels

  • amount of reading within instruction automaticity instructional level
  • 14 May, 2017

            For generations, reading experts have told teachers that they had to teach students to read at their instructional levels. Teachers were admonished that if they taught children with books that were too easy, there would be nothing for the kids to learn. If they taught with books that were too hard, then the reading instruction would frustrate rather than improve.

            In general, that kind of advice makes sense. Spend all the time you want teaching me my ABCs and it won’t likely improve my reading ability at my advanced level of performance.

            And, the idea of teaching someone something that they find to be inordinately frustrating couldn’t possibly work either.

            Beyond that, things get a bit fuzzy.

            Reading authorities have told teachers that these levels—independent, instructional, and frustration—are the product of two factors: how well kids can read, and how hard the books are. They have also come up with formulas for determining how to match kids and books to avoid frustration. Historically, the scheme usually called for kids to be taught from books that they could read the words of with 95-98% accuracy, and about which they could answer 75-90% of the questions. A bit of challenge—but not too much, was the idea.

            Unfortunately, this insightful plan (that many of us have used in our classrooms) was just made up. In today’s parlance, the instructional level is “fake news.” No one bothered to do studies to determine whether that kind of book matching was beneficial to kids or not!

            That started to change in the 1960s, when various tests of this scheme were undertaken. Again and again, the instructional level came up short. Studies were finding no correlation between how well matched to texts the kids were and they were often identifying kids who made great learning gains despite being placed in books at frustration levels.

            But it wasn’t until 2000 when anyone even bothered to examine the value of the instructional level using a randomized control trial. Then things got really interesting, since those studies found either that it made no difference—in terms of reading achievement—whether kids were matched to texts at their so-called instructional level, or the frustration level kids far outperformed the instructional level ones. In other words, it was either a waste of time to match kids to books or it was hurting kids!

            I’ve written about that issue frequently here and between those writings and the educational standards in many states that require kids be taught to read books at their grade levels there has been some effect. For example, I’ve noticed that several of my colleagues, when prescribing instructional level texts, now suggest 90% accuracy (instead of 95%) as the true identifier of the books kids can learn best from. Of course, they don’t have data to support these new criteria—the new numbers are as made up of whole cloth as the criteria they are replacing—but it is probably enough of a smokescreen to convince some educators that what they are being sold is consistent with research and standards (though in neither case is this true).

            Why am I bringing this all up again? Because this week a new study appeared, this one published in the estimable Journal of Educational Research, and conducted by Lisa Trottier Brown and her colleagues. This study pursues this issue with third-graders. “Results indicate that weaker readers, using texts at two, three, and four grade levels above their instructional levels with the assistance of lead readers [other, better reading, third graders], outscored both proficient and less proficient students in the control group across multiple measures of reading achievement.”

            As in past studies, the results suggest not that we just have the wrong criteria for the true instructional level (there was no best book match here), but that it is unlikely there is such a thing as an instructional level; at least in terms of matching kids with books.

            The key, of course, is that while inordinate amounts of frustration should be avoided in instruction, that can easily be accomplished with grade level books and supportive teaching (like the paired reading that took place in this study). The instructional level is not a student-text match. Placing kids in easier, below grade level books reduces their opportunities to learn, but learning will only take place with accommodative and supportive instruction.

            Past studies have suggested that the traditional instructional level would be a great goal to have for books at the end of the lesson rather than at the beginning. Instead of trying to avoid exposing kids to things they don’t know, we need to make sure that they learn what we expose them to.

            I know some colleagues, Dick Allington, for example, is not impressed that after 70 years there still isn’t any research supporting the idea of matching kids to books (beyond grade 1), and believes that the studies that have been done are flawed because they don’t just vary the book levels, but the instructional approaches themselves. No one, however, is claiming that just placing kids in harder books leads to greater learning—clearly harder books require instructional adjustments by teachers that are an important part of the equation.

            Exposing kids to grade level text will not automatically raise student learning. It just provides an opportunity for greater learning. Instructional techniques—like the dyadic reading in this study—are an example of that kind of instructional adjustment. Additional guidance with vocabulary, grammar, cohesion, structure and other aspects of text complexity should have their place too.

            So now we have even greater evidence that teaching kids with what they refer to as “the stupid books” (the ones below grade level) doesn’t benefit kids. I wonder if teachers and reading supervisors will listen this time?


See what others have to say about this topic.

Sally kingston
May 14, 2017 09:23 AM


Nicole Johnson
May 14, 2017 12:39 PM

Do you have a link to the research?

May 14, 2017 02:16 PM

It will depend upon whether those teaching the struggling readers can support the students successfully. The studies on scaffolding provide some helpful information. See Rodgers, D’Agostino, Harmey, Kelly, and Brownfield (2016) in RRQ who observed that teachers whose students made above average progress “were eight times more likely than teachers with lower outcomes to prompt students to use sources of information that they were neglecting while trying to decode a word (p. 357).” Rodgers also wrote an article in The Reading Teacher 2016 about the research.

Dana Robertson
May 15, 2017 11:44 PM

Glad to read this. These are the same ideas we have been supporting in our work: Engaging Readers: Supporting All Students in Knowledge-Driven Reading, Grades 4-8 (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). Teacher mediation and knowing your students are the crucial factors.

May 23, 2017 05:35 PM

I work with students performing significantly below grade level in reading. All have documented learning disabilities. Does this research support all students? Are there resources to support teaching students using text above their "instructional" level?

Timothy Shanahan
May 24, 2017 09:27 AM

Yes this research has also been done with kids who have had IEPs

May 24, 2017 07:44 PM

I have been sharing this research with teachers in my network, but have gotten lots of questions about the representation of ELLs and students with disabilities in these studies. Is there any specific information available about subgroups?

Cheryl Deutschman
Jun 09, 2017 12:37 PM

I am A Reading Specialist....who has read this blog numerous times now. The first time I read it, I was awed by the I just keep drinking it in. I am feeling the need to shift my intervention instruction to a frustrational then "imstructional" support. I am pull out support....Do you feel inviting on level readers , once or twice a week, would enhance the struggling readers experience and further growth - perhaps, even more growth. Thank you.

Dr. Joe Lockavitch
Jul 17, 2017 12:21 PM

This notion of teaching special needs and ELL students at their frustration level has been supported by my thirty years of ongoing research. For years, I have been stating that special needs students can do faster, comprehend higher and do much more. The enemy is not the student, parent, teacher or administrator. The enemy is the instructional approach. Change the approach and you will change the performance outcomes of special needs and chronically struggling readers. My diagnostic / prescriptive / instructional approach starts special needs students at their frustration level. I do not put them into an instructional texts if they achieve pretest score above 70%. It is amazing to see these students achieving daily performance scores of 85-100% in comprehension and word recognition from reading material most would have considered to have been "too hard" ( well below 70%). There is hope. Please check out my website for more data.

Debbie Hepplewhite
Jul 24, 2017 06:25 AM

Hi Tim,

Thank you for your very helpful post.

I find the Simple View of Reading diagram and rationale very helpful here for teacher-training purposes. When people talk about 'frustration level', this could be a problem of decoding (the pupil cannot easily decode many of the words on the page) or it could be a comprehension issue (the pupil cannot readily understand the text - perhaps there are too many words new to the pupil's oral language) - or both of course.

It seems to me that when pupils are asked to read texts, the teacher should surely always have this in mind.

I have always considered it ridiculous to suggest that busy class teachers can be expected to work out which books are at a certain percentage 'frustration level' pupil by pupil and book by book - whether considering decoding, comprehension or both. There aren't enough hours in the day.

If we turn our attention to the content and quality of the literature itself, however, this can help teachers provide a rich diet of material for all children - for their decoding levels and their need for learning new words and developing language comprehension (and knowledge and understanding of the world).

I suggest that a worthwhile book that is age-appropriate (quality literature be it fiction or non-fiction) is worth using for all the pupils in a class. The teacher is considering the intellect or all the children even if they struggle to decode compared to their peers. In such a case, the teacher will of course give additional support, as truly required, for decoding purposes (and note any additional phonics teaching that may be required). It is all too easy to fall into the trap of teaching below children's intellectual needs when they have been slower-to-learn phonics or when they are somewhat vocabulary impoverished.

This pre-supposes that the teacher already provides a rigorous systematic phonics programme with cumulative, decodable reading material in addition to the wider range of literature. Repeated reading as part of phonics provision is also important - and hopefully teachers' phonics provision is content-rich. (Of course as pupils get beyond infant level, they should not require phonics for reading other than perhaps incidental phonics.)

In other words, as long as the teacher is knowledgeable about the two main processes for being a reader in the full sense (technical ability to lift the words off the page and the language comprehension to understand the words that have been decoded/recognised), then it becomes a much easier process to support wider reading including group reading. Don't leave out the slower readers intellectually and in encouraging a love of books and gaining knowledge.

My suggestion is to use all good literature widely across the class and absolutely include repeated reading as required.

Aug 16, 2017 05:11 PM

Here's the link to the study referenced:

Nov 28, 2017 05:55 AM

I teach in Chicago where I believe that the higher ups are purposely setting the system up to fail in order to privatize the whole system. The system is currently advocating the use of F& P's LLI program. In some schools, administrators are forcing teachers to use that as their reading curriculum. Anyone that looks at the actual texts in the LLI program will notice that the fiction and the non fiction texts will not prepare the students to pass the grade level state exams because those readers are not at grade level. Students that have trouble with memorization are expected to memorize word patterns. Cutting and pasting has its place, but to take reading time to sort words on pieces of paper? Playing with magnetic letters on cookie sheets is fun, but at the expense of reading? Having four children read the same book at the same time, do you honestly think that the teacher is focusing on each child's pronounciation and intonation? If a teacher is hearing a child read every day, is that any less important or valuable then making tick marks on a page every other day? With all of these programs in place, our students are falling further and further behind the rest of the world.

Jan 21, 2018 11:27 PM

I have mixed feelings on this. I believe that allowing students to read at a level that is of appropriate text complexity for their own abilities makes sense when designing programs that will allow learners to grow. However, I can also see the side that says introducing more challenging texts can only help. I think the key detail is that this challenging text is to be read with an above level peer or teacher. Introducing these types of texts to below level students, but allowing them a magnitude of support seems that it could only benefit by opening up their options for reading. I would love to see more on this research and the study behind it. I think that there needs to be a fair balance for each individual.

Timothy A Lipscomb
Jun 27, 2018 11:43 PM

Reading this article has provided some information of how to address the struggling readers. Providing them with higher level of informational text or narrative may be helpful. To me the student needs to understand the basic before putting them in a situation that may cause more frustration. However, if the text is of interest to that student, it may help with reading comprehension and allow for students to develop reading skills. In the long run, you must know your student to provide appropriate reading materials.

Bess Kirch
Oct 16, 2018 02:35 PM

Is there any research to support this at the middle school level? Or is it all relatable?

Nov 06, 2018 01:10 PM

Could you link to the studies you reference? Thank you

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New Evidence on Teaching Reading at Frustration Levels


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