As an elementary literacy specialist, my career was built upon the idea that guided reading moves kids through texts; specifically that expert teachers, relying upon leveled readers, move kids through texts. I informally assessed my students often, taught students at their instructional reading level during flexible guided groups, and when my district moved to a reader's workshop framework, learned how to teach strategy groups with students' independent reading texts. Reading level charts (see below) were posted in work spaces and served as a subtle reminder of where we needed to move students by the end of the year. Needless to say, teaching small groups of children in frustrational level texts was a serious no no. You just didn't do this. Ever.
Recently, with the advent of the CCSS which calls for teaching students to read complex - frustational level - texts, the entire premise of leveling has been called into question. Beginning with second grade, the CCSS have raised the reading levels at each grade level by claiming that over the years, textbooks have been getting easier and so expectations need to adjust to reflect this. Moroever, several CCSS architects, like Susan Pimentel, have stated that there is no research to support the practice of teaching reading at students instructional reading levels; complex, difficult texts will advance kids further. Even prominent literacy scholars like Fisher and Frey and Timothy Shanahan have aligned with the CCSS and cite several research studies that negate the benefits of teaching leveled reading after first or second grade.
Conversely, well known literacy scholars, like Richard Allington and Freddie Hiebert, have disagreed with the CCSS's call for text complexity. Heibert takes aim at the text complexity formula (quantitative measures + qualitative measures + reader = text complexity), while Allington cites a body of research that support leveled approaches to reading. Given these divergent viewpoints (both of which are rooted in research reviews) what's a reading teacher to do?
The healthiest place to begin is to understand both sides of the issue (each provide compelling arguments) and then consider that the most important variable is children's development, both cognitively and emotionally. As educators, we need to be armed with enough knowledge to decide what works for nurturing the students in our classrooms. With that being said, what is all this leveled hoopla about?
To begin, rumblings about text complexity aren't exactly new. In 2011, Shanahan argued that the formula used to define reading levels (Betts, 1946) was fundamentally flawed due to a shoddy research design (Betts Criteria below):
He further suggested that students will make faster gains by reading more difficult texts rather than reading at their instructional level. By rejecting Betts' Instructional Level Theory, he ultimately discredits the reading method known as guided reading. In fact, after first grade, Shanahan believes guided reading provides a diminishing return on investment. To defend this viewpoint, he cites experimental studies with random assignments, that revealed students placed in harder texts learned more. With the right scaffolding (and this key in Shanahan's position) students can and should read frustration level text.
While discussing content area reading, Fisher and Frey (2014) agreed with Shanahan and suggest that after second grade, leveled reading loses its value as it limits children's literacy development, "Limiting access to complex texts...may oversimplify what readers are able to do even when decoding accuracy and comprehension are not nearly perfect. (p.348)" . Fisher and Frey also suggest that over the years, texts have been getting easier, and schools need to adjust accordingly. They further make the argument that the teacher, not the text, must serve as the primary scaffold in literacy development. They rely on findings of various studies including one (Stahl and Heubach, 2005) that showed even second graders were able to advance with texts read with an 85% accuracy level (considered frustrational in current leveled frameworks). Fisher and Frey support the notion that the original leveling system established by Betts is flawed and contend that the reading field needs to move beyond this artifact of teaching and give students greater access to complex texts.
Countering the anti-leveled text movement, Richard Allington came out swinging at the recent 2013 Literacy Research Association annual conference. Presenting with two doctoral students, Allington cited both correlational and experimental studies which suggested that kids benefit the most when reading texts with a high level of accuracy. He discredited the idea that texts have been getting easier and provided several studies showing the reliability of using the Betts formula as part of elementary instruction. In a subsequent presentation, Allington made implicit reference to the fact that the CCSS is overlooking the potential of the Matthew Effect (Stanovich, 1986) when asking kids to read hard texts. The Matthew Effect refers to idea that when students read "the rich get rich and the poor get poorer". Thus, students who encounter difficulty, will read less than their peers, and this effect is cumulative over time so the discrepancy between low and higher achieving readers widens. Indeed, insisting on a steady diet of hard texts will only make matters worse. Allington also takes exception to the notion that the expert teacher is all that is needed to accelerate success with complex texts. Arguing for the impracticality of this idea, he bemoans, "Has your school decided to invest in providing all K-5 teachers with 60 hours of targeted professional development?"
Another aspect to consider is research showing what kids can do, right now, when attempting to meet the demands of the CCSS. At the 2014, University of Wisconsin Reading Research Symposium, a research poster (Lize, 2014) presented interesting findings. In the study, over 200, 6th grade students were assessed in order to discover if they were proficient at meeting specific common core standards in the categories of literature, science, and social studies (in this study, 70% was considered proficient). Findings revealed that collectively students were not proficient in any of the areas. Interestingly, students were found to be the least successful in the literature passage (38.15%). Go figure.
So what do all of these findings mean for classroom teachers who tomorrow morning have to face a classroom full of kids? A lot. To begin, abandoning leveled reading in grades K-3 when we don't have enough evidence to support that it will work is a dangerous proposition. Nevertheless, it seems probable that students can benefit from access to multiple types of texts with an expert teacher who can scaffold, motivate, and nurture the learning. Moreover, students must be provided daily opportunities to read what they want, even if that text is not at their "reading level". There is true merit to the idea that "leveled texts lead to leveled lives" (Alfred Tatum) especially if our children's only reading identity is that of level.
Of all of the arguments that I have read regarding text complexity, I believe that Allington's reference to the Matthew Effect is critical, especially when we this take this argument to its logical conclusion: Let's say a third grader is provided mainly hard texts, continues to struggle, and then in fourth grade is provided even harder texts, and so on. What's going to happen by eighth grade? Most likely that student will have dropped out. Wide reading and the affective aspects of literacy development cannot be underestimated (it's interesting that a scant amount of the research reviews that were cited even mentioned affective domains). If we marginalize students by mainly giving them complex texts that unrealistically ask them to persevere and show "grit" (the newest -and utterly skin crawling- buzz word in education) then we risk losing even more students. Perhaps the best step is to cautiously move forward, observe how our students respond to our wide repertoire of teaching strategies, and adjust as needed. Most importantly, let kids read without limits, listen to rich stories, and TALK about their experiences!