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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Final Notes on Complex Text Requirements

October 7, 2014

Last week I replied to some of the remarks about text complexity that were made on the Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post column. Here are a couple more.

Comment
Fountas and Pinnell are stating what is their take on what the Common Core standards say. What the standards say and what their supporters are advocating are not necessarily the same thing. I think this statement is fully in agreement with what I have said above.

Reply
This writer makes claims that simply are not true.

He/she claims Mike Petrilli and I have promoted something that is not in the Common Core. That is not case. Let me explain where the idea that students will need to be taught with more challenging text comes from. First, CCSS, unlike the standards they replace, specify the levels of text that children need to be able to read to meet the standards. In the past, standards emphasized reading skills, but neglected the complexity of the language that students needed to negotiate. Teachers could teach the grade level skills, but place kids in out-of-grade-level texts without any concern.

Additionally, CCSS has set the levels for each grade in a way that ensures that the average child will NOT be able to read the texts with 95% accuracy and 75% comprehension. The writer is correct that the standards don’t explicitly say that, but it is easy to check out. For example, MetaMetrics has long set Lexile levels for the grade levels in a way aimed at identifying the texts that students could read with 75-90% comprehension. CCSS has set standards that raise the Lexile levels for each grade level (raising them means that the average student would not be able tor read the texts with that level of comprehension, because the books would be relatively harder).

The other big error in this letter is the claim that there is “no research” supporting the ramping up of text level expectations. Actually, that is not the case. There is a growing body of research showing that our students are not graduating from high school and that students can be taught effectively with more challenging text. In fact, in some of the studies, working in harder texts has led to markedly higher achievement.

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Comment
Russ Walsh calls for teachers to "balance our instruction between independent level, on-level, and frustration level texts." That is, reading experts are (and always have been) recommending that students encounter 'frustration level" texts whether one approves or disapproves of Common Core.

I think Shanahan is incorrectly characterizing guided reading instruction in the piece you cited above.

Fair point. I thinks he sets up a straw man (either students read easier texts without instruction or more difficult texts with instruction) and proceeds to knock it down —; so I would have to agree with your criticism.

Reply
These 3 sets of comments are incorrect as well. I would suggest that they go and read Fountas and Pinnell or Allington or Johns or any number of reading experts who have written about instructional level teaching and guided reading. None of these sources recommend teaching students with both instructional and frustration level materials. I have repeatedly over the past few years suggested that more reading strength would be developed by having students read texts at multiple levels and have even designed instructional programs that do this. That approach comes from my analysis of the research on this issue, not from past practices recommended by Russ Walsh or any of these other authorities (in fact, another respondent showed quotes from Fountas and Pinnell showing that they reject the idea of teaching kids with grade level materials — despite the research studies showing students making bigger gains doing that instead of guided reading).

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The original posting and the responses revealed some unfortunate confusion over a couple of terms of reading jargon: balanced literacy and guided reading. Lots of the exchanges looked like folks talking past each other, because they didn't know what these terms referred to. Carol Burris seemed to think that "balanced literacy" referred to balancing frustration and instructional level text (it doesn't), and it is important to recognize that there are at least two definitions of "guided reading." When I (and others) refer to "guided reading" colloquially we confuse teachers as to what the problem is that Common Core is addressing. In an upcoming posting (or two), I will define these terms and try to explain their significance to try to reduce some of this confusion as that can only undermine efforts to better meet kids' educational needs.

Finally, National Public Radio will soon address the complex text issue. Here's hoping that they sow less confusion and misinformation than the Washington Post article.

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To learn more about teaching and assessing reading, writing and literacy, visit Dr. Shanahan's blog.

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"Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world." —

Malala Yousafzei