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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.

Teaching with Books at the Students' Reading Levels

March 2, 2015

Please provide the research about how teaching students using instructional level texts does not yield results! I am a literacy coach with five years of successful guided reading with below-level ELL's, working with them at their instructional level for TWENTY MINUTES A DAY. The rest of our two-hour block is spent with students immersed in either an independent book of their choice (also about 20-25 minutes) or in grade level text (1+ hours). I feel confident that I am teaching CCSS Standard 10 because my students read complex text in whole group with my scaffolding. I understand you've probably posted it many times, but please post it again here so I can see the research about why these 20 minutes of my students' day, where I see them growing by leaps and bounds, is actually preventing them from achieving the Common Core standards!

I’ve never written that no learning results from being taught from texts at one’s instructional level. In fact, the majority U.S. kids are currently taught in that fashion — and most American kids are learning to read, albeit not as well as we want them to. I have no doubt that your students are learning something from the instructional level teaching that you are offering them.

But the real issue has to do with what’s best for kids, rather than what works. The men and women who manned the “iron lungs” of the 1950s did much for polio victims. No doubt about it. But they didn’t do as much as Sabin and Salk who took a different approach to the matter. Iron lungs worked. Polio vaccines worked better.

Teaching kids at their instructional level works. But you can often do better if you give kids the opportunity to learn more by placing them in more challenging texts.

You don’t indicate which grade level you teach, so it’s important to stress that instructional level appears to matter initially — that’s when kids are first learning to read — but it doesn’t seem to matter after that. Perhaps you are working with first-graders or kids who are reading at a first-grade level, in which case, I think you're going the right direction. (Of course, if you’re talking about kids who can read at a second- grade level and up, then I’d question why you are teaching everyone as if they were first-graders.)

Your instructional use of time seems peculiar to me. Two hours of reading class with no explicit instruction in decoding, fluency, vocabulary, or comprehension? I know there are fans of the idea that we just learn to read by reading, and I’ve certainly been critical about the lack of reading within instruction, but the research records on explicit teaching of the skills noted above — including to English learners — are just too good to ignore. Teaching any of the skills listed above has several times the impact on kids’ reading growth than having them off reading on their own. (I do encourage kids to read independently when I don’t have a highly skilled teacher available to work with them, but having them off reading separately from instruction when I do have such a teacher available seems wasteful.)

Unlike what has been traditionally proposed by guided reading advocates, I have supported the idea of teaching kids with texts at multiple levels. That is, not all of the required reading should be at a student’s instructional level. Learning and consolidation come from taking on different levels of challenge — varying the workload from easy to strenuous. I like that you are intentionally having students read texts at multiple levels of demand.

Nevertheless, I’m puzzled as to why you work so closely with children when you believe they will have little or no difficulty with a text (you indicate that you work in small groups with kids in books at their instructional level — in other words, texts (that if left to their own devices) they could read with 75% comprehension). But when students are required to read texts more likely to be at a frustration level, then you only provide scaffolding on a whole class basis (oh, how I wish you would have described that explicitly).

My approach to this is different: when children need a lot of help to carry out a task (such as when asked to read a text that they can’t manage on their own), I think it’s best to provide a lot of close support. And, when they can do reasonably well without me, I try to step back a bit and give them their head. You apparently believe the opposite — you are close by with few distractions to interfere when they don’t need you, and you are more distant and removed when real and immediate support would be beneficial. I find that puzzling.

Ultimately, the only thing that matters in this is how well your students can read. If they can successfully read the text levels set by your standards — on their own — then what you are doing sounds great to me. But if many of them can only do such reading successfully — with adequate word recognition and comprehension — when you’re scaffolding for them, then you might want to rethink some of your approaches. Your kids might be growing by “leaps and bounds” (I’d be happy to examine the evidence), but if they aren’t growing sufficiently to reach the standards, then I’d encourage you to be less dedicated to particular instructional approaches and more dedicated to helping your kids reach particular goals.

Finally, you requested some research sources. There are many bodies of research that nibble at the edges of this topic, including studies that have challenged the accuracy and reliability of the ways that we identify children’s instructional levels, examined correlationally the relationship between how well students are matched to books and student learning, relationships among text levels and student interest, and the effectiveness of the kind of group instruction that you describe including its impact on various demographic groups like high poverty populations or African American children. Those bodies of research aren’t particularly kind to the instructional level theory, but here I’ll only provide citations of studies that have directly compared the effectiveness of teaching students (second graders and up) with instructional level texts and with frustration level texts. I’d gladly include similar studies that have found instructional level teaching to be more effective; unfortunately, no such studies exist at this time in the scientific literature.

Kuhn, M.R., Schwanenflugel, P.J., Morris, R.D., Morrow, L.M., Woo, D.G., Meisinger, E.B., Savrik, R.A., Bradley, B.A., & Stahl, S.A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113–119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, H. L., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1–19.

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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan