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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.

If Students Meet a Standard with Below Grade Level Texts, Are They Meeting the Standard?

February 6, 2020

Teacher question: When working with state educational standards are the expectations for the student to be able to accomplish each of the standards with grade level text. Some of us believe that if a fourth-grade student can determine the main idea in a second-grade text that the student has mastered that standard. Please help us settle this argument.

Shanahan's response:

Actions like identifying a main idea or summarizing a text or comparing characters’ traits are considered to be skills. Text levels (like fourth-grade text or Level L or 950Lexiles) are degrees of text difficulty or complexity.

Readers have to implement their reading skills within texts of varying levels of complexity.

If a student is able to identify a main idea in a second-grade text, then he is meeting the second-grade standard. Students need to be able to demonstrate that they can make sense of texts in the ways described in the standards, but they have to be able to do this with texts commensurate with their grade levels.

At the end of the year, they’ll be tested on fourth grade, not second grade, texts. And, of course, if they continually are working with texts that are a year or two behind their grade level, when they leave high school they’ll be at a horrible disadvantage.

Teachers get way too wrapped up in the skills that are included in state standards and how to get around having students actually read grade level texts, and don’t pay enough attention to the variations in contexts under which these skills have to be implemented.

The analogy I have long used is weightlifting. There are all kinds of weightlifting skills or, more properly, exercises: squats, pulls, presses, curls, and so on. But those exercises are meaningless unless there is sufficient weight on the bar. Concluding that a weightlifter is doing well because he can successfully execute 15 arm curls would be foolish, because it matters if those curls are done with 5 pounds or 50 pounds of weight.

It’s the same thing with reading. That one can answer lots of different kinds of questions is very nice, as long as the texts are demanding enough to make the questions worth answering.

Several years ago, ACT (the college testing people) figured out that if texts were simple enough, prospective college students could answer any kinds of questions about them, no matter how complicated or subtle the questions. But, if the texts were particularly hard, then even simple questions about them blew the students away. It’s the text, not the skills, that matters most.

Our job as teachers is not to teach kids how to read books they can already read reasonably well (like “instructional level” texts), but to enable them to make sense of texts that they can’t already read.

Focus more attention on how you are going to enable boys and girls to read fourth-grade text successfully than on practicing particular skills with texts that are already relatively easy for them.

Those standards should not be thought of separately from text considerations.

Yes, students are supposed to be able to make causal connections among the ideas in science text. But it matters whether this is being done in text with sufficiently sophisticated language and content. Language and content that matches these students age and grade levels (in terms of content, intellectual development, curiosity, and social needs).

Yes, it matters if students can determine the main idea of s text, but whether the standard says so explicitly or not, students must do this in a wide range of texts. These texts should vary in content, difficulty, length, style, organization, format, explicitness, and so on. Determining the main idea in a newspaper article will be quite a different experience than doing so with a history book. Making sense of the author’s point when the language and content demands are so simple that a 7-year-old can handle them is very different than learning to do this with a text aimed at 9-year-olds. The increases in depth, complexity, and sophistication of language will require more effort, insight, and perseverance.

We need to teach students to make sense of grade level texts. If we don’t, then no matter how skilled students may seem to be, they will not be meeting our educational standards and they won’t be on track for literacy-enriched lives.

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"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers