Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth

Robert Pondiscio & Kevin Mahnken, via a kind reader’s email:

Among opponents of the Common Core, one of the more popular targets of vitriol is the standards’ focus on improving literacy by introducing higher levels of textual complexity into the instructional mix. The move to challenge students with more knotty, grade-level reading material represents a shift away from decades of general adherence to so-called “instructional level theory,” which encourages children to read texts pitched at or slightly above the student’s individual reading level. New York public school principal Carol Burris, an outspoken standards critic and defender of leveled reading, recently published an anti-Common Core missive on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog that was fairly typical of the form. Where, she wondered, “is the research to support: close reading, increased Lexile levels, the use of informational texts, and other questionable practices in the primary grades?”

The blog post, which has already been intelligently critiqued by Ann Whalen at Education Post, expanded on remarks delivered by Burris earlier this month at an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate with Fordham president Michael Petrilli and former assistant secretary of education Carmel Martin. There, too, she demanded evidence of literacy improvements arising from the use of complex texts.

A fair request and one that warrants a thorough response. But first, for the benefit of readers who are neither teachers nor literacy specialists, a quick explainer on how these two theories of reading work: In leveled reading, a teacher listens as her student reads a piece of text at a given reading level. If the child makes two-to-five mistakes per one hundred words, that is considered her “instructional” level. Zero or one mistakes means the book is too easy; six or more mistakes and that level is deemed her “frustration” level. Children are then offered lots of books at their “just right” level on the theory that if they read extensively and independently, language growth and reading proficiency will follow, setting the child on a slow and steady climb through higher reading levels. It sounds logical, and, as we will see, there are definite benefits to getting kids to read a lot independently.

By marked contrast, Common Core asks teachers to think carefully about what children read and choose grade-level texts that use sophisticated language or make significant knowledge demands of the reader (teachers should also be prepared, of course, to offer students support as they grapple with challenging books). Instead of asking, “Can the child read this?” the question might be, “Is this worth reading?”

Leveled reading is intuitive and smartly packaged (who wants kids to read “frustration level” books?), but its evidence base is remarkably thin. There is much stronger research support for teaching reading with complex texts.

What’s the source of the blind faith that Burris and others have in leveled reading instruction? “In the decades before Common Core, an enormous amount of the instruction in American elementary and middle schools has been with leveled text,” says David Liben, a veteran teacher and Senior Content Specialist at Student Achievement Partners. “The generally poor performance of our children on international comparisons speaks volumes about its effectiveness. To become proficient, students need to have the opportunity to read, with necessary support, rich complex text. But they also need to read—especially if they are behind—a huge volume and range of text types just as called for in the standards.” Students could read many of these less complex texts independently. “Instruction with complex text at all times is not what is called for, even by Common Core advocates,” Liben takes care to note.

Burris and others, however, offer a reflexive defense of leveled instruction. At the Intelligence Squared event, she claimed that “We know from years of developmental reading research that kids do best when they read independently with leveled readers.” Such surety is belied by a surprising lack of rigorous evidence. Literacy blogger Timothy Shanahan, a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently detailed his discovery of the inauspicious origins of instructional level theory as a young scholar.

Made famous in Emmett Betts’s influential, now-little-remembered 1946 textbook Foundations of Reading Instruction, leveled reading theory actually emerged from a more obscure study conducted by one of Betts’s doctoral students. “I tracked down that dissertation and to my dismay it was evident that they had just made up those designations without any empirical evidence,” Shanahan wrote. When the study—which had in effect never been conducted—was “replicated,” it yielded wildly different results. In other words, there was no study, and later research failed to show the benefits of leveling. “Basically we have put way too much confidence in an unproven theory,” Shanahan concluded.

A pdf version of the post is available here, via a kind reader.

Related: Madison’s long term, disastrous reading results.