The scene occurs daily in classrooms across the United States. Students, grouped by reading ability, come to the teacher’s table to read their leveled readers—books that are “just right” for them.
The books are not chosen for their content or valuable stories, but for their level, usually designated by a letter assigned to represent a set of text characteristics. Features that go into the level label include vocabulary and words, genre, themes and ideas, content, illustrations and language features. Struggling readers are assigned easier, or lower level, books so they will not be frustrated. So-called “good” readers are given more demanding or challenging texts to keep them interested.
Sound sensible? Not so fast. Matching students with books at their “level” is one of the well-intentioned practices that educators and school leaders should re-examine during this moment—when equity and justice are at the forefront of our minds.
What we’re doing isn’t working. Just one-third of fourth graders and eighth graders are proficient readers, according to the 2019 National Assessment Educational Progress (NAEP) results. The data are even worse for children of color and economically disadvantaged students.
Moreover, as national reading expert Dr. Timothy Shanahan has written, the practice of leveled reading does not actually have a strong research base. Rather, research shows better reading outcomes when students are taught with more challenging texts. This doesn’t mean students should only read challenging material all day, or that a teacher should assign a struggling student a complex book to read independently.
All learners need to read a wide variety of materials to grow their vocabulary and increase their ability to read with fluency. But during literacy instruction, every single student benefits from and needs to be working with grade-level, challenging, worthwhile texts. They all deserve access to the vocabulary and knowledge found in high-quality, complex works that are intentionally chosen to provide students a strong base of knowledge in history, science and the arts. They need the practice to become strong, competent readers.
And right now, they aren’t getting it. In a recent report titled The Opportunity Myth, TNTP researchers observed nearly 1,000 classrooms across a diverse set of districts and charter networks. They found that students were only asked to meet grade-level expectations on their assignments a mere 17% of the time. We can and must change that by first giving students the opportunity to read and respond to knowledge-rich challenging texts.
Exposure to complex text engages readers. So, in first grade, that might mean reading aloud books such as "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," by William Kamkwamba. In fourth grade, students might read compelling works of literature, such as "Walk Two Moons" by Sharon Creech. Later, in seventh grade, a memoir like "Farewell to Manzanar" by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston is captivating.
Considering and discussing the ideas, words, and experiences found within pages of these books draw students in and prepares them to read widely both works of literature and technical non-fiction by teaching them how to navigate complex texts. Students reading lower level texts are denied these opportunities.
So, instead of using precious educational time to match students to texts, effective teachers spend time planning for pre-reads, vocabulary support, class discussions, reading shorter chunks of texts, re-reading sections of books, and considering strong text-dependent questions that will support students in accessing and learning from grade-level texts. In other words, instead of lowering the demands of the text, teachers increase the level of support through carefully planned scaffolds that will be removed as students learn to navigate complex texts more independently.
Alfred Tatum has often been quoted as saying, “Leveled texts lead to leveled lives.” Let’s re-examine our practice to ensure all students have equal access to the high-quality reading materials we offer to our highest-achieving students. Only in this way will all of our learners have a chance to thrive.
Catherine Schmidt supports districts, states, and partners in implementing college and career-readiness standards in English language arts and literacy. She also served as a title editor and author on the Great Minds® Geodes™ team and is grateful to be an elementary teacher on special assignment. Her best days are working in schools with teachers and students.