On the Level with “Leveled” Reading

 In Support for Struggling Readers, What We're Talking about at HIP

Poor old Emmett Betts is getting a pretty bad rap these days. Betts was the guy who introduced us to independent, instructional and frustration reading levels almost 70 years ago. Betts essentially said that students should have easy texts for independent reading and increasingly challenging texts for teacher-guided instruction. (Click here to read more about how to assess reading levels.) Although many educators still rely on this guidance, some folks are starting to question it.

Critics of reading level theory argue that restricting students to books at their “level” closes the door to a rich world of trade literature and nonfiction. Plus, students often have the capacity (or tenacity) to read texts that are beyond their tested “level.” We’ve all taught kids who can read a sample fourth-grade passage with ease, but struggle with a passage designated as third-grade level. What makes the difference? Background knowledge is a huge factor. It’s a lot easier to read something that you already know something about. Motivation is another: If the other kids are reading Harry Potter, I’m determined to read it too. And, on the flip side, just because our students can read all the words in a passage, it doesn’t mean that they understand the meaning of it. Reading assessments that define instructional reading levels must be tempered with teacher knowledge of the student’s reading behaviours.

We in education have a bad habit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think we can still learn a thing or two from Betts, even if we no longer treat his research as the lodestar: 

  1. Make sure students of all ages and stages have access to “easy” materials for independent reading practice. High Interest Publishing novels are a great source of exciting fiction at low reading levels.
  2. Choose texts for instruction that stretch our students as readers, with teacher support. Gradually increase the challenge of these texts as students gain independence. Our criteria for “instructional” level might be broader than Betts originally envisioned, but with teacher guidance, students should be able to navigate increasingly more complex texts.
  3. Use read-alouds and guided discussions to expose students to rich texts beyond their own reading levels.

One thing we know about reading instruction: one size doesn’t fit all. It can be useful for instructional planning to know how difficult a particular text might be and which of our students will have trouble reading it. Let’s tuck that guidance on reading levels into our pedagogical toolkits as we target instruction to meet the needs of all our students.

See also: Individual Reading Assessments: Who has time?

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