By Timothy Shanahan
I recently received the following letter and thought you might be interested in my responses:
“I found your August 21, 2011 blog post on “Rejecting Instructional Level Theory” eye-opening and helpful. I’m a high school English teacher and instructional coach specializing in adolescent literacy remediation, so I’ve worked with leveled text a lot. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear your thoughts on three follow-up questions:
“Question 1: Are the implications of your findings different for adolescents needing remediation?”
It depends on how low the students are and how much scaffolding is available. If you stick a 9th grader who reads at a second-grade level in a freshmen biology class and assume learning is going to happen because the book is hard, then kids are going to fail. On the other hand, same student, same book, but put that student in with a teacher who spend a lot of time guiding, supporting, encouraging, teaching to help the youngster close the gap then youd be surprised at how much learning can happen. The trick is to balance the difficulty (for the student) of the text and the amount of support the teacher can provide (I dont believe she can provide much if there are 25 other kids there who are reading at 5th-10th grade level in a 40 minute class).
“Question 2: Is accessible text still important for fluency-building?”
Same issue. Kids dont seem to develop fluency skills from reading easy texts (no data showing this, but lots of claims about it, of course), but they do develop fluency skills from reading harder texts (look at Steve Stahl’s data on this, for instance). It is when students struggle with a book and reread it, etc. that fluency develops. The idea that lots of easy reading builds fluency is an unproven concept.
”Question 3: What about sheer volume? Isn’t one of the benefits of selecting texts that students can read without significant teacher support that allows them to read many more words per day (week, month, year) because they can read faster and can read at home? This was what initially drove me away from the model of spending three months spoon-feeding Macbeth to my low-skilled 11th graders and toward the use of literature circles, independent reading, and shared reading of more accessible, contemporary classics–although I knew I was giving something up in that switch and tried to make space for both.”
That makes so much sense, and yet, surveys tell us (as do teachers) that even with the easier materials, adolescents arent reading much. The idea that kids will do more of something if it is easy is also an unproven concept. When a teacher is working with kids, hard (text) is a good idea, but varied might be even better (some hard, some relatively easy, but a real agenda of trying to ramp up what the student can handle). When kids are reading on their own, then their interests are going to dictate what is hard (in fact, we have known for a long time that if kids are really interested in a topic they usually know something about it and can handle harder texts than might normally be expected). I’m all for kids reading a lot, including in class, but time with a teacher, like an athlete’s time with a coach, has to be spent building strength, endurance, and stamina–which requires the reading of a mix of challenging and somewhat easier materials. As ACT found, a steady diet of easy reading in school is not doing adolescents any favors.