May 14, 2013

Balancing the Common Core: Leveled readers vs. complex text

The art of teaching requires many careful balancing acts, and implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for literacy offers an opportunity for one more. We’ve heard a lot about the CCSS’ focus on complex texts; however, this doesn’t mean texts matched to students’reading levels aren’t still important. It takes both to build competent and fluent readers.

Elementary classrooms and libraries across the country are filled with leveled readers, or books categorized into reading levels. During literacy blocks, many teachers carefully and systematically ensure that each student is assigned to a reading group or given a selection of texts for independent reading based on his or her assessed reading level. This is common practice in reading instruction and is, in fact, the centerpiece of popular curricula such as Lucy Calkins’ Reading and Writing Project.

On the other hand, Reading Standard 10, which underlies all of the reading comprehension standards in the Common Core, expresses an expectation that all students comprehend complex texts on a continuum that leads to college readiness by the end of high school. This expectation certainly is a shift—not because college readiness and reading comprehension weren’t previously our goals, but because many of us thought that we could achieve higher student reading comprehension scores solely by enticing students to read more.

In my own teaching practice, I felt that if I coaxed a non-reader to pick up a magazine or graphic novel or just about anything, I was succeeding. I tried to get them to fall in love with reading and learning by allowing them time to read whatever they wanted. I still believe offering such choices is important, but I have now come to understand that a balance is needed.

The Common Core’s Publishers Criteria states that scaffolding reading instruction should not include using easier versions of the same text (pp. 8–9), but rather teachers should model reading strategies and provide other supports, like guided questioning and vocabulary development, when students struggle. However, the CCSS also state in the K–5 domain for Reading Foundational Skills that students need to build fluency—which comes as they read self-selected texts and texts matched to their level.

Research doesn’t offer much clarity on the effectiveness of either. In a recent blog, Timothy Shanahan, a literacy professor and researcher, notes the surprising lack of research proving the effectiveness of using leveled readers: “Research shows that matching kids to books does not guarantee big learning gains. In fact, in the two best and most recent studies on the topic, one study found minor benefits of a good book match on one measure only, and the other study actually found that kids made better progress in the frustration level books!” (For a rebuttal on the research on frustration level books, read this blog by literacy consultants Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris.)

I advocate for the middle ground. We do not need to take all of the choice out of classroom literacy instruction in order to meet the Common Core’s expectation for text complexity, but we do need to deliberately guide student reading so that all students have supported opportunities to engage with rich literature and build complex knowledge with informational texts. Sometimes the best thing to do is not to listen to all the hub-bub about the standards and just read the standards themselves:

Students need opportunities to stretch their reading abilities but also to experience the satisfaction and pleasure of easy, fluent reading within them, both of which the Standards allow for (The Common Core State Standards, Appendix A, p. 9).


A former English language arts teacher, Susan Ryan is a standards consultant at McREL and co-author of Common Core quick-start guides published by ASCD on English language arts and mathematics standards at the elementary, middle, and  high school levels.


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Thank you for your explaining how leveled texts and complex texts are both needed. I'm a 2nd year teacher and I currently work with someone who does not believe this. I think your article might help show her why leveled readers are still important for students. My grade level team and I have tried to convince her of this but have failed to do so. However, we have only been given a copy of Appendix B and we were told it is not really necessary to read Appendixes A or C. After reading your last comment, it shows me that I do need go look up Appendixes A & C and read it.

Yes, I completely agree with this. Teaching students to read on their level isn't teaching them anything. Going to their frustration level while giving them reading skills does help them. the shift also needs to be made to more non-fiction books rather than just all fiction. Teaching text features while practicing reading strategies at their frustration level is the perfect match!

Thank you for this wonderfully insightful article. I agree with your statements of equal opportunities for reading complex text and leveled text for students. In the classroom it seems that without feelings of success students put themselves down and become a "can't" reader. Also I appreciate that you used the CCSS to address the needs of students in the reading domain.

I agree that there needs to be a balance between leveled texts and the more difficult texts presented in the Common Core. We do not want to deter students from reading by only working with challenging texts, but at the same time, we need to be sure to incorporate such texts to encourage and practice the use of higher-level thinking skills.

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