My thirty-plus years in teaching have taken me on an unplanned path from Plato to Play-doh. When I taught Advanced Placement English to seniors three decades ago, I would have confidently bet against finding myself twenty-five years later teaching kindergarteners how to read. Or four years after that, preparing third graders for their state assessment, which would summon those same reading skills I had taught my seniors.
Having worked primarily as a reading specialist for the past dozen years in a high-poverty elementary school, I have now experienced the full range of reading skills—from the ability to decode a single word to the ability to comprehend multi-paragraph text. More importantly, my work as a reading specialist has illuminated all the impediments to achieving proficiency with these skills. These experiences, confirmed by research, have convinced me that if we want students to be able to tackle grade-level text (and we do!), they need to spend the majority of their time reading grade-level text. Our job is to help them do just that.
The research about whether to teach children at their “instructional or frustration level” is clear. National Reading Panel participant Timothy Shanahan has written extensively on this topic. “Placing kids in easier, below grade level books reduces their opportunities to learn, but learning will only take place with accommodative and supportive instruction.” Just to be clear: “No one is claiming that just placing kids in harder books leads to greater learning—clearly harder books require instructional adjustments by teachers that are an important part of the equation,” so the emphasis is placed on teacher-scaffolded grade-level texts.
In the fall edition of Reading Research Quarterly, researchers looked at whether below-level readers should be given easier texts to read. They warn that, because these “easier texts tend to be shorter and contain fewer difficult words and less detail, students reading easier versions of texts may learn less content, ultimately contributing to inequities among different populations of students.” Recent books like The Knowledge Gap emphasize the importance of developing comprehension through increased knowledge and vocabulary, so reducing content is not the direction we want to be headed. We want to raise the level of the learner, not lower the level of the learning. Once again, Shanahan provides emphasis: “The point shouldn’t be to place students in books easy enough to ensure good reading, but to provide enough scaffolding to allow them to read harder books successfully.” And this is also the conclusion in Reading Research Quarterly: “Most students, even if struggling with comprehension, can read challenging versions of texts when accompanied by instructional support.” Which returns us to our original question: Should we differentiate texts or instruction? Answer: differentiate instruction.
I am convinced that below-level readers should spend most of the time reading on-level text—with support. In California, students take the CAASP beginning in the third grade. Last year, I attended a two-day workshop on this assessment prior to teaching a third grade class once a week. Up until then, I had spent the majority of my time at the elementary level working with small groups of struggling first and second graders, with students who could not read the words and therefore had no gateway to comprehension.
This workshop was an eye-opener, particularly the deep dive into the performance task, whereby students analyze multiple articles on one topic and then use evidence from these articles to synthesize a response to a given “task”—producing either narrative, informative, or argumentative writing. I quickly realized that this performance task was an authentic assessment, and acquiring these skills in elementary school would certainly make students middle and high school “ready.” But it was also obvious that without explicit and systematic instruction in how to analyze text and synthesize a response, the majority of my third graders, especially my below-level readers, would not stand a chance at achieving proficiency with this “performance.”
In an interview about The Knowledge Gap, Natalie Wexler emphasizes that our decades-long efforts to teach elementary students reading skills like finding the main idea or making inferences haven’t improved overall reading, and she is arguing for teaching more content at the elementary level in order to close the knowledge gap between high-performing and low-performing students. The Common Core State Standards emphasize increasing the reading of nonfiction text, 50 percent by fourth grade and 70 percent by the end of high school, but most elementary school students, even when they can read all the words, can’t necessarily make sense of the ideas presented in these nonfiction texts. This is why well-chosen reading strategies can be valuable, not as ends in themselves, but as a means to accessing content.
So this is where I relied upon my educational background—a single-subject English teaching credential, a master’s in writing instruction, and a reading specialist’s credential—to teach all of my students how to tackle grade-level text. I put together a third grade reader modeled after the CAASP with multiple articles on a single topic (dinosaurs, wildlife conservation, volcanoes, etc.) followed by performance tasks: writing assignments that require either narrative, informative, or argumentative writing (sometimes all three). A resource popular with elementary school teachers, The Reading Strategies Book, features 300 reading strategies that come with very helpful anchor charts. I chose five strategies that I’ve found over the years to be most beneficial for students and used these to “anchor” students through navigating text by visualizing, inferencing, making connections, questioning, and determining important ideas.
And here’s an important point: There was nothing easy about this process for any of my students. Therefore, to give my below-level readers a fighting chance, I had to pull them separately in small groups to address the fact that they still struggled with decoding multisyllabic words. So I applied the same instructional techniques I had used with these struggling readers in my second-grade reading intervention program to help them read these grade-level articles. In addition, these students were given multiple opportunities to read and reread the text so that word recognition wasn’t a barrier to accessing the content, and their developing fluency fueled their comprehension. Once this barrier was crossed, they could tackle the text in the same way my other students tackled it.
One student in particular, who had strong vocabulary knowledge but was reading two years below grade level because she struggled so much with decoding, exemplified this need for support. Once she decoded a multisyllabic word—which was never an easy task—her vocabulary knowledge paved her way toward comprehension.
Timothy Shanahan asks: “If low-performing fourth-graders are to be taught from second grade books, when do they catch up?” Certainly, this was the question I kept asking myself about my struggling students. Another one of my third graders had come to my second grade intervention session mid-year reading at the kindergarten level—basically a non-reader. However, she was a diligent worker, and she ended third grade with a CAASP ELA score of 2/4, “approaching proficiency.” Without the push and practice from grade-level text, she would have been lost trying to navigate that arduous assessment.
The answer to the old joke—How do you get to Carnegie Hall?—is also the answer to how you get students to read at grade level. Practice, practice, practice—with grade-level text.