Reject the Instructional Level Theory! Really?

There were three shifts with the Common Core:

  1. Use of complex text and interaction with academic language.
  2. Reading, writing and speaking grounded in evidence of the text.
  3. Increase of Non-Fiction text.


To review, when we use the term complex text we are referring to text that challenges the student and both quantitative (the mathematical reading level) and qualitative (quality of text and structure) factors have been considered.  In addition, the reader, task and instructional strategies used must be considered.


With the three shifts came the controversy of whether we should be using the guided reading theory of using instructional text for small group reading or providing a more rigorous text where students needed to “grapple with the language and structure.  The idea behind Guided Reading is that a teacher works with a small group of students with similar reading abilities and behaviors and provides support. The text is easy enough that students can read the text easily with the support from the teacher.   The Common Core Shift opposes this idea by proposing an increase in the level of text.  The Common Core Shift encourages the student to struggle with the text while the teacher adjusts instruction and strategy use (scaffolding) to ensure the child can reach text meaning.


If we think of the contrast between these two ideas—you can see the importance of the reader and the teacher which are crucial to the process of growth in reading. Knowing the reader and the strategies that they know and apply while reading can change what type of text the teacher can give the student. For example:  If a child is good at figuring out context clues, the child does not require as much front loading by the teacher and the text can include more complex language.


In a research study published by the Journal of Educational Research in December 2000, researchers studied the optimal difficulty level for improving poor readers’ skills.  They studied children below grade level in reading and recorded fluency (rate), word recognition, and comprehension.  The readers were divided into three groups.  The first group was given books at their instructional level, the second were given books two grade levels above their instructional level and the third group was given books four years above their instructional level. All of these students regardless of their group were paired with a strong and proficient reader for shared reading time fifteen minutes per day for five months.


The study found that the group paired with text two grade levels above their instructional level made the most growth and gain.


My BIG Takeaways:


  • Guided Reading groups should be leveled higher than the instructional level to stretch the student since they are receiving instructional support from the teacher.
  • Independent reading should be done on a text where the student has comprehension at about 80%.  This allows the text to be a bit harder than is comfortable but not TOO difficult.
  • Pairing a low reader with a strong reader for 15 minutes a day for shared reading can increase the students’ exposure to text and allow them to “see strategies” applied by a peer.
  • Struggling readers need to be exposed to complex language structures and unknown words to be able to apply strategy independently.


My final thought from this study is that we as teachers have to be careful NOT to OVER SUPPORT!  We must allow students to make mistakes, struggle and not know an answer—it is then we can help them “fix it” and learn.  We must PUSH our students—ALL of them and ensure that they reach the expectation but not too easily.  Think about the Goldilocks Analogy—not too hard—not too easy—JUST RIGHT!  More importantly, using your knowledge as the teacher and scaffolding–keep the “carrot” dangling in front of the child. Keep the text just a bit harder than they can manage without your support!

Educational Lingo–Oh My Take 2

Education is a world of acronyms and vocabulary that do not seem to fit into the “real world.”  In the spring, in a blog entitled, “Accommodations and Modifications and Educational Lingo—Oh My!” I tried to clarify terms such as accommodation, intervention, progress monitoring and remediation to ensure we use the right word in the right context.    

After many data studies and conversations, we as a school, have decided that we need to “up our rigor.”  We use words like rigor, conceptual understanding, and complexity—what in the world?  This blog will seek to clarify these terms to help you understand what your instructional coach is TRYING to say and wanting you to do!  

The words Rigor and Complexity are the main buzz words at our school right now—but what does this mean?   

Rigor is an overarching term that refers to the teacher’s ability to create a balance between the reader, task and text.  I like to think of the dangling carrot—because this demonstrates the engagement that is created when the reader is matched appropriately (just barely out of reach) to the text and the task. dangling-carrot Rigor requires constant adjustment by the teacher between scaffolding instruction and change in materials and activities.  When a student attains, the teacher should constantly “move the carrot” forward to encourage thinking and learning.  “Moving the carrot” or rigor requires three components working together which are:

1) Conceptual Understanding through the Domains of Literacy

2) Procedural Fluency

3)  Real World Application

More crazy terms—right??  Conceptual understanding simply means that a student can speak, read and write about a concept.  If a child can understand a concept to the point that they can share their thoughts, manipulate the thoughts into another format or put them in writing—they have conceptual understanding of the topic or subject.  Procedural fluency simply refers to the application of foundational skills necessary for the student to show conceptual understanding. They can apply foundational skills effortlessly and automatically.  Finally, real world application refers to taking the new knowledge or information and using it in a meaningful way that requires applying, synthesizing, creating and evaluating.  Real world application does NOT mean that it has to be how they would use it in the real world. It means that it needs to be relevant to the child.  The three components of rigor work together to ensure that you are increasing expectations for students and ensuring that you are “moving the carrot” forward for students to continue learning.

Complexity is more specifically related to text or a task. To examine whether something is complex, you must look at quantitative and qualitative measures.


A text or activity is complex when it balances both qualitative and quantitative measures.  If you use a complex text, you may balance it with scaffolding and text features. If the text is less complex, then take away the scaffolding to require students to dig deeper into the text independently.  Don’t fall into the trap of just giving a higher lexile text to students because the lexile is only measuring words, phrases, syllables, etc. A lexile level does not take into account the meaning and author’s craft.  Remember that The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is lexiled at 680L which is a second/third grade reading band.  Really?  Be careful when choosing text and remember to KNOW it- because the qualities it possesses can make it complex regardless of the lexile or vice versa.

With an increase in rigor and complexity, you hear the words scaffolding, text dependent questions and higher order questioning.  These terms refer to instructional practices utilized by teachers to ensure that you are extending or supporting learning for your students.

Scaffolding is a word that encompasses all the ways teachers support a learner while they interact with text or content.  This can take the form of the materials you provide such as graphic organizers and text feature support. It can take form in the instructional strategies you use such as turn and talk to support thinking or Socratic questioning to extend ideas.

One important element of scaffolding is questioning.  Text Dependent Questions are questions that are tied directly to the text and require the student to find evidence to support their answers WITHIN THE TEXT.  Higher order questioning is similar but usually refers to using the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy or Marzano’s Thinking Levels.   Both of these taxonomies require thinking to develop from the concrete—right there questions to the more abstract.  Both types of questioning have a place and importance in daily instruction. (See resources below for more information on types of questioning)

As we progress through the year, on the blog, I will periodically review educational “lingo” we are using that may be confusing or used inappropriately.  Please remember to ask if you are unsure!  If you do not know, others are probably unsure as well.


Bloom’s Taxonomy from Curriculet


Marzano Question Stems



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