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



What Does ELA Rigor and Complexity Look Like?

This week has been filled with cleaning, decorating, organizing and previewing materials for students.  Looming over these activities and our new school year is the challenge of raising our ELA expectations. What does that look like?

Some people think rigor or complexity in a reading classroom is simply asking higher order questions, doing a close reading, and giving more difficult text but it is actually MORE than that!  You probably have heard in math that rigor is obtained through procedural fluency, conceptual understanding and real world application.  I think these same elements of rigor are needed in the ELA classroom in the following form:  strong standards, high level text, knowledge of the reader, authentic tasks, application of strategies and explicit instruction.

Last week, I shared that the Common Core standards are already written in a scaffolding manner. (See this link to review this information:  Blog on Fiction Text Structure )   The standards address all domains of literacy including listening, speaking, reading and writing.  When teaching a concept it is important that students first hear the information, learn to speak the concept through language, read about it and then apply their learning through writing. This encourages students to think conceptually because you are moving them through the concrete to abstract developmentally.  In addition, to using these domains, the standards are building on one another to maximize higher order thinking and deepening of understanding by revisiting a text for different purposes. These standards are the “blueprint” for conceptual understanding.

Tip 1: If you are encouraging student to student interaction, you are deepening understanding of the topic and increasing the opportunity for students to build vocabulary and formulating ideas for written responses.

We think of text as being the most important element of rigor. If we want to challenge, we give more difficult text. Right?  Not exactly!  Text becomes complex and rigorous if you consider both quantitative (the mathematical reading level) and qualitative (quality of text and structure) measures.

See chart below.



Looks within the text for the depth of the writing and complexity.

  • Figurative or Literal Language
  • Concise or Strongly Descriptive
  • Levels of Meaning or perspectives
  • Non-conventional text structure, narrator or writing style
  • Tier III vocabulary
  • Singular or multifaceted Plot
Measures the word frequency and length of sentences.

  • Lexile Level
  • Any mathematical reading level

You have to use both of these together to determine what will challenge your students. For example, Harry Potter and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day have similar lexile levels but clearly the depth of these texts are very different. There is actually a rubric (called a placemat) that can help you determine if your text is complex. You can find this document at North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in their ELA livebinder.  This placemat addresses how to ensure a text is complex by looking at various variables.

I like to use my “homemade” version for K-5 because it just seems more manageable to me. Click here to Access:  Complexity Rubric


This “homemade” rubric helps you decide if the text is complex by examining different elements of the text (Qualitative and Quantitative) such as text structure, language, point of view, amount of background knowledge needed to understand text, vocabulary and the reading level.  Each element is given a point value to determine if the text is “above average.”

Tip #2:  Take into account the reading level AND the structure of the text when choosing a text for students. If the book has a lower reading level, than you will need to pull out the figurative language or multiple perspectives of two characters to make it more complex for your students. If you have a higher text, you may first look at basic 5W questions and then move into the higher concepts using the order of the standards.  It is important to always ensure students have basic understanding before digging deeper.

The reader and task is the next element you must consider in choosing complex text.  How proficient is the reader with multiple problems?  Can the reader distinguish figurative language from literal text?  Does the reader have sufficient background knowledge to pick up on subtle hints and inferences embedded in the text? When answering these questions, it helps you to decide where you need to scaffold and support readers with direct instruction and modeling.  Making sure the task is appropriate but not “too easy” is a challenge.

Tip #3:  Really think about what you are asking students to do with a text. What is the purpose of the task? The task should be real world or application of knowledge—not just simply regurgitating the story elements or sequence. These basic activities can be completed through annotation, reflections, class and peer discussions.  A task should be saved for applying knowledge or skills learned by the reader. Examples of great authentic tasks can be found at the following site by John Mueller:  Some pretty amazing ideas here.

The last elements are strategies and instruction which could take several blog posts to cover. So, the basics are that the instruction should be focused on the reader and allow the reader to discover rather than for the teacher to “teach it” or tell it to others.  Instruction should include higher order questioning that requires students to ground their answers in the text with evidence. This requires students to reread and discover new ideas within the same text. Strategies that help students learn are ones that scaffold learning but do not give answers. Think aloud, modeling, close reading, annotation and discussion—all require students to gain information but do the work themselves which is an important part of ensuring text complexity.

Tip #4:  Really think about the strategies you are using and if they are appropriate for the group of students you have. Consult this resource which I inerited many years ago (not sure of the original source) and modified it over the years. The chart shows best practice strategies and their effectiveness for certain students.  Check it out here:  Instructional Strategies Matrix

As you can see, RIGOR and COMPLEXITY in reading is not an easy task. Rigor is attained by instilling conceptual understanding through the domains of literacy, having students matched appropriately with text and task to ensure they are stretching to their maximum with the proper scaffolds in place.  Procedural fluency in reading is when students can clearly apply the strategies as they read to fully comprehend the text. Real world application is matching task to text and ensuring that the task has relevancy and requires students to use their knowledge in new ways.  Teachers must really know the text,  reader and the standards because each element must work together.  A text is just a text—until you pair it with the correct standard, reader and task.

**We will talk more about this in the coming weeks…begin to dabble with looking at the different elements as you plan! Remember to ask questions because that is how we make sense of new information. You are not learning if you do not start out a bit confused–questions help you sort it out and make meaning!









There is true “BEAUTY in Mathematics,” but do we enjoy and share it?  You might be thinking—Math? Beautiful? Starting with simple equations which are balanced and rule following. Equations are like the building blocks of mathematics and stimulate creativity and a mathematician’s brain to make order and find solutions. These equations provide the things we enjoy such as technology gadgets, medicine, appliances, the space program and most of our entertainment.

Think about math in music for a moment which is divided much like fractions.  Songs or pieces of music are separated into measures which are further “divided into beats” which are designated by notes, etc. If you have ever listened to a song mash up—you can hear the math in the rhythm, beat and pitch.

Nature is full of math including fractals which are a symmetrical pattern that continues to “fracture” or multiply the same pattern. Everyday examples of fractals  are tree branches, snowflakes, lightning, and seashells. Fibonacci’s sequence (the rule where the next number in a sequence is the sum of the previous two)  is found in everyday items such as the arrangements of leaves on a plant or a pine-cone.  Math truly is BEAUTIFUL.

Check out these examples from on May 19, 2014, The Guardian.

Our brain actually responds to math in a similar way as to art and music exposure. According to James Gallager (2014) in an article entitled, “Why the Brain sees Math as Beauty,” he states, “Brain scans show a complex string of numbers and letters in mathematical formula can evoke the same sense of beauty as artistic masterpieces and music from the greatest composers.” The brain accesses the orbito-frontal cortex when both learning math and studying art. This part of the brain controls your emotion and decision making. This part of the brain is centered on what information you bring in visually and where the brain reverses visual associations and information into other information.

So, what does that mean for educators?   In an article entitled, “Finding the Beauty in Math, Holly Korbey (2013) states, ” While research suggests that improving self-efficacy and providing math-positive role models can help spark interest and stave off math anxiety, what some mathematicians and teachers are looking for reaches beyond surviving or tolerating math class, but helping connect students to mathematics beauty.”  This sentence jumped off the page because it is a reminder that the “beauty” in math is what makes it enjoyable and fun. This helps to alleviate anxiety and motivate students. Somehow we need to capture the beauty and the content and as Korbey (2013) says, “fall in love with math.”

Falling in love with math requires us to make math real and interesting to students. Infusing math with the arts is a way to create excitement and fun but also to make connections to the math found in the every day world. How does math fit in their every day lives?

  • Shopping (All operations and Statistics on labels)
  • Lemonade Stands (All operations)
  • Video Games (Patterns and Sequences)
  • Nature (Patterns, Sequences and Geometry)
  • Architecture (Geometry)
  • Coding or Computer Programming (Patterns, Sequences, Number Operations and Equations)
  • Cooking (Measurement, Fractions)
  • Music (Fractions, Patterns, and Sequences)
  • Art (Geometry, Patterns and Sequences)
  • Eating Out (All operations)
  • Sports (All Operations, Patterns and Sequences)

Finding ways to infuse real world application into math makes the WHY stand out and helps students see the importance. Seeing the validity in math and how it fits in the real world helps to increase engagement and interest for students. We have increased the rigor and problem solving in our instruction but are we making this subject come alive?  Kylene Beers (in a FB Post on 2/26/2016) stated, “rigor without relevance is simply hard.”  Using a program, such as Engage NY, makes infusing engagement and relevance difficult but maybe by integrating some technology, art and music into our instruction it would be a beginning.

Finding the beauty in math and “falling in love” (Korbey 2013)–WHAT A GREAT CHANGE!


Resources Accessed for this Article:

James Gallagher (2014) in a BBC Post:  Why the Brain sees Math as Beauty accessed on February 24, 2016

Viewed photos from The Guardian on February 25, 2016

Holly Korbey (2013) article:   Finding the Beauty in Math  accessed on February 25, 2016




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