By Russ Walsh
What is the best way to teach reading? It is unlikely that any topic in education has been more hotly debated. In 1967, Harvard professor Jeanne Chall published “The Great Debate,” arguing for a heavily phonetic approach to teaching reading, in contrast to what she saw as the then dominant “look-say” method of learning to read words. This study was embraced by the phonics first contingent of educators and the public. In 1976, Kenneth Goodman of the University of Arizona published “The Psycholinguistic Guessing Game,” which took a much more constructivist view of reading, where students combined their knowledge of language, their knowledge of letters, and their knowledge of meaning to make sense of text. Goodman’s highly influential work set the stage for what has been called the “whole-language” approach to reading instruction. The debate raged on causing Stanford’s P. David Pearson to publish “The Reading Wars” (2007), arguing for what most practicing classroom teachers knew all along: instruction in reading must balance a strong phonetic component with an approach focused on meaning.
With the advent of the Common Core State Standards the “reading wars” continue, but the emphasis has shifted. For many years the gold standard for reading instruction included, in part, a type of small group instruction led by the classroom teacher, called guided reading. Guided reading is based on the notion of balance that Pearson discussed in “The Reading Wars,” as well as the work of literacy experts Marie Clay, Gay Su Pinnell, and Irene Fountas. The core principal of guided reading is that children read a book that is on their instructional level, a book that allows them to gain accuracy, fluency, and comprehension, while providing some problem solving challenges along the way. By reading these leveled books, students extend their knowledge and skill of reading by engaging with texts that have the right mixture of support and challenge for the reader.
The Common Core, in its pursuit of “college and career readiness,” calls for ramping up the complexity of texts read by children in all grades after second grade. Some reading educators, including University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Tim Shanahan, have argued that this means we should not be focused on having students read in texts at their instructional level, but in texts that are at their frustration level.
A recent debate held in New York and sponsored by Intelligence Squared U.S., highlighted the new direction of the conversation. Among the debaters were Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think-tank, speaking in support of the Common Core, and Carol Burris, a high school principal from Long Island, New York, recently recognized as principal of the year in that state, speaking against the Core. As the debate ventured into the Common Core’s impact on instruction, Petrilli stated that we now have evidence that leveled text instruction is not working and that students should be reading more challenging texts. Burris, conjuring her best Tom Cruise, demanded, “Show me the evidence.” Petrilli promised to get back to her.
Petrilli eventually did get back to Burris. Since Burris is not a literacy specialist, she asked me, with my long background in literacy education, to take a look at the evidence that Petrilli provided and see if it supported his position on challenging texts.
Most of the evidence Petrilli provided was not what educators would call research. One piece was an essay by Kent State University’s Tim Rasinski that concluded, “if students were given additional support and multiple opportunities to read the text, more challenging materials could be used instructionally.” This idea of additional support, commonly known as scaffolding, resonated throughout the articles Petrilli provided.
An article by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, entitled “Scaffolded Reading Instruction of Content-Area Texts” (The Reading Teacher 67(5) pp 347-351), says basically the same thing as Rasinski, “readers need a host of experiences with rich informational texts and a sliding scale of scaffolds and supports to access them.” One research article in The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (52(2) pp 155-164), by Jolene Zywicka and Kimberley Gomez, found that teaching students to annotate while they read challenging text helped them to comprehend the text. Annotation is, of course, another form of scaffolding.
Another actual research report (A. Morgan, B. Wilcox & J. L. Eldredge (2000), “Effect of Difficulty Levels on Second-Grade Delayed Readers Using Dyad Reading,” in The Journal of Educational Research, 94:2, 113-119) that was provided focused on second-grade “buddy readers” and found that when an able reader and a struggling reader were paired for reading, the reading level of the text should be two to four years above the reading level of the struggler. As literacy consultants Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris have pointed out, this is an idiosyncratic study and hardly research that can be generalized to small group and whole group instruction in frustration level text. All it really says is that in paired reading, scaffolding is provided by the able reader and this can be helpful to a struggling reader.
To be fair, Petrilli is not an educator, nor a literacy specialist, so it might be good to look at the research cited by a frustration level text proponent like his colleague at the Fordham Institute, Tim Shanahan. Fortunately for us, Burkins and Yaris have taken a close look at this evidence on their blog. In a three=part analysis, they looked at four research studies that Shanahan has cited repeatedly in articles about the need for frustration level instruction, including the article on “buddy reading” discussed above. Burkins and Yaris have determined that the research Shanahan cites “doesn’t begin to approach the depth he suggests nor warrant the kind of exaggerated shift [toward frustration level text] we see happening in schools.”
So what do we know from the research on frustration level texts? We know that when teachers skillfully and consistently scaffold students’ interactions with these texts, students can learn from them. What we clearly do not know and what this research does not say is that we should abandon or reduce leveled text instruction and replace it with frustration level teaching.
What should we do? The answer, as I discussed in my blog entry, “Keeping Your Balance In Literacy Instruction,” is to balance our instruction between independent level, on-level, and frustration level texts.
What would this instruction look like? First, teachers should insure that every child is reading a book of his/her own choice independently. These books would range in difficulty on a continuum from easy to read to challenging, depending mainly on student interest. When students are reading these books teachers would be conferring with individual students, checking on comprehension and the smooth processing of text.
Next, teachers should meet regularly with students in small, guided reading groups using fiction and non-fiction leveled texts to facilitate the students’ growing ability to smoothly and fluently process text and comprehend what they are reading.
Finally, teachers should provide scaffolded reading of high quality fiction and non-fiction in frustration level texts through interactive read aloud and shared reading. When reading aloud to students, the teacher should do all of the print work, while the teacher and students together should do the comprehension work. During shared reading, the teacher and the students should do the print and comprehension work together.
The key, as informed teachers have always known through their close-up work with real children with real issues in real classrooms, is keeping your balance.