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Leveled Reading Groups Don’t Work. Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

You might want to sit down for this one, friends.

The most pervasive practice in K–5 reading instruction is probably small group work in which students are grouped by reading level. Experts estimate that this practice is happening in 70-80% of elementary classrooms. It’s common in guided reading and balanced literacy classrooms, as well as work with popular reading programs like Fountas & Pinnell and Teachers College Reading Workshop.

And… there isn’t any evidence that it works.

There, I said it. Actually, a lot of reading experts say it. Here’s Tim Shanahan saying it straight in 2011:

“I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate student learning by placing kids in the right levels of text. Of course, guided reading and leveled books are so widely used it would make sense that there would be lots of evidence as to their efficacy. Except that there is not.”

I constantly find myself wondering, “Why isn’t anyone screaming this from the hilltops?”

Odds are, you are probably just now hearing about this concern, so I’m gonna radically oversimplify the issue, to provide on-ramps to the conversation.

Then, I’ve included a provide a pile of links to experts who can explain the matter in detail, plus some resources.

Why don’t leveled reading groups work?

In very simplest terms:

1. There’s nothing about a kid’s reading level alone that shows what skills he or she is missing… i.e., what he or she needs to grow as a reader. Does a student need support with decoding or fluency? A reading level doesn’t tell you. When you think about it that way, we shouldn’t expect grouping by reading level to work, because it doesn’t actually give teachers cues about how to differentiate instruction for a given group of students.

2. It gives the kids in lower reading groups a steady diet of less challenging texts. Over time, this tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as lower readers don’t catch up to peers. Hence the common refrain, “Leveled texts lead to leveled lives.”

Literacy Pros Explain

In EdWeek, Are classroom reading groups the best way to teach reading? Maybe not. offers an excellent introduction to the issue.

Tim Shanahan breaks down key research and its instructional implications in The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex TextIn a more recent blog, he highlights additional new evidence.

I want to call out a key insight from another great Tim Shanahan blog, on guided reading: small group instruction IS an evidence-based practice. So, it’s just dandy to group students based on common skill gaps and tailor instruction to those development areas. It’s grouping by reading level that lacks an evidence base.

Shanahan also explains the challenges of gauging the level at which students should be learning in this excellent blog. (Don’t you just love the way Tim Shanahan includes loads of research citations in his blogs?)

This webinar on Rethinking Reading Levels gives an excellent intro.

And here’s an extensive compilation of reading and research for deeper learning.

Once you get your head around the issue, you can understand why Natalie Wexler likens the practice to elementary school tracking.

Why is this non-evidence based practice so pervasive?

Leveled reading groups are everywhere. Why does this approach flourish if experts don’t think it works?

Likely culprits include:

Folks don’t know the research. Virtually no one is talking about the lack of evidence for this common practice. Odds are that this blog surprised you, Reader Friend.

It sounds like good sense. “Kids should be reading just-right texts as they grow as readers.” That just sounds sensible, doesn’t it? Many urban legends do… until you know better.

It feels like differentiation. Everyone wants to be differentiating, and reading level is the easiest way to sort kids into groups. So you feel like you’re differentiating when doing leveled reading group work… but teachers tend to do similar activities, and ask similar comprehension questions, across groups, varying only the text. I’d describe this as Faux Differentiation.

Some leveled reading work is appropriate. Students should be reading texts at their approximate reading level for independent reading: when kids are reading at home, or during any independent reading time at school. So, being considerate of reading levels is appropriate… some of the time. The trouble comes when leveled reading-think is applied in Tier 1 instruction.

Common programs promote the practice. Level-oriented practice is at the heart of the Fountas & Pinnell and Teacher’s College Readers Workshop programs, and small group work in leveled groups is pervasive.

It’s easier than the alternatives. Grouping kids based on reading level is relatively easy, in part because it’s baked into so many programs and assessments. Grouping kids based on the skills they are missing… and helping all kids read grade level texts… well, that’s more challenging. Teachers are gonna need more support with that.

So, what should you do instead?

Regarding text levels:

During Tier 1 instruction, you want all kids working with grade level texts; students reading below grade level will need scaffolding and support (as well as targeted Tier 2 and/or 3 intervention).

This promotes equity, for it’s the best mechanism for helping below-benchmark students to catch up.

It also honors the fact that a fifth grader who reads at second grade level is still thinking at the level of a fifth grader, and he or she will remain engaged and motivated by learning content and vocabulary at his or her developmental level. (No more baby books for big kids, y’all!)

For details on how to do this, check out:

Regarding reading instruction generally:

I recommend starting conversations about how kids DO learn to read from the Simple View of Reading / Scarborough’s Rope, which are explained in these How Kids Learn to Read primers.

Leveled reading groups are a reading instruction Don’t. You absolutely want to read up on the Do’s, and the research behind them.

Curriculum can help you change practice.

Let’s close with curriculum options that are designed to get all kids reading grade level texts. This isn’t an easy shift for teachers to make, and tailor-built curriculum sure helps.

I’d suggest looking at:

ARC Core and Bookworms take some unique approaches to small group work, intentionally grouping students by skill development areas, rather than reading level… something to dig into. This Bookworms blog is On Point.

Frequent readers of this blog will note that those curricula are the same as the ones listed in my Phonics 101 blog. This is no accident; I’m sharing the curricula that are strong across all key aspects of reading instruction.

These curricula have strong reviews from EdReports and Louisiana educators; you’ll find more color about each in the phonics blog and of course on the EdReports and Louisiana Believes curriculum review sites.

Let’s Keep Talking About It – Loudly!

Here’s my K–12 party question: Which is lesser-known by K–12 educators, the research on the importance of content knowledge to reading comprehension, or the lack of evidence for leveled reading groups? This question produces a good debate! The truth is, they’re both poorly-known. So, please help me spread the word?

I’m trying to keep this blog short(ish) by telling the simplified story. Yet I really encourage you to explore the linked resources, because the devil is in the detail here.

Also, drop me a line with additional materials that should be included. I’ll keep adding as the wisdom of the crowds drives my own professional learning.

Published inK–12 EducationLiteracyScience of Reading

4 Comments

  1. Susan Hall Susan Hall

    What criteria did you use to determine which programs to include on the list of ‘Curriculum that can help you change your practice’? Do these programs align with the principles of structured literacy?

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      Thanks for reading – and for asking, Susan! Check out the linked Phonics 101 blog, it goes into more detail… but in brief, I have been influenced by a combination of educator reviews (EdReports and Louisiana Believes), expert reviews from within our community, and also what I have seen of these curricula. I know a few better than others, but I feel comfortable that I know these 5 curricula better than most. 🙂

  2. Nancy Dougherty Nancy Dougherty

    Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project does not promote leveled reading groups. They do advise that students read at their independent living level. Small groups are designed to teach students who need to learn particular reading skills or strategies.

  3. I don’t know from levelized, but I do know that my friend’s nonreader went off to Putney VT when he was 12 and came home reading — voraciously. He now holds a BA in history. I do know that kids in that program were restricted to covers of a certain color until they were allowed to move to another color by the teachers. I don’t know what the books inside the covers were. I do strongly believe that the “purpose built” reading exercises for Common Core, etc are depriving our children of their rich and varied heritage. What’s wrong with taking our ethnic (incl American) classics and using them to accomplish desired skills? It will be an embarrassment and a shame for America to ask young people to serve and defend a place they have no idea of outside their tiny neighborhood and their purpose built skill fiction. Tell me that the Preamble to the Constitution, poetry from Frost, Longfellow, Angelou,Emerson, etc et alia can’t be studied and excerpted by the present merry band of experts to serve the skills they have identified—and maybe even some they’ve left out.

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