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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 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 TextAs researchers looked into the effectiveness working at reading level, studies found that it “has made no difference—that is the kids taught from grade level materials do as well as those at an instructional level—or the instructional level placements have led to less learning.”

More recently, he highlights additional new evidence from a study of third graders: “Results indicate that weaker readers, using texts at two, three, and four grade levels above their instructional levels with the assistance of lead readers [other, better reading, third graders], outscored both proficient and less proficient students in the control group across multiple measures of reading achievement.”

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. Mind you, Shanahan also cautions us about small group work for its own sake.

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 Don’t. You absolutely want to read up on the Do’s, and the research behind them.

The effect on comprehension

One nuance of this issue: the effect of leveled reading groups on reading comprehension. Students’ background knowledge is critical to their reading comprehension, as shown by piles of research.

It is exceptionally challenging to ensure that all students are building content knowledge in a leveled reading approach, because the books kids are reading are all over the map. Curriculum should have anchor texts and text sets that have been intentionally selected to support knowledge acquisition in social studies, science, and the arts; seldom is that objective achieved – or practically achievable! – when each group in the class is reading different texts.

So, leveled reading groups lack an evidence base… AND the practice is incompatible with content knowledge acquisition, which is well-supported by research. Double whammy.

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, let’s all spread the word!

A recent #ELAchat spread the word; you can read the chat archive here, to hear from – and connect with – educators contemplating and making these shifts in practice.

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.

Thanks for reading and sharing, friends! Know Better, Do Better… amirite??



PostScript: Voices from the Field

Over the last few months, I’ve had the fortune of visiting districts that have made the shift to grade level work for all.

For anyone wondering, “Is this do-able in classrooms? How do the kids respond?” I say… don’t take my word for it!

Please read this thread (warning: it’s long!). Hear what dozens of educators have to say about their experiences. The educators I met say it better than I ever could:

Also, a HUGE thanks to all of the educators who’ve shared their stories… with me, and in social media. It’s so important that we show that this research can absolutely be brought into practice… and that it’s happening in schools across the US.

Published inK–12 EducationLiteracyScience of Reading

18 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. 🙂

      • Alex F Alex F

        I too have the same question. This portion on the blog is the only reason I haven’t shared this piece widely. The rest of the blog is full of valuable content.

      • karenvaites karenvaites

        Did you see my reply to Susan? I’ll repost it here:

        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 what I have seen of these curricula during classroom visits.

  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.

    • luqmanmichel luqmanmichel

      Did anyone find out how the non-reader became a voracious reader?

      ” I do know that my friend’s nonreader went off to Putney VT when he was 12 and came home reading — voraciously”.

      What happened after he was 12 years old?

      what did the new school do different?

      Why was he a non-reader prior to that?

  4. Patricia Van House Patricia Van House

    Finally! I have been in teaching for most of 50 years. Some things do not work like real math in 1970 and blueberry, canary, and robin reading groups in 1954. I was told in second grade “I would never be a good reader.” Then in third tested out at 12th grade! What made the difference? One teacher taught with reading groups and one did not!
    I have most recently taught 22 years of first and second grade. I teach with a phonics based reading curriculum and do not have leveled reading groups! The reading groups are 5-6 kids of varying reading levels, using the same reading books. Some training goes into teaching the kids to not make fun of someone that has to stop to sound out a word, or some reading slower than they do, or done one whose second language is English! I guarantee that at the end of the year the progress made by the lower reader is significantly much greater than if they had been in a low reading group! After all if you are branded a slow reader and read slow reading books then you will stay that way.
    I happy to see the thought processes changing!
    I believe phonics based and non-leveled reading groups will bring more succees to slower reader!
    Sincerely,
    Pat Van House
    2nd grade teacher

  5. Gnuehc Zaddy Ecnerwal Gnuehc Zaddy Ecnerwal

    Education practices that don’t work! Where do I begin? Leveled reading is only one of many. The root of the problem is that education, in the US at least, is not scientific. By that I mean, there’s no room for refutation and critique. It’s all policy-driven in a hierarchy of administrative rubber stamps. By the time it hits the classrooms, and the problems start to pop up, hundreds of thousand of dollars have been spent on material and training, there’s no turning back. Practitioners who point out the shortcomings of these programs and practices are silenced and ignored, if not straight out intimidated. And when the expected results don’t materialize after x number of months/years, the response is either spending more money ‘re-training’ teachers, (implying that it was the teacher’s incompetence), or it’s time to latch on to another novel practice. There is never a built-in process of cyclical re-evaluation, critique, trouble-shooting, experimentation, advancement, etc. Those are the elements of what a scientific process should have. In the US, it’s about the behaviors (the technique, the practice), not the process that guide and improve the practice.

  6. Mike Mike

    Removing leveling across the board is killing diverse school districts like the one I teach in. I guess the theory is that you try to keep everyone at the same advanced level, but here’s the reality:

    Approximately 60-70% of our students receive no education at home. No abcs, no times tables, etc. So when they get to school, they have to start at square zero. The rest do get some support and start out ahead. Also, they don’t learn basic behavioral norms so they have huge problems in the classroom.

    In the suburban white district next door that has so few minorities they don’t even have to report stats, 100% of kids get support from home and everyone starts out ahead.

    Because leveling is bad, the kids in our district are all supposed to learn at roughly the same pace, but the kids who don’t know anything slow everyone down. A lot. This is just reality – I guess you could assume that hero teachers can fix that, but they can’t (we also get 10% less funding per student than next door does). A teacher with students who have active parents will achieve far more than the one who has a kid throwing desks around the room because mommy is a drug addict and he has to live with grandma. This ends up compounded over 12 years of school, and as a result, even the best students in our district are significantly less advanced than the best students next door.

    Keeping everyone at the same level within a district means that District A progresses at one pace, and District B progresses at another. It is impossible to get the same level of education in our district as you get next door. It means zip code determines your reality.

    This then leads to middle class flight. Our district is losing middle class families at an alarming rate – the neighborhood elementary schools in residential areas are having trouble getting students because no families with parents who care want their students to go to school in our district. Our school has gone from 40% high needs to 70% high needs over 20 years. People pay hundreds of thousands of dollars extra on their housing to go next door to avoid being in the diverse district.

    A diverse district like mine should be an engine for social and economic mobility – students in my district should receive just as many opportunities as students in the district next door. But they don’t, because we invest all our effort in the lowest performers and the high performers lag their peers 5 miles away as they sit bored in classes aimed at students who are extreme low achievers. Every school district in America should be focused on those who come to school ready to work. It’s heartbreaking to realize that our smartest kids, the kids who do their homework on time and study, are at a systemic disadvantage relative to those next door. It’s unfair.

    Meanwhile, the parents of the low achievers that we invest so much in are perpetually annoyed and confused as we keep trying to get their kids to achieve a bit better so our test scores go up. They’re basically like, listen, my kid needs a diploma, what’s the easiest path to get one?

    I know that your intentions are good, but that’s not important. The results are BAD. The studies that investigate these problems all start from the same false premise: that there is some sort of revolutionary teaching method that will fix the inequities that come from the home. I wish it were true, but it’s not. So while the district next door keeps pushing out advanced kids who have all learned via the traditional curriculum, our district gets experimented on by some academic with the latest miracle cure for our kids’ learning problems that ignores the biggest issue – they are poor, they have single/no parents, they have no one in their life who is educated. A school alone cannot fix that.

    I wish I had an answer for those kids whose parents don’t/can’t support them at home, but I don’t. We can’t hope to compete with the district next door when we have less funding and our kids receive orders of magnitude less support from their parents. Pretending that we can is hugely destructive.

    But while I’m smart enough to admit I don’t have an answer, the paternalistic, naive educational intelligentsia (none of whom send their kids to school in diverse districts) keeps ramming these random experiments down our throats, and none work. The core mistake is that they think we can do something that fixes every kid. We can’t, and what ends up happening is we hurt the kids who could be successful in a vain attempt to fix those who aren’t going to be. It’s not as simple as changing an instructional strategy. This is a hard problem. Please stop with the nonsense.

  7. Sue Smith Sue Smith

    Coming from a special education background, 37 years, what I saw as most detrimental for low reading students were their decoding skills and vocabulary. I’m a firm believer in phonemic/phonic based readers with supplementary rich literature for vocabulary, usually done by teachers reading out loud! Children need to be immersed in stimulating vocabulary by finding interesting science, history, and rich fiction. Fairy tales lend themselves to interesting vocabulary. Unfortunately teachers aren’t reading out loud classics that are at a much higher reading/vocabulary level. I will not call out any of the new fiction, but unfortunately most have incorrect grammar and poor vocabulary. There is no magic formula for all.

  8. Kathie Kathie

    Can you please share the evidence that reading frustrational level texts with children works and develops lifelong readers ?

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      First things first, this blog isn’t suggesting anything as simple as “get kids reading frustration level texts!” A careful read shows that it’s talking about a way to approach Tier 1 instruction so that kids develop more quickly in their reading skills. Plenty of data shows that successful readers read more, so fostering successful reading IS fueling the love of reading. For evidence that this works in practice, I’d suggest taking a look at the Twitter thread linked at the bottom of the blog to hear the voices of dozens of teachers who’ve shifted from leveled reading group work to grade level reading practice. Their comments about what they have seen in students speaks volumes! I especially love the stories of the kids who’re proud to be working with the same books as classmates, rather than embarrassed to be in the group reading baby books.

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