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 coined by Alfred Tatum, “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 Text. As 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.
Education Week reported on new studies showing that leveled reading groups worsened achievement gaps over time, and also left below-benchmark readers worse-off than leaving students ungrouped. Studies also showed that grouping by reading level affected kids’ social development, and that grouping for specific skill development worked best.
I recommend this webinar on Rethinking Reading Levels for an excellent intro to the nuances of reading levels.
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:
- Eight Ways to Help Kids Read Complex Text by Tim Shanahan
- Supporting All Learners with Complex Text, a resource collection from Achieve the Core.
- The Rethinking Reading Levels webinar.
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 from American Reading.
- Bookworms Reading & Writing from Open Up Resources.
- Core Knowledge Language Arts (aka CKLA) developed by the nonprofit Core Knowledge foundation and available for free on their website; Amplify offers a slightly enhanced version as well as services like trade books, print materials, and PD.
- EL Education Language Arts, developed by the nonprofit school network leader EL Education and available for free online; trade books, print materials, and PD are available from nonprofit Open Up Resources or from Learnzillion.
- Wit & Wisdom from Great Minds.
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:
In @co_sumner, principal @Thurman7Jessica told us that this was an equity imperative.
In her school, since giving kids equal access to texts at the same high bar, “day after day we see kids rise to it.” 🙌🏽
— Karen Vaites (@karenvaites) February 27, 2020
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.