The Instructional Level Concept Revisited: Teaching with Complex Text

Tim Shanahan

Blast from the Past: This piece first posted on February 7, 2017, and was reposted on March 23, 2024. Nothing to change or update here, but given recent questions and discussions on social media, I think it would be worthwhile to revisit the topic. I’ve been beavering away at a book manuscript that will go into much greater detail on this topic, that I hope will be available to everyone in 2025. It won’t reach different conclusions either, even given new scholarship on the issue.

Boy, oh, boy! The past couple weeks have brought unseasonably warm temperatures to the Midwest, and an unusual flurry of questions concerning teaching children at their, so-called, “instructional levels.” Must be salesman season, or something.          

One question was asked specifically about my colleague, Dick Allington, since he has published articles and chapters saying that teaching kids with challenging text is a dumb idea. A couple of others referred to advertising copy for Units of Study, a program published by Teachers College Press. Both Dick and TCP had thrown the R-word (research) around quite a bit, but neither managed to conjure up any studies that supported their claims. That means that the instructional level, after 71 years, still remains unsubstantiated.

What I’m referring to is the long-held belief that kids learn more when they are matched to texts in particular ways. The claim is that learning is squelched if a text is too hard or too easy. I bought into it as a teacher and spent a lot of time testing kids to find out which books they could learn from and trying to prevent their contact with the verboten ones.

According to proponents of the instructional level, if a text is too easy, there is nothing to learn. Let’s face it, if a reader already knows all the words in a text and can answer a bunch of questions with no teacher support, that wouldn’t be much of a learning opportunity. I buy that. Surprisingly, however, early investigations found the opposite — the less there was to learn from a book, the greater progress the students seemed to make. Yikes! This was so obviously wrong, that the researchers rejected their own findings and made up some criteria for separating the independent and instructional levels.

Likewise, the theory posits that texts can be too hard – preventing children from learning and crushing their tender motivation.

But what’s too easy and what’s too hard?


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