Guided Reading and Text Challenge

Tim Shanahan

Blast from the Past: This posting originally appeared on August 30, 2015 and reposted August 19, 2023. Issues about whether students should be taught at grade level or instructional level continue to plague the field of reading education. Since this first posted, more research has accumulated showing that it is important -- for the sake of learning -- that we give students opportunity to learn to read harder texts than we dared in the past. Sadly, many advocates of guided reading continue to misinterpret the "challenging text" requirements of their state standards. Here i explain why the instructional level theory is reasonable, but that it errs on its definition of what constitutes challenging text. This 8-year-old blog is as relevant today as when first published. Oh, and by the way, be sure to read the comments and responses -- that is one of the best parts of these blogs.

Teacher question:

I’ve read your posts on the instructional level and complex texts, and I don’t think you understand guided reading. The point of guided reading placements is to teach students with challenging text. That’s why it is so important to avoid texts that students can read at their independent level; to make sure they are challenged. The Common Core requires teaching students with challenging texts—not frustration level texts. 

Shanahan response: 

I’m having déjà vu all over again. I feel like I’ve covered this ground before, but perhaps not quite in the way that this question poses the issue.

Yes, indeed, the idea of teaching students at their instructional level is that some texts could be too easy or too hard to facilitate learning. By placing students in between those extremes, the hope was that more learning would take place. In texts that students find easy (what you refer to as the independent level), there would be little for students to learn—since they would recognize all or most of the words and could understand the text fully without any help from the teacher. Likewise, texts that pose too much challenge might overwhelm or frustrate students preventing learning. Placing students in instructional level materials was meant to be challenging (there’d be something to learn), but not so challenging as to discourage.

At least that’s the theory.

So, I do understand that the way you are placing kids in text is meant to provide them with an appropriate degree of challenge.

But please don’t confuse this level of challenge with what your state standards are requiring, and don't assume that your criteria for determining the appropriate level of text challenge to be correct.



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