Leveled Reading vs. Scaffolding

How to teach students who read below expectations

The basic arguement is: what to do with students who read beneath their age-indicated reading level? Two approaches:

  • Read less challenging material (that is, if 3rd grade with 1st grade reading skills, read 1st grade material), this is the Guided Reading with Leveled Texts and a cueing system approach.
  • Provide a scaffold to help read the suggested level of reading skills (those deemed frustrating), this is the SoR approach.

Guided Reading and Research

In terms of research, specificially the Science of Reading (SoR), it is clear that the first option is a non-starter. There is zero expectation or mechanism allowing for the student to catch up. There is simply no evidence that students perform well with Guided Reading and Leveled Texts.

Some teachers like to say that it isn't the whole approach, merely one component of small-group reading instruction, but if there is no evidence it works, why stick with it?

For children learning to read a first language as well as adults learning to read a second language, there are a variety of scaffolds which can help. Timothy Shanahan puts the issue plainly:

The point shouldn't be to place students in books easy enough to ensure good reading, but to provide enough scaffolding to allow them to read harder books successfully. (Reading Today, Sep/Oct 2014, pp. 14-15)

Shanahan found 26 studies which included practice oral reading (prior to reading for comprehension) or teacher pre-taught vocabulary, with the result of reading frustration-level texts as if they were their instructional level. This is clearly a sign of achieving academic goals, and makes use of the Vygotskian scaffolding and zone of proximal development as theory-driven instructional guides.

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How much scaffolding is possible

Shanahan suggests that scaffolding can be quite complex, but it would take a lot of effort and talent to go beyond a two-grade gap.

I have no doubt teachers can scaffold a couple of grade levels without too much difficulty. That is, the fifth-grade teacher working with a fifth-grade book can successfully bring along a student who reads at a third-grade level in most classrooms. But as you make the distance between student and book bigger than that, then I have to know a lot more about the teacher’s ability and resources to estimate whether it could be made to work.

Nevertheless, by preteaching vocabulary, providing fluency practice, offering guidance in making sense of sentences and cohesion and text organization, requiring rereading, and so on, I have no doubt that teachers can successfully scaffold a student across a 300-400 Lexile gap--with solid learning.

But specifically, you ask about scaffolding a 400-Lexile reader to an 820-Lexile text. If you had asked about 500 to 920, I wouldn't hesitate: Yes, a teacher could successfully scaffold that gap. I’m more hesitant with the 400 level as the starting point. My reason for this is because 400 is a first-grade reading level. This would be a student who is still likely to be mastering basic decoding skills.

I do not believe that shifting to more challenging text under those circumstances is such a good idea.

To address this student’s needs, I would ramp up my phonics and spelling instruction (I want my students to encode the alphabetic system as well as decode it). I might increase the amount of reading he or she is expected to do with texts that highlight rather than obscure how the spelling system works (e.g., decodable text, linguistic text). I would increase work on high frequency words, and I would increase the amount of oral reading fluency work, too. I’d do all of these things.

But I would not shift him/her to a harder book because of what needs to be mastered at beginning reading levels. We’ll eventually need to do that, but not until the foundations of decoding were more firmly in place.

Instructional level evidence

In fact, there is little evidence for effectiveness of teaching at a given instructional level (including problems with identifying instructional levels). This doesn't mean that learning doesn't happen, just that it doesn't happen very well.

Common Core and Complex Texts

Common core does mean that teachers need to teach more complex texts, as those are what the reading assessments are now based on. Test scores decline when teachers do not address this challenge. Here are six ways Shanahan suggest we can do just that:

  1. Have kids read a lot within instruction. Students should be reading and writing during reading lessons—and during social studies, science, math, and health lessons, too. Too often the reading lesson time is just talked away, but kids need to read when there is a teacher there to monitor and support their reading. Perhaps set an arbitrary target: kids will read 50% of the time during reading lessons; or they will read at least 4 pages of mathematics or 8 pages of science per week. Lots of reading of lots of texts; every day; every week; every year.
  2. There is no instructional level. Despite claims by authorities in reading and special education, no procedure for matching texts to kids has been found to reliably provide any learning advantage. Kids can learn from harder books than we have taught with in the past—but that means more scaffolding. Don’t limit kids’ reading to texts at their “instructional levels” (~95-98% accuracy in fluency; 75-89% comprehension), or to any of the new levels now being advanced (90-95% accuracy).
  3. Vary the difficulty levels. Past claims about the instructional level made it sound like you would harm kids if you taught them in books that were “too easy” or “too hard” and so the notion was that all the productive reading work would be done at the instructional level. I suspect that learning to negotiate the complexities of text is probably more like learning to run faster or to swim farther. Athletes don’t do all of their training at one level of difficulty or intensity. They vary routines to build strength and stamina, and I think we should do the same with reading. The texts we use to teach reading should vary in difficulty and length—with kids reading some hard texts, followed by easier ones, followed by even more difficult ones. Text difficulty levels should go up and down, but the average difficulty over time should climb. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the level that your grade level is supposed to reach: if third-graders are supposed to learn to read 820 Lexiles, 820 is not the highest level text we should introduce.
  4. Be prepared to give more help when more help is needed. I’ve criticized our programs before for providing the greatest help when kids are asked to read easy texts and the least support when they take on the hardest ones. If I’m weightlifting with light weights, I don’t worry much about having a spotter. But if I ‘m trying to push myself to the limit with heavier weights or a greater number of reps than I’m used to, I want assistance. So why do kids work in small groups with a teacher when reading relatively easy texts and we save our harder texts (like the science book) for whole class instruction?
  5. Try to anticipate why a text will trip kids up and then question them watchfully. What do I mean by watchfully? Question them in ways that will reveal whether they figured out what you thought was complex. I know you already ask questions about the overall meaning of the story or article, but I’m suggesting even closer questioning than that. For instance, if you think a sentence is complicated, ask a question that depends on making sense of that sentence. If you are concerned that kids will miss a confusing cohesive link or an implied causal connection or a subtle sarcastic tone, then probe those things. If they are tripped up, then take them back to the text to figure out how it works.
  6. Require rereading. The more challenging a text is, the more it has to be reread. Reading it once (or twice) to figure it out, and then reading it again without so much support can really improve one’s reading ability. Yes, it takes extra time, but time that pays learning dividends. Such rereading does not need to be done immediately. It is okay to go back to a selection that one read last week or last month (though the longer the interval, the greater amount of teacher support that will likely be required on a reread).

More scaffolding research (EFL context)

Research has showed repeatedly the value of extensive reading in the L2 classroom for improved reading comprehension (Elley & Mangubhai, 1981; Mason & Krashen, 1997; Renandya, Rajan, & Jacobs, 1999). However, additional support beyond traditional extensive reading practices may be needed for very low proficiency learners. This report reviews research on implementing an extensive reading program for beginning level adult-education English language learners. It presents arguments for supporting extensive reading through shared reading, including read-alouds, use of children’s literature, and strategy modeling techniques. It also discusses the benefits of student-generated texts for boosting vocabulary and comprehension skills. The report concludes with pedagogical implications for including a strong reading component in the adult education ESL curriculum and suggestions for evaluating the strength and utility of such a program.

According to Vygotsky (1978), a learner has the potential to progress from their actual developmental level to their potential developmental level via scaffolding that occurs during interaction with superior others. This case study was conducted based on Vygotsky's (1978) theory of scaffolding within the Zone of ProximalDevelopment (ZPD). In line with this theory, this case study attempted to examine the role of scaffolding via communicative activities in terms of development of basic speech on foreign language adult learners. At first the six students were given the main words of the sentences and the students were required to create sentences. Each time the number of main words of the sentence in an activity has been reduced; therefore, the students had to create the sentences with the help of the teachers. Then a series of pictures were given to the learners and they had to tell a story based on the pictures. The teacher provided few guided words with them if necessary. At the end of the course, the learners’ speech level had been improved surprisingly. Learning is significantly enhanced when the class atmosphere is in a cooperative and supportive mood. The results suggest that scaffolding within ZPD has its share in learner's basic speech development.

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