There has been a lot of discussions lately about the role of leveled texts in the classroom. We may have gone a little “level crazy” by using reading levels in ways that they were never intended to be used for. We should never limit a child’s reading based on what level they are instructed in. Amongst all of this discussion, I have seen “leveled text” talked about in a negative light. In this post, I plan to address the benefits of using leveled texts versus other readers as tools to instruct our students.
Depending on the approach to teaching reading there are different types of texts that can be used.
Decodable Texts: The words in decodable books are controlled by previously taught phonics elements and high-frequency words. Decodable books also contain controlled vocabulary.
Basal Anthologies: Anthologies are a collection of previously published short stories, excerpts of longer stories, poems, and original works. Modern-day basals often offer readers for below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level readers.
Leveled Texts: There are a variety of systems used for leveling texts such as Lexile levels, DRA levels and Fountas and Pinnell levels. I will be focusing on a leveling system that I am most familiar with, Fountas and Pinnell, also referred to as guided reading levels. About 30 years ago, Fountas and Pinnell along with a team of teachers created the text gradient tool. Guided reading books increase in complexity as the levels increase. When thinking about the accessibility of texts Fountas and Pinnell consider the following characteristics:
- Text Structure
- Themes and Ideas
- Language and Literary Features
- Sentence Complexity
- Book and Print Features
For more information on the 10 text characteristics click here.
There are many advantages to using guided reading leveled texts as part of a balanced approach to literacy.
Support Meaning & Oral Language
“I define reading as a message-getting, problem-solving activity which increases in power and flexibility the more it is practiced” ~Clay, p. 5
Whenever a child interacts with text meaning should be at the forefront of that interaction rather than a set of skills. Leveled texts are texts that are made for the student to interact with for a “real life” purpose such as learning something new or to laugh at the antics of the main character. This makes leveled texts motivating and enjoyable for students to read. When students are motivated to read they are more likely to read. When students increase the number of books they are reading they become better readers.
The earliest leveled books include pictures that are highly supportive of the meaning of the story. Pictures help to make the books accessible to our youngest readers. As complexity increases the picture support decreases. Pictures help our readers to become visualizers at an early age. Later, when they are reading chapter books they will be able to create images in their mind as they read which supports improved comprehension.
Leveled texts are created using natural speech patterns that can lift the level of oral language for students. Improving a student’s oral language helps the reader to read more fluently and improves overall comprehension. This is especially helpful for early learners, students with language delays, and students who are new to English.
Values all Cueing Systems & Flexibility
Advocates for the use of decodable texts commonly refer to leveled texts as “patterned texts” that promote “guessing”. It is a misnomer to say that guided reading with it’s leveled readers promotes “guessing. In fact, leveled texts promote the growth of a complex system of strategic actions that help young readers to become active problem solvers.
When a child comes to an unknown word in a leveled text a teacher would not encourage their student to simply “guess” what that word could be. The responsive teacher would choose the prompt that best fits this child. They may prompt the child to think about what would make sense with the story, what would sound right to say next, or what word would look like that? After the problem solving the child isn’t left to just continue reading. They are taught to confirm their reading by rereading to see if what they said did make sense, sound right and look right. Problem-solving, confirming, monitoring, and self-correcting are all complex processes that help our students to actively take part in their reading and create a sense of agency.
This is very different work in comparison to having students painstakingly sound out the majority of the words on each page of a decodable book. Robert Schwartz wrote a great article called “Why Not Sound it Out”. He explains that our brain is always searching for an easier faster way to do tasks and sounding out letter by letter requires high effort at the expense of meaning.
Within leveled texts, readers are taught to be flexible. The English language has so many exceptions to the “rules”. Rather than teaching a reader to follow a set scope and sequence of spelling rules, they are taught to be flexible problem-solvers
Check out this website with Absolutely Ridiculous English Spelling.
Match books to readers
“Reading is a highly complex process. Readers must build a system of strategic actions for processing texts A–Z+ that begins with early reading behaviors and becomes a network of strategic actions for reading increasingly difficult texts. The F&P Text Level Gradient™ should be seen as a continuum of progress for readers.”
~Fountas and Pinnell
Leveled texts allow a teacher to best chose for students books that are not too hard or too easy, but are instructionally just right for them.
Teachers are also able to be responsive to the needs of their students and build on students’ strengths. Leveled texts have specific challenges at each level. The Continuum of Literacy Learning is a helpful tool to use when considering those challenges during planning.
In literacy education, there has always been the hunt for the “quick fix” that will magically bring all of our students to grade level. The urgency to find the “quick fix” can cause the pendulum to swing to the extreme right or left. We need to strive for a balanced approach that allows our students to spend time reading quality texts and in which the responsive teacher plans lessons with his/her students in mind.
Clay, M. (2016). Literacy Lessons Designed for Individuals. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Schwartz, Robert M. “Why Not Sound it Out?” Journal of Reading Recovery. Spring 2015: 39-46.