Should we level texts for students?

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photo credit: David Kracht via photopin cc

I saw this article shared out a number of times on social media, but never sat down to read it until now. I thought Annie Murphy Paul wrote a balanced story on whether or not text should be leveled to meet the needs of each reader. She highlighted a new digital tool called Newsela that automatically dials up or down the complexity of current events students are reading. The lead provided a good example of how a complex text can be simplified without losing too much information in the process. Both sides of the coin on leveling texts were well represented. I am surprised there weren’t more comments posted.

My big question as I read the article was, “What is the primary purpose for reading the text?” I emphasize “primary” because we should always be teaching reading. At the same time, teaching reading without some type of context can reduce engagement on the part of the reader. My belief is, if it is about conveying content information, then it should be leveled, assuming that essential understandings are not lost in the process of translation. Students should be able to read it independently. If it is about teaching reading, then leveling may not be as effective because we would be working with different texts while teaching one strategy. The text should be at their instructional level, with lots of modeling and scaffolding provided by the teacher.

I remember one year teaching 5th graders U.S. history, specifically the Great Depression. I provided the students with an article that would give them more background information about the topic (we were reading Out of the Dust and they were really interested in this period of time). As they worked through it, I realized that they were not engaged. The students were displaying off task behaviors, and I was becoming frustrated with them. After reflecting on the lesson, I realized that the text was too difficult for independent reading. I should have been reading it aloud to them, and then sharing my thinking at strategic points. My primary purpose was to convey information, not to teach reading strategies, although strategies could have been embedded. Now with the advent of digital media available pretty much anywhere, I might have also shown them primary resources from that period of time using websites like the National Archives, or maybe Skyped in an expert on the topic. This would be an addition to possibly using technology like Newsela to level the same text.

I also like the idea of using eReaders with students when appropriate. Nooks and Kindles “hide” the texts for students who are self-conscious about what they are reading. I had an ELL student using an eReader last year. One day he privately asked me to put titles from the Flat Stanley series on his Nook. There was no way he would have been caught reading that simple chapter book series in front of his peers. In addition, there is recent research that finds students with disabilities do benefit from the format of an eReader, related to the limited amount of text presented, plus the ability to resize the font as needed (Source: http://specialedpost.org/2013/09/22/using-e-readers-helps-students-with-dyslexia/). It is also understated that digital tools are “cool”. Kids would much rather use a tablet or smartphone to help with reading due to various disabilities versus a magnifier or related type of support that draws attention to their disability.

What are your thoughts on the topic? Please share in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, also in Wisconsin (http://mineralpointschools.org/). He also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Matt tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

6 thoughts on “Should we level texts for students?”

  1. I included a reference to that Paul article as well in my recent post over at Sharpened Focus, Matt. The article is well worth the read and does present both sides of the leveling discussion well. The Newsela tool provides a good way for kids to explore more difficult text on their own with the fallback scaffolding of self-selecting to reduce the lexile level. I love ereaders too. I just finished a whole novel (Dashner’s Eye of Minds) on my phone. It is not always the best way to read, but I find it useful, fast, and convenient with novels. You’ve got to have an ipad to do justice to Origami Yoda though.

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    1. Thanks Lee for commenting. I have only read Origami Yoda in paperback. I may have to check it out on an iPad, as you suggested.

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  2. I saved this for my 4 am “work” session (catching up on all the great blogs posted this week). This is a gem. Three things that stand out to me is that the question is not necessarily should we, but when do we level? Secondly, I agree. Leveled readers help to provide students with critical content at their independent level, but engagement should always be taught. I wish my struggling, less engaged readers had more access to technology in my classroom and I need to make the time to get a grant to get this done. I use my phone (and now my new laptop–which I’ve waited 5 years for) to read some things, but I find it difficult (particularly for NF teacher texts and things like cookbooks). Lastly, I have found, if a student is engaged, independent reading is not impossible; the challenge is actually more realistic to real life. I use a lot of modeling in my classroom of texts I’m reading to demonstrate real life reading/writing/learning: annotation, reading responses, journal entries, journal reflections, and essays for PD even.

    Great blog! Sharing it with my peeps!

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    1. Thank you for the feedback. As I shared this out, a colleague pointed out that one of the possible negatives to leveling the same text is losing the voice of the author in the process. That is also something to consider.

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