“Text complexity” and the Common Core – should we really teach above children’s instructional levels?

You may have recently heard of the push for use of “complex text” in reading comprehension instruction that’s been emphasized in the common core. Some folks have cited evidence supporting that children instructed with higher levels of text complexity achieve more. There isn’t substantial evidence, and what evidence there is I haven’t personally reviewed, so let’s assume for sake of discussion that research supports this.

A fundamental misinterpretation I’ve seen with this assertion (use more complex text) is that children should be instructed with text that is above their instructional level. In fact, one study commonly cited as evidence of this mentions that students experienced equal or higher levels of success when working with material 2 to 4 grades above their instructional level.

Here’s the disconnect: When folks argue for kids to be taught above their “instructional level,” what they’re really saying is one of two things:

1) That passages should be used above the child’s instructional with oral reading fluency, not with reading comprehension, or

2) That the identified instructional level for reading comprehension was inaccurate, and that the child’s instructional level was actually higher than assessed. For example, based on a cut score of 75% for comprehension and 90% accuracy in reading a text, a child with a 70% comprehension score was said to be in the “frustrational range” for a particular text. Thus, an easier text was selected. Proponents of the “more complex text” argument might say that the 75% cut score was set arbitrarily too high – that 70% was high enough for the child to be given a text on that level.

To be sure, there isn’t great research behind these assertions. Rather, there a larger share of research that supports that we really don’t have good science behind assessing for and labeling instructional ranges. Still, let’s assume for sake of discussion that the research is clear, and that teachers are all too often misidentifying instructional ranges based on less-than-precise assessments, less-than-precise readability/complexity indices, and arbitrarily-defined cut score definitions of instructional, frustrational, and mastery levels.

In this case, the primary argument is not that kids should be taught above their instructional levels, but that theright instructional levels should be used (comprehension instructional levels, not oral reading fluency), and that we should reconsider definitions of instructional levels.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is it important that we are so precise with our language? Because a lot of teachers have heard a take home message of…

Use material that is above what kids are really able to comprehend”

….and that’s really bad for students. It’s really bad if teachers start thinking,

“Okay, common core wants me to pick out passages that are several grades above what I know they can comprehend.”

The reason is simple – in 100% of the cases in which a passage is above the instructional level for reading comprehension of a student, that child will fail to comprehend the passage, because the very definition of instructional range is the probability that a child can master the material given appropriate support. In other words, if you select material above a child’s instructional level, the child will always fail – 100% of the time.

This doesn’t mean complex text shouldn’t be used – it means that the most complex text within a child’s instructional level in reading comprehension should be used, and that teachers should reconsider cut scores/assessments related to identification of those instructional ranges.


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