In our recent article, “Break through the frustation: Balance vs. all-or-none thinking,” which has just come out in the September/October issue of Reading Today, we make a case for considering the big picture of your literacy instruction and varying the level of student texts for different instructional contexts. In the same issue of Reading Today, Timothy Shanahan makes an argument for students to work in harder texts. He has softened his rhetoric a bit since he began talking about his concerns about instructional reading level, and some of what he says now makes slightly more sense, although we still seriously disagree with his interpretations and generalizations of the research.
The issue seems to be the choice of language around this topic; in many cases the groups on either side of this “debate” are saying the same thing. For example, one of the main studies Shanahan cites is a study about shared reading in a partner reading context, in second grade. Not surprisingly, in this study, the less proficient second-grade readers made more progress when they read from texts on their partner’s–a more skilled reader– instructional reading level. We find few educators who would disagree with the idea of pairing a less able reader with a more proficient reader and selecting a text that is a bit harder, i.e. frustration level, for the less proficient reader. Who doesn’t do this already? This instructional context is basically the scenario, at least in terms of the research, that Shanahan is hanging most of his discussion on. So what is there to argue about?
Why don’t these perceived extremists just say, “Do buddy reading with more difficult texts?,” to which there would be little contest. Basically, why is there so much talk about putting students in frustration level texts when many of the “frustration” level encounters are instructional contexts in which informed literacy educators have been using “frustration” level texts all along?
The difference is that most of us haven’t referred to them as frustration level texts (although they always have been), because the term frustration has negative connotations; it doesn’t describe the way we want children to think about reading. Instead, most of us call these texts above-level texts (or sometimes even above-grade-level texts), which has some positive implications, although we are referring to the same texts. We save the term frustration level, and its negative implications, for referring to texts that truly frustrate children. But, who doesn’t technically use “frustration” level texts for read aloud and shared reading, already? The majority of the research in support of frustration level reading instruction (although the research doesn’t generally refer to it as this, either), is about these instructional contexts. And if you watch closely, much of the “scaffolding” suggested in the name of CCSS instruction and complex text is actually a variation on or hybrid of read aloud or shared reading.
The original problem is that, when they implemented guided reading, too many schools let go of (or greatly diminished) shared reading and read aloud, which were students’ only exposures to texts beyond those they could proficiently navigate independently. Shanahan is right on this point, this created a serious problem in terms of opportunities to expand vocabulary. But we really just need consistent, intentional shared reading and read aloud opportunities for students in above level (frustration level) tests. That’s all. We don’t need 5th graders reading the United Declaration of Human Rights or first graders reading A Wrinkle in Time.
So really, there isn’t that much to argue about. Unless you just like to argue.