Leveled Readers vs. Rich Texts

I recently walked into a school in which teachers were using leveled readers to pair their students with books that best matched their reading abilities. A great deal of money had been spent to purchase these readers, and these teachers were spending a lot of instructional time assessing reading levels, matching children to texts, grouping kids by reading ability, and so on.
 
Do Riggs teachers need to be doing this?
 
In “Leveled Reading: The Making of a Literacy Myth,” Robert Pondiscio argues that if students are to become proficient, they need to read grade-level texts that use sophisticated language or make significant knowledge demands of the reader.
 
What they do not necessarily need, Pondiscio argues, are classroom practices which keep them in texts which do not do this.
 
Children who are kept in low-level readers will not be able to meet the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), because they will not be able to read texts with the same level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with.
 
Since I have have been using the Riggs Institute’s Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking (WSRRT) as the skills component of my language arts curriculum, this is not news to me. In my Riggs Teacher’s Edition, Myrna McCulloch repeatedly argues for these same conclusions, encouraging me to move my students into rich texts as quickly as possible. I have seen for myself that this can be done very quickly indeed.
 
Well-taught Riggs students have mastered most of the phoneme-grapheme correspondences listed in Appendix A of the CCSS by Lesson 45. This means that my first-grade Riggs students can use this knowledge to decode texts that are at or above grade level after the first nine weeks of school. They are already becoming competent and confident decoders. This is good news for the following reasons:
  1. Competent decoders can choose their own texts from our classroom library to practice reading independently (while I use Riggs to work with any children who have not yet mastered their skills lessons). This independent reading practice allows them to practice their decoding skills, expand their vocabulary knowledge, and improve their word and passage fluency.
  2. Competent decoders can read texts of my choosing as a whole group and to each other. Since shared reading is a proven, effective, and inexpensive way of helping children improve their literacy skills, and since the greatest gains are made when children read texts that are above their instructional levels, I want my students to do this.
  3. Competent decoders can read and discuss complex texts aloud with me during formal reading lessons, and these can be texts which use sophisticated language and make significant knowledge demands of the reader. I make sure that the literary quality of these texts meets or exceeds the quality of the sample texts in the common core standards, because I know that this is the kind of practice that will increase their proficiency levels.
If I am using the WSRRT as my skills component, and if I have taught its lessons as they were designed to be taught, my students will be competent decoders. As I continue to teach Riggs lessons, by students will be able to read both widely and deeply, as suggested in the standards. They will read alone, read to each other, and read with me.
 
By Lesson 80, my well-taught Riggs students are reading vocabulary-rich texts both independently and to each other. They also read texts (aloud, with me) that use sophisticated language or make significant knowledge demands of the reader. (I bring my background knowledge to these reading lessons, and I explain word meanings as necessary.)
 
My Riggs students do not need--and the Riggs Institute does not recommend that they read--leveled readers. They have decoding skills. They can read the kinds of texts that will help them meet or exceed the Common Core State Standards. (So can yours!) If you will follow the Riggs Institute’s guidelines and devote most of your initial instructional time to the explicit teaching of decoding skills, you'll empower your students to engage with rich texts. 
 
I have already covered the question of decodable texts for beginning readers in another article, but here’s a reminder of the Riggs Institute’s suggestions on this topic.
 
On page 209 in the Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking, Level I, McCulloch writes:
 
The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking is a skill-only method that permits total freedom to choose literature to support any individual philosophy, taste, or legislative mandate. However, we recommend against the newest ‘decodable’ text literature which has been written, not for interest or to expand vocabularies, but, undoubtedly, to accommodate the very slow pace of concurrent phonics instruction. Teaching the revised Orton phonograms in the first nine weeks, and using the students’ own original sentences for first in-context reading assignments, will permit you to skip ‘decodable’ text readers. . . We endorse any classic literature which has an expanding and rich vocabulary that accommodates your students’ oral vocabularies, and that consequently meets their interest levels.
 
Again, while my Riggs students (of any age) are mastering foundational decoding skills in the first 45 lessons, all of their reading is done from their own writing. They begin by writing and reading the Orton phonograms, move on to writing and reading their own correctly spelled words, then proceed to writing and reading their own sentences. After mastering the first 45 lessons, all of my Riggs students begin reading books.
 
At this time (i.e., after the first 45 lessons), McCulloch suggests: “If you feel that your students are still lacking in phonemic and graphemic awareness practice, a first choice of books for independent or group reading might include some of the repetitive Dr. Suess books which children seem to enjoy, such as Green Eggs and Ham, Ten Apples up on Top, Hop on Pop, etc.” 
 
Note: If any of my students are still lacking, they keep practicing their phonograms, in isolation, during a separate period. My students must keep writing and reading these phonograms until they have mastered them. These phonograms are the commonly-used correct spelling patterns for the 42 elementary sounds of English speech, so the mastery of these elementary keys are non-negotiable. If my students are to read independently, they simply must learn their phonograms to the point of automaticity. Since I want them to acquire these initial decoding tools as soon as possible, most of my language-arts time is devoted to this kind of practice until they have done so. (Naturally, I also make time to read to my students daily, and they also memorize poetry and keep learning new Riggs lessons, etc.)
 
While my kindergarten or first grade students are reading Suess-type emergent texts during one part of the day, McCulloch also suggests that I move these beginners into choral whole group activities that include rich texts (after they’ve mastered Lessons 1-45). On page 211 of her text, McCulloch suggests that I help them do this by having them take the next developmental step: reading what others have written that is already familiar to them.
 
McCulloch suggests displaying a poem or nursery rhyme which I have already taught orally, and helping my students practice reading these pieces aloud together as I point to each word. She suggests that I also do this with songs they have learned.
Connecting the printed words to their oral memory of the same words is very satisfying to a beginning reader. Read (or sing) along together, using a pointer in the beginning. Go slowly, but steadily. Their confidence will increase as you show them how to keep track of where they are, the direction the print is flowing, etc. They have already been reading their own written sentences so this is not new to them.
 
My students love this practice activity! After we’ve gone through a selection at least twice, I leave it on the board so that each of them can practice reading silently two or three times — to increase their fluency — then we read it again together.
 
By the time we finish reading a few Dr. Suess books and some of their memorized poems, nursery rhymes, and songs, my beginners are ready to move into regular children’s literature. “Because you are teaching a complete phonetic system for correct English spelling in the first nine weeks," writes McCulloch, "virtually all literature is ‘decodable’ for users of this method.”
 
I agree. So I don’t buy into the myth that all students need specially written books to practice their phonics skills. I don't buy into the leveled reading theory, either. If I am teaching my students how to decode with the finely-sequenced lessons in The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking, I am able to use my own judgement to choose high-quality texts for our whole-group reading activities.
 
If I am teaching Riggs, my students don’t need ‘decodable’ texts. They don’t need ‘leveled’ readers, either. Besides, there are no studies indicating that if I teach students at particular Lexile levels more learning will accrue.
 
Dr. Timothy Shanahan, who recently wrote about this topic, should know.
 
In his highly-recommended discussion, Dr. Shanahan also noted something that all teachers might wish to to consider: After making the point that children simply must be engaged with high-level texts during formal reading lessons, Dr. Shanahan addressed someone's suggestion that teachers should at least use a leveling system to choose books that might be easy enough for students to read on their own. Dr. Shanahan wrote:
The problem with this latter recommendation is that it often turns into a prohibition (kids only being allowed to read books at particular levels). Studies show that when students are particularly interested in a book or have a lot of knowledge about what they are reading, their ability to comprehend goes up (in other words ‘their level’ changes). I think such guidance or advice can be helpful, but its limitations can be summarized easily in two words: Harry Potter (a book that was way too hard for many of the kids who read it anyway because they wanted to).
These are provocative observations, aren't they?

 
 
Rejecting Instructional Level Theory
 
Exemplars of Reading Text Complexity, Quality, and Range & Sample Performance Tasks Related to Core Standards http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf
 

 

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