Common-Core Teaching: Balancing Grade-Level and ‘Frustration-Level’ Texts

By Catherine Gewertz — October 06, 2014 3 min read
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Yet another round of interesting debate has been unfolding in recent weeks about a concept at the heart of the Common Core State Standards: increasing the level of complexity in the texts students read.

Triggered by a mid-September forum in New York City about the standards, arguments are spilling into the blogosphere about the appropriate interpretation of—and pedagogical response to—the standards’ expectations that students read materials pegged to their grade level, rather than to their instructional level.

This is a sensitive issue, since many students read far below grade level, and the idea of pushing them to what is often called “frustration level” sparks concern. It also taps into decades of pitched battles about the best way to teach reading. Given the baggage attached to the “reading wars,” and the evolving conversation about how best to teach reading in the age of the common core, the recent weeks of cyber-exchange on this are worth noting.

To wade into the arguments, start with a recent installment of Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet column in the Washington Post. On a late-September morning, she played host to Russ Walsh, a veteran classroom teacher who blogs about reading instruction. Strauss sets up the conversation with links to the New York City forum, and to the thoughts of high school principal Carol Burris, a vocal critic of the common core, in the wake of that forum.

Walsh questions the wisdom of heavy use of “frustration-level” text for students, and argues that the research backing the idea is thin, at best.

So what do we know from the research on frustration level texts?," Walsh writes. "We know that when teachers skillfully and consistently scaffold students' interactions with these texts, students can learn from them. What we clearly do not know and what this research does not say is that we should abandon or reduce leveled text instruction and replace it with frustration level teaching."

He argues that it’s best for teachers to use a mixture of independent-level, on-level, and frustration-level texts with students. His post sparked a lively conversation in the “comments” section at the bottom, including additional weigh-ins from Walsh and Burris.

Tim Shanahan, a University of Illinois-Chicago professor widely known as an authority on reading instruction, came in for some criticism in Walsh’s post for supporting a push toward more-challenging texts. In a blog post in late September, and in another post yesterday, Shanahan responds to issues raised by Walsh, and by readers who commented on the Post column.

Here’s one from a teacher who sees no conflict between the standards and the use of varied levels of text complexity in the classroom:

I do both leveled reading and introduce grade level complex text that we all work through together for deep comprehension," the teacher writes. "A teacher needs to make the adjustments needed to differentiate or at least have times when students are reading at instructional level, i.e. guided reading and one on one reading. I have students reading complex texts now independently because they can. The others participate in close reading exercises in whole group and just because they can't read every single word or read it fluently, that doesn't mean they can't understand the nuances in the text that are on the analysis or inference level. I have read the standards thoroughly for my grade level and I don't see that they are saying the students should be reading at a frustration level all the time."

Shanahan responds this way:

This writer is correct that [the common core] does not explicitly state that teachers need to teach with frustration level texts. However, [it does] specify text difficulty levels in grades 2-12, and since those are part of the standards, students will be tested using texts of those difficulty levels. Teachers can spend the year teaching fourth graders to read second grade texts—many do because 'not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room,' but that means the teacher is not even attempting to teach the fourth grade standards. Teachers are expected to teach their state's standards and that means trying to teach students to read grade level texts; if they do this, given the current 'reality,' that means many students will be working in frustration level texts."

That gives you the idea of the flavor of the debate, why it began the minute the standards came out four years ago, and why it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. All the players in the conversation feel that others misunderstand key terms and concepts in the world of reading instruction. Nearly everyone seems to think that students risk getting thrown under the bus if teachers do too much, or too little, of the “wrong” kind of instruction.

There’s lots more to read about the text-complexity skirmishes, too. Try Robert Pondiscio’s recent overview for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s Common-Core Watch blog, which links you to posts that lay own dissenting points of view. Kathleen Porter-Magee dove into the issue in a group of blog posts for the Fordham Institute, too (here, here, here, and here).

And of course you might want to revisit the source of the skirmishes: Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards, which details its three-pronged vision of how teachers should think about matching texts with readers.

How are you dealing with the text-complexity expectations of the standards in your classroom or your school? Are the same or similar kinds of debates punctuating staff meetings? Where do you come down in the debate about the use of instructional-level versus frustration-level texts?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.