Classrooms around the country use variations of what’s known as the “five-finger rule.” It’s a method for choosing a book at a child’s “just right” reading level, and the directions for students go something like this:
Pick a book. Open to a page in the middle. Read the page and whenever you get to a word you do not know, put a finger in the air. If you have more than five fingers in the air at the end of the page, the book is too hard for you. Zero fingers means the book is an easy one. And one to five fingers means the book is “just right.”
The idea is that students should be reading at their “instructional level” (just a few mistakes per page), which will challenge but not overly frustrate them.
However, according to literacy expert Timothy Shanahan, that idea simply isn’t backed by research.
In a series of recent blog posts, which stirred up some impassioned responses, Shanahan argues that students in 2nd grade and above are motivated by and can learn from a wide range of text levels, including those much tougher “than we might have dared to use in the past.” He writes:
"[T]he idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning. (In other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more-challenging features of language and meaning.)”
He points to more than a half-dozen studies—the most recent of which was a 2010 study by O’Connor, Swanson, and Geraghty—showing that there’s no reason to adhere to “instructional level.”
Curiosity Outweighs Fear?
Shanahan also says that researchers have found repeatedly that students choose to read books that would be considered too hard for them, or at their frustration level, for independent reading. “Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose?” he writes. “But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure.”
Giving students more challenging texts also won’t hurt their decoding, Shanahan writes. Sure, kindergartners and 1st graders will guess at words they do not know. But after 2nd grade, the methods students use to get through tough texts “have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point,” he writes.
Overall, Shanahan recommends giving students texts at all levels, and switching up the amount of support they receive depending on what they’re reading.
Debates about text complexity have been going on for years, and more so recently in light of the Common Core State Standards, which more than 40 states are now using. The standards say students should read complex texts at their grade level—but many educators argue that’s unrealistic in diverse-ability classrooms. And though the common-core standards have been out for six years now, and the majority of the country’s students are being taught and tested on them, it’s clear there’s still plenty of disagreement that grade-level text is the best way to go.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.