Insight: Making Reading Individualization Happen Part 2-How to Teach with Leveled Texts
This post is a continuation of a series exploring instruction through reading individualization. Check out the other posts as well!
How to Teach with Leveled Texts
If asked how to individualize the reading experience for students, one might say that the teacher would provide individualized reading resources, which we will accurately refer to as leveled, so students can have access to learning in a way that respects their abilities and pushes them to grow. Great, but how? The answer lies in a few basic approaches, both addressing content standards for any subject as well as literacy skills.
One approach is to use leveled material as a springboard for grade-level work. We’ll call it springboarding, and it works like this. Assign an article to students at individualized levels so each student reads the article at a challenge level that feels comfortable. Let’s say the article explored efforts to address the current disrepair of bridges in the United States. Each student reads that article and understands it because of its leveling. They all stand ready to proceed. They could then handle a grade-level appropriate discussion on the topic, a debate on a controversial issue connected to it, or any other grade-appropriate task. For instance, if the topic in a science class is the scientific method, all students could enter an activity on that method from a leveled article, leading to the completion of a worksheet-driven analysis with equal footing. The challenge of a reading outside of the student’s ability will not have hampered him from the successful completion of the activity.
Springboarding could even lead to more reading experiences. If the student begins an activity with a leveled reading, the next step could require the student to continue reading about the same topic with unleveled reading. In other words, research. After reading the leveled selection, push the students to more reading on the same topic, but with grade-appropriate reading material, be that an unleveled news article, grade-level textbook material, or technical writing. The student will be working toward the content you wish them to address, but the springboarding with the leveled article at the outset will lead them sensitively into the material. Importantly, all students share an equal chance to tackle the material because of the grounding at their proficiency level.
Springboarding calls to mind an important concept in reading individualization: stretching. This refers to the movement from proficiency level to grade level tasks. While we want to be sensitive to student ability levels and not sabotage our students’ opportunities to read, we also do not want them consistently reading at a level far below grade expectations. Look at it this way. If a high school freshman is reading at a sixth grade level, that freshman needs help is building literacy. While providing sixth-grade reading material will help the student understand what she reads, it will not help her when a grade-appropriate assessment comes along (such as the grade 9 ELA AIR test). In that case, the student must read material that is much more challenging than sixth grade. But, if she has only been reading texts leveled for her proficiency, she will not be prepared.
That’s where stretching comes into play. This best practice stipulates that a student should receive some reading experiences at their grade level, but then be exposed to grade-appropriate material that complements the leveled text. Let’s take that freshman again. She could be involved in a stretch assignment if she read an article at her proficiency level on the Flint Water Crisis, but then read a grade-appropriate article exploring the same issue. Her comfortable grounding in the first, leveled article will assist her in tackling the more challenging vocabulary and density of the grade-appropriate article. In this way, the student has begun the reading experience in a place that develops comfort with the material before moving onto the more challenging grade-level text. It is certainly a more sensitive approach than throwing the unprepared student into text they cannot immediately handle, even if they are “supposed” to be able to.
Newsela, which is discussed later in this series, has provided a resource that may be useful for stretching. They have leveled 18 (at the time of this writing) famous historical speeches. Using this series of speeches, a student could read at their level and then read the original to stretch their grasp of challenging vocabulary and sentence structure.
Another approach is to use the individualized material for skill-building in literacy. English language arts include a host of reading skill standards, from identifying main idea to recognizing the importance of a text’s structure. But, other disciplines carry this burden as well, even if in a diminished form. If you examine the Ohio social studies content standards, you’ll see language for American history that discusses the evaluation of the credibility of a text source and the recognition of cause and effect relationships. Further, Ohio has instituted literacy and writing content standards for non-ELA courses that require non-ELA teachers to support such skills as analyzing text structure, recognizing author’s purpose, and comparing/contrasting messages from different media. (See pages 70-78 of this document.) All of these standards require teachers to embed literacy skills in their non-ELA classes. Any teacher wanting to support those literacy skills connected to their content area could build those skills through a individualized approach with leveled text resources.
Let’s see how it works. Assign an article to students and target a skill such as text structure (e.g. cause and effect or argument), evidence gathering, or prompt/text-based writing. Use the leveled text as the foundation for an activity building that skill, such as a graphic organizer for text structure or evidence-based paragraph writing. Assigning a leveled text as the foundation for such skill instruction can help students as they focus on building the skill with a text that is comfortable for them. They can worry about the skill, not the text difficulty. Later, if you wish to continue to develop this skill for grade-appropriate texts, you can do so with greater confidence in the students’ abilities to apply them effectively.
Variations on these three basic approaches are possible, but regardless of the approach taken, the teacher should see leveled texts as resources to meet standards in the classroom with two benefits: increased sensitivity to student ability and powerful implementation of literacy instruction.
While text-to-speech is not necessarily what we mean when we discuss leveled reading material, it is so closely related that it should be discussed at the same time. Technology has become increasingly effective at reading texts to students. Chrome extensions like Read & Write for Google Chrome have made it simple for students to listen to what they read, instead of traditionally reading it. Of course, this may not be appropriate for ELA classes, where text reading is a necessary standard to meet, but it could be an appropriate approach to individualizing the reading experience in non-ELA classes, or even ELA lessons not requiring traditional reading skills for mastery. Students are becoming more aware and better trained in using a text-to-speech utility, and providing them with the option to listen as they’d like can give them the support they need when reading. And, of course, next generation assessments provide text-to-speech utilities, so training students in the tools prepares them for state tests, not the reverse.