My colleagues and I often ask educators to reflect on their practice since the rollout of the Common Core, or their state’s version of college- and career-ready (CCR) standards. New CCR standards like the Common Core call for teachers to align their practice to six overarching Shifts (three in math and three in ELA/literacy) so we’ll ask, “When adopting the Shifts, where have you seen or experienced the most success? Where have you seen or experienced the biggest challenges?”
The Fordham Institute recently asked educators to do this on a large scale. The result was a report, Reading and Writing Instruction in America’s Schools. The report itself is full of not only data from teachers about their experiences in the field, but also data about best practices and supports for educators. The report recommends seven Literacy Lifelines tips to help improve instruction and address persistent classroom challenges.
These Lifelines reflect the four main takeaways the report’s authors uncovered when looking at survey data from more than 1,200 public school ELA teachers. I’d like to focus on one of these takeaways: First, if we want teachers to assign texts based on students’ grade levels—rather than their reading levels—we need to do more to help them bridge the gap between the two.
What does this mean?
Imagine, if you would, two readers. Place them in third grade, at the start of the year. In your mind, make one a struggling reader: poor decoding, no phrasing, lack of automaticity. Make the other a strong reader: this child can read all kinds of texts, decode multisyllabic words with less common sound and spelling patterns, and read with accuracy and expression.
As an educator, whether in active service in a classroom, preparing in graduate school, or in a related support role, you are likely already primed to think about how you might differentiate for these students in the classroom. And what does the act of differentiation consist of? A very common definition used pervasively comes to mind: meeting students where they are.
The concept of assessing students individually to gauge their familiarity with and mastery of a given skill or text, and then adjusting instruction in order to meet them at their level, is one that permeates the field, from professional development seminars to parent teacher conferences. “We support each student where they are” is an educational mantra. I do not dispute the value of this work, nor the need. I would like to pose a question, however, to my fellow educators. When you consider the needs of your students and where they come from, how much time, attention, and weight do you give to where they are going?
The Shifts to English Language Arts curricula aligned to CCR standards include a focus on complex text. Text complexity requirements by grade-level band were one of the biggest actionable moves to grow out of the Shifts. These grade-level bands set requirements for an increase in the features of complex text that students would experience in each grade band, based in part on findings from the ACT report Reading Between the Lines, which showed that the difference between students performing above or below benchmark was not based on reading skill, strategy, or question type, but on the complexity of the text students were reading.
Educators have been grappling with implications for practice and implementation ever since. As the report above shows, some have shifted their instruction more than others. Keeping our two readers in mind, it is clearly important that a teacher determine the needs for Reader One and use those to set up an instructional plan. In many classrooms, this looks like determining independent and instructional reading levels without taking into account the grade-level band or how close the student is to reading at the grade-level band. Play this out for a minute. What will happen to these two readers as the school year progresses? While Reader Two is grappling with complicated plotlines and determining complex character motivation, will Reader One be confined to single-purpose texts? While Reader One is in a group decoding words “at their level,” won’t Reader Two be solidifying knowledge of new and sophisticated vocabulary? And when third grade is over, or fourth grade, or elementary school as a whole—when will this differentiation of learning opportunities and achievement change?
If we look at student achievement data like the NAEP assessment–stagnant for the last decade–for the answer, we quickly see it: nothing will change. Those two readers in your mind right now, perhaps readers with names and faces you can picture, are set up from a young age to build their reading skills at different rates based on the reading instruction and text exposure they are receiving in the classroom.
Simply implementing new standards over the past eight years cannot change this trajectory alone. The Shifts are not shifts at all if they do not result in dramatically different instructional approaches in the classroom set up to break this structure and create a new one it its place. While students must engage in independent reading at a range of levels to reach a volume of reading, it is critical that all students be exposed to complex text as well. And that’s where support is needed. Putting the same complex text in front of students who are each at different reading levels does not support their instructional needs. Scaffolds are necessary to allow students at all reading levels to engage meaningfully with the complex text.
Thus, I recommend the following strategy for teachers who want to both address student needs and ensure they get opportunities to engage successfully with complex text.
- Use your formal and informal data to evaluate a student’s current reading proficiency.
- Compare the student’s strengths and needs with the expectations of grade-level text. How close is the student to reading on grade level?
- Determine areas of growth. Why is the student not reading at grade level? Is it because of weak foundational skills? Problems with vocabulary or other strategies related to comprehension? Fluency needs?
- Create an intervention and support strategy. When working with a grade-level text, select scaffolding strategies that address the student’s areas for growth.
- Continually re-assess the student’s progress within instruction. Is the student moving toward independence with grade-level text? What areas of weakness are improving (i.e., where can you pull back the scaffolding) and where do you need to provide extra support?
Teachers need support, professional development, and lots of strategies for supporting the varied learning needs of the readers in their rooms. It isn’t easy, but it’s a critical change that needs to happen if we want to close the persistent opportunity gaps in reading for our students. The first step to doing this is to remember to meet all students where they are going not just where they are.