SharpReading BLOG

Thoughts About Teaching Reading


Comprehension and Levelled Text

Teacher question: I have been reading a blog that suggests that we do away with levelled text for comprehension instruction. The reasoning is that too often we are subjecting students to text at what is supposedly an instructional level but which has no real comprehension challenges so the students learn nothing. What are your thoughts? 

 The key to this is the teacher's understanding of effective comprehension instruction which will then determine the purpose and the appropriateness of the levelled text they use. 

For me, effective comprehension instruction revolves around helping the reader master the art of simultaneously extracting the ideas from a sentence and putting those ideas together to construct the meaning intended by the author. This requires an interplay between long-term memory (retrieval of prior knowledge that the reader can bring to the text, their current mental dictionary and their familiarity with sentence structure) and working memory (that place where the processing occurs) to problem-solve the meaning of the sentence). 

This will involve some careful explicit teaching (but not as much as you might think) and MANY MANY opportunities to activate this skill set to develop processing fluency. 

This is where I need a careful match between the current comprehension ability of my readers and the comprehension challenges presented by the text. If the text exposes significant deficits in any of these areas, the working memory goes into cognitive overload and the readers' motivation and ability to get meaningful practice diminishes accordingly.

Using levelled text such as StoryBytes and InfoBytes allows me to make adjustments to the challenges that the text is providing to get my students into that optimal instructional zone. (Each StoryByte and InfoByte is written at 5 levels of difficulty).

I remember selecting a passage at a 14+ year level for a group of capable 12-year-olds. In the first paragraph (around 100 words) there were ten word difficulties, that is, words that they could decode, but when they tried to unpack the sentences, it became obvious that they didn't know what they meant. Result - frustration and disengagement. I could have continued but it would have become a vocabulary lesson with lots of teachable moments and much teacher talk, and that was not what I was after. 

By dropping back to the 12-13 year level for the next paragraph, the number of problematic words per hundred dropped back to three and there was now enough accessible context for the students to clear their vocabulary roadblocks and successfully wrestle with constructing the meaning. To me, that is what effective comprehension instruction should be about.


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