FAQ: How do you find the correct level of text difficulty for comprehension instruction.
It has been often said that we will get a better effect from our comprehension instruction if we use text that is difficult for the readers. That way we can stretch their understanding of challenging ideas, expose them to new vocabulary, and make them aware of complexities in language structure. This is usually achieved by a lot of scaffolding of the text through teacher led discussion.
While I understand the thinking I don't necessarily agree with the methodology. To me the goal of comprehension instruction is to activate the 'active reading brain' while the reader is reading, not to guide readers into a better understanding of a passage of text through my questioning and discussion.
I am wanting to habituate mental processes that stay with the reader and which they automatically use WHILE they are reading and when I am not there. This is best achieved when the text level is challenging (Hard Fun) but not HARD.
Our Informal Prose Inventory provides a good procedure for identifying what that appropriate level of text difficulty can be for each reader.
Establishing an Instructional Reading Age
There are three criteria a student must meet before moving on to the next level of difficulty. Once one (or more) of these criteria are NOT met, then we can assume that the level of text that they being tested on is their 'Instructional Level'. That is, a level of text that currently provides the appropriate amount of challenge for the comprehension skill level they have acquired.
WHAT ARE THE THREE CRITERIA?
The teacher selects a levelled passage and asks the student to read it aloud.
Accuracy: Pass rate 97%
As the student reads the teacher records the uncorrected miscues or errors. For the brain to be truly free to tackle the comprehension requirements of a piece of text, the accuracy level needs to be at least 97%. The reader must have sufficient command over the words they are reading to provide an accurate or close approximation of the correct pronunciation of MOST of the words. That means no more than 3 uncorrected miscues per 100 words.
If the accuracy rate falls below 97% the chance of interpreting the literal meaning of the passage while they are reading is greatly reduced.
Remember that reading accuracy is only the foundation that comprehension is built on. It is not a measure of comprehension in itself.
Retell: Pass rate 50%
The student then gets to reread the text silently (removing the performance anxiety of reading aloud) knowing that their next task is to retell the passage.
The reader must be able to retell at least 50% of the content to pass this criteria.
Often the score here is weak because the reader has not been expected to process the information and hold on to it. Until they can do this at the level being tested, it is pointless to move on to more difficult text even if they can read it accurately.
Alternatively, the complexity of the vocabulary and the sentence structure is creating roadblocks to understanding therefore they cannot unpack the literal meaning of the sentences as they are reading. Once again it is pointless to move on to more complex text if this is the case.
Answer Questions: Pass Rate 75%
This is the other measure of comprehension. The pass criteria is 75%, higher than the retell because the questions themselves provide clues about the content.
An inability to answer these questions indicates an obvious lack of processing the message.
Students may be able to score well on this measure while scoring low on the retell. This indicates that they are relying on the questions to prompt them back into the information they have read and identifies a weakness in their text processing.
Once again it is important to sure up the retelling ability before moving onto more complex text.
Having established an instructional level for a student I have achieved three things.
1. I have established a benchmark. I can come back later in the year and retest to see if that benchmark has been improved upon - the reader can now cope with more complex text.
2. I have identified an appropriate level of text difficulty that will produce the best effect during my reading lessons.
3. I will have a clear idea about my readers strengths and weaknesses at their instructional level. For example, the comprehension scores may be fine but they may still some decoding issues that could be addressed (accuracy is in the 94-97% range) or I have established that my reader is a very fluent decoder but a weak comprehender and I need to attend to this.