Today I visited a fourth grade classroom. In this fourth grade classroom, there is a girl who is currently reading below grade level at approximately a Level L/M. We’ll call her Danielle. During today’s lesson, I presented Danielle with a grade level complex text (lexile: 840) titled Smoke and Mucus.
During the course of this lesson, I watched this reader mark up her text with a highlighter as she noticed captions and photographs. She engaged in animated discussion with her peers. In fact, at one point, another girl raised her hand to question the validity of the title wondering out loud if it should really be called Smoke and Mucus because it seemed to her to be more about smoking. When Danielle heard this, she cocked her head slightly to the side and raised her hand to disagree. She said, “Mucus is related to coughing and in this article they talk about that a lot.” With that statement, she buried her head in the text and proceeded to reread and share three different examples in the text that backed up what she was saying.
As I watched, I thought to myself, This is a below grade level reader? Because at that moment, she did not appear to be. What’s more, I couldn’t help but hear the echo of David Coleman’s words addressing the importance of children reading grade level complex text. When I first heard him speak of allowing children the opportunity to experience dissonance, I was skeptical. I am a firm believer in the reading tenet that says that in order to become more proficient, most of children’s reading should be at their instructional level. But here I could see what he was talking about. This text was within Danielle’s zone of proximal development—harder than what she would read in guided reading but yet not so hard that she couldn’t wrestle with it and use what she knows to piece together meaning and experience the satisfaction of successfully completing a hard task.
I think the lesson for me here is an important one: good reading instruction depends on teachers striking a balance between presenting children with instructional level and grade level complex text. If children are to be successful on their reading assessments, and more importantly, “college and career ready,” we don’t want their first (and only) experience with grade level complex text to be the day of the test. And conversely, if children only work with grade level complex text in preparation for the test, we risk creating situations where children do not read eagerly and voluminously and that, too, would be counterintuitive to the idea of “college and career readiness.”
So where this leaves us as teachers is trying to puzzle out what our instruction should look like. What percentage of a child’s instructional time should be spent with independent text? What percentage of time should be spent with instructional text? And how much time should be spent should we spend working in whole groups with grade level complex text? The Common Core is still new to all of us and I’m wondering if you are grappling with this too? What do you believe is the right “balance”?