On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act. This law significantly impacted literacy instruction across the US because it mandated instruction in early literacy to be based on scientific research. As a result, instructional level theory, a theory which was posited by Betts in 1946, permeated early literacy instruction as well as intermediate literacy instruction for a decade. Betts (1948) claimed that research showed learning was optimized if students were placed within text of appropriate difficulty levels (i.e., frustration leveled text, instructional leveled text, and independent leveled text). On the contrary, Betts’ instructional level theory is questionable because it rests upon a study that never took place (Shanahan, 1983). As a result, millions of children have received scientifically based mandated reading instruction supported by artificially based research.
Currently, the Common Core State Standards has replaced the No Child Left Behind Act and these standards require reading instruction to encompass a level of text complexity that is considerably higher than what the instructional level theory prescribed. In fact, instructional level theory would consider the usage of complex text to be both frustrational and incomprehensible to most readers.
Nonetheless, Shanahan (2011) purported that Powell’s theory of mediated texts supports the usage of complex text with students. Moreover, learning is best when harder texts are used. Powell (1968) claimed that the mediation or intervention made by the instructor actually facilitates comprehension and not the act of matching texts to readers.
As a result of Betts instructional level theory, over the years many entrepreneurial enterprises in education have adopted the instructional level theory for their goods and services, selling millions of instructional reading programs to public and private schools across the US. Furthermore, Put Reading First, presented arguments in an entrepreneurial spirit that often conflicted with what the research actually indicated (Allington, 2013). Too many educators took that document as “truth,” and reading lessons were altered, as was reading curriculum and assessment (Allington, 2013). Today instructional level theory continues to contribute to the perpetual remediation of reading instruction for students; disproportionately more for minority and poor students. Furthermore, instructional level theory practically eliminated complex texts from elementary and secondary curriculum causing material selection by teachers to be pigeonholed in a readability score.
Fidelity to flawed commercial reading programs became a goal in too many schools, especially schools serving low-income children (Allington, 2013). Commercial reading programs founded on the leveled text theory caused many schools serving low-income children to adopt the deficit model. The “deficit” model focuses on the student as the major problem, neither looking within the environment nor the instructional practices in the classroom. By adopting the deficit model, many poor children and minority children became the target for lower level instruction with lower level texts (Weiner, 2006).
Still, the Common Core State Standards provides an opportunity for literacy instruction in schools to abandon Betts’ instructional level theory and adopt Powell’s mediated level theory for literacy instruction. Lamas, Imams, Priests, Prophets, Pastors, Ministers, and Rabbis have been using complex texts for centuries within their vast denominations, leaving no reader behind. Hence, it is very much possible that highly qualified teachers can do the same by serving as a mediator of learning with complex text. Shanahan noted that readability measures predict reading comprehension, not learning (2011). Hence learning should not be held captive based on a readability measure. Learning for all students can flourish by adopting Powell’s mediated text theory. Readers of all levels and backgrounds would learn from complex text with the aid and guidance of a highly qualified teacher.
Learning to read is an interaction between a learner, a text, and a teacher. If the teacher is doing little to support the students’ transactions with text then more learning will accrue with somewhat easier texts. However, if reasonable levels of instructional support are available then students are likely to thrive when working with harder texts. Instead of trying to get kids to optimum levels, that is the levels that would allow them to learn most, they have striven to get kids to levels where they will likely learn best with minimal teacher support. The common core standards push back against the notion that students learn best when they receive the least teaching. The writers of the standards believe challenging text is the right ground to maximize learning… but the only way that will work is if kids are getting substantial teaching support in the context of that hard text (Shanahan, 2011).
In sum, if educators really want to close the achievement gap in literacy, then they need to reject the instructional level theory and stop the perpetual remedial reading instruction of low-income and minority students. They need to adopt the funds of knowledge model and employ highly qualified teachers to implement a 21st century curriculum that will accelerate rather than remediate learning for all students.
Allington, R.L. (2013). What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520–530. doi: 10.1002/TRTR.1154
Armbruster, B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2001). Put reading first. Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.
Betts, E. A. (1946). Foundations of reading instruction. New York: American Book Company.
Powell, W. R. (1968). Reappraising the criteria for interpreting informal inventories. Washington, DC: ERIC 5194164.
Shanahan, T. (1983). The informal reading inventory and the instructional level: The study that never took place. In L. Gentile, M. L. Kamil, & J. Blanchard (Eds.), Reading research revisited, (pp. 577–580). Columbus, OH: Merrill.
Shanahan, T. (2011). Rejecting instructional level theory. http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/2011/08/rejecting-instructional-level-theory.html Retrieved June 12, 2013.
Weiner, L. (2006). Challenging deficit thinking. Educational Leadership, 64(1), 42-45. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.pgcc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/224848557?accountid=13315