One of the more esoteric and interesting debates centered around the Common Core State Standards for English centers around text complexity and the concept of reading at “frustration level.” The general idea behind instructing children at this level of text is that in order to improve as readers, children cannot only read texts that are within their current skill level and should be instructed using materials that challenge their reading. As this article at Education Week notes, this is hardly a new concept, and it recapitulates debates that have gone on in reading circles for some time about the “best” ways to encourage young readers to develop.
On the one hand, the idea of instruction at so-called “frustration level” should not be exceptionally controversial if done by skilled teachers using high quality materials and carefully planned instruction. After all, education theory has long accepted the idea of a “zone of proximal development” where a learner can accomplish a particular task with guidance and scaffolding and which exists between what the learner can do comfortably and what the learner cannot do yet. Within this concept, we accept the likelihood that a learner will experience some degree of frustration and will make mistakes which can be actually instructive. Movement from one “side” of the zone to the other is a matter of real accomplishment for learners, and since reading is a skill where learners move from simpler tasks to ones that are far more complex, it makes sense that teachers would have to use texts that push their students.
However, what the exact balance of “frustration level” texts should exist within the curriculum is a matter of healthy debate. Proponents of the Common Core standards have generally believed that current popular reading programs in recent decades have allowed students too much “comfort” in instructional reading and have made significant increases in the amount of time students are expected to spend with texts they cannot read entirely independent of scaffolding. For the record, researchers who I admire both personally and professionally have voiced support for increased text complexity, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity and expertise of P. David Pearson, for example. At the same time, I tend to agree with other critics who have rightly questioned the quality of materials aligned with Common Core for classroom teachers, the depth and quality of development for teachers expected to adapt the standards to their classrooms, and whether or not it is appropriate to TEST students at “frustration level” on the Common Core aligned PARCC examinations. As Russ Walsh notes:
What happens when students are asked to read very difficult text? For those students who find the text challenging, but doable, they will redouble their efforts to figure it out. For the majority of children, however, who find the text at their frustration level, they may well give up. That is what frustration level in reading means. The ideal reading comprehension assessment passage will be easy for some, just right for most and challenging for some. The PARCC passages are likely to be very, very challenging for most.
But I want to set aside the testing and implementation questions and simply focus on a more fundamental question: if we expect students to spend more time reading at levels that a truly challenging for them, what, apart from very careful and extremely skilled teaching, do they require?
This is not actually theoretical as my wife and I have been observing an exercise in this very question all summer long with our oldest child. While a remarkably skilled and precocious verbal story teller, it has been a bit of a longer road for reading skills to develop. Mind you, our child has had perfectly fine reading skills and is reading above most grade level assessments, but reading has not developed as visibly as spoken language skills. What we found out a few years back after some examination was that many reading skills that we could not observe (such as segmenting and blending) were fully intact, but our child, being a perfectionist who hates displaying skills that are not completely independent, would hesitate to try them in front of others. In fact, until our child had enough confidence to read reasonably interesting chapter books independently, reading together time was often a struggle between an adult trying to patiently coach breaking down unfamiliar words and a child stubbornly waiting for us to give up and read it ourselves.
Our child has progressed in school reading assessments using the “Fountas and Pinnell” leveled reading system. I have my suspicion that these assessments are tracking lower than our child’s actual reading level. From reading together, I have noticed tendencies to read words that appear on the next page while trying to jump ahead when excited or having attention wander when bored. Hardly surprising as this is not an exact science made a bit more problematic when working with a child who is easily bored by very strict academic tasks and who does not like feeling under scrutiny. Regardless, one thing has been absolutely clear in the past year of schoolwork: given a choice of free reading material, our child often selects books that fall into a very comfortable reading level and will sometimes opt to reread familiar books instead of branching out into new series. This again is not especially worrisome for pleasure reading: repetition can reinforce development of sight words and casual reading is best done by choice.
Which makes the past two months quite remarkable.
For family reading time, I often go to books above either of our children’s reading skills but with real potential interest as stories. Our oldest child took to The Trumpet of the Swan this way and read it in bed for over a week after I finished reading it aloud. Both of our children were rapt with attention to The Hobbit, although it did not become an adventure in self reading. I have my eye on A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and, just to really push matters a bit, The Sword and the Stone. The reason I have some hope that one of those titles will become beloved in our home has to do with what we must only call The Summer of Harry Potter.
I tried reading the stories out loud for our children two years ago, but our oldest child, having a really empathetic nature and a difficulty with characters getting in trouble, did not want to listen past the first book. But we began again in June, and as soon as I was done reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, both children begged to see the movie, insisted that I dive right into Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and our oldest child began taking book one to bed every night and devoured it. The Chamber of Secrets was quickly read, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban fell to a combination of night time reading and reading on the bus to and from camp before I could begin reading it out loud for both of our children. I have just begun reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire aloud, and our older child is about two thirds of the way though Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Our children go to bed around 8pm, and on more than one occasion, I have found our oldest child still awake after 10p, reading by headlamp. I have been asked to turn off the television so more Harry Potter can be read. The entirety of the supplemental Hogwarts Library series has been read independently, and my wife and I were bombarded with Quidditch facts and informational about magical creatures.
Now while I have said I believe our child’s tested reading level is below the actual skill level, it is also true that the advertised reading level of even the first of the Harry Potter books is probably still pretty high and that our child is spending at least some time reading at the so-called “frustration level” where the mechanics of the syntax and words not yet in sight word vocabulary will trip our child up. Yet this is not slowing things down. In fact, our child is reading with enthusiasm books that must occasionally frustrate mechanically and in situations that are increasingly scarier and more humanly complicated than anything read before. Our child has had an historic dislike of main characters being mad with each other, but Harry Potter and Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger spend a good portion of Goblet of Fire angry at each other and that did not deter reading in the slightest. From conversations, I know that the stories are understood.
So what is going on? What would propel a young reader who has been reluctant to try out new books and who has never really taken to academic tasks with books to push so hard on known boundaries and comfortable texts?
Our child loves these books: the world J.K. Rowling created, the characters with depth and the ability to grow, the situations that test them. Our child loves the overall arch of the story that is becoming evident as it progresses school year by school year. The characters are at once entirely human and understandable while simultaneously inhabiting a world of surprising wonders. If there is a reason to keep reading even though the books stretch on both a technical level and on an emotional level, it is because of love.
I think all of us, Common Core proponents and skeptics alike, want children to grow as readers — to stretch and to challenge themselves. And we should all want children to have comfortable spaces within which to challenge themselves and within which they can just relax with the familiar and enjoyable.
But we should also remember what it is that inspires children to really push on their boundaries. In school, it is with highly attentive teaching that provides sufficient modeling and supports and gives children a sense of agency to understand why they do what they do. Outside of school, it is a deeply personal combination of factors with a lot of love in the mix.
And that’s something we ought to figure out how to get more of in school reading instruction as well. Our oldest child loves what J.K. Rowling has created so much that just about nothing can deter total immersion in that world – not even how it pushes skills to develop. That’s a good object lesson for school too. Do we want children to really engage with their “frustration level”? We ought to find out what they love…and maybe “frustration level” will seem a lot more like “a challenge I enjoy”.