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“A man who traveled from Liberia to visit family members in Texas tested positive for Ebola on Tuesday, marking the outbreak’s first diagnosis outside of Africa, health officials said.”

That’s a pretty standard lead-in for a news story, pitched at the level of a newspaper-reading adult. But it’s a long, rather complex sentence, and a younger reader would likely find it easier to digest if it were broken into two parts. The lead would then start off: “A man who traveled from Liberia to visit family members in Texas tested positive for Ebola on Tuesday.”

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A novice reader might still find it challenging to keep the beginning of this sentence in mind while reading to its end, so the lead could be simplified yet further: “A man in Texas has tested positive for Ebola.”

Of course, a less adept reader may not know what “tested positive” means, nor what “Ebola” is. And so: “A man in Texas has a deadly disease called Ebola.”

This example of leveling—adjusting the difficulty of text to suit the ability of the reader—comes courtesy of Newsela, an online reading program for students in grade three through high school that offers stories about current events “written to multiple levels of complexity.” Although Newsela went live less than 18 months ago, the notion of leveling students’ reading material goes back more than six decades. Today, technology is changing the nature of this long-established pedagogical practice. At the same time, proponents of the Common Core are raising new questions about the educational value of leveling, seconding the standards’ emphasis on having all students grapple with the same “complex texts.”

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The notion of leveling was introduced by psychologist and reading specialist Emmett Betts in 1946. In a book published that year, Betts instructed teachers to select texts that students could read with relative ease, and to avoid assigning “frustration-level texts.” His approach has proved remarkably durable, as the shelves full of leveled-reader series like Step Into Reading and DK Readers in any school library demonstrate.

But digital programs like Newsela (the name is a combination of “news” and “ELA,” or English Language Arts) are shaking up the familiar world of the leveled reader. Dan Cogan-Drew, a cofounder of Newsela and its chief product officer, explained in an interview some of the novel features his program brings to leveling.

File photo. (AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach)

First, new-generation leveling tools like Newsela allow every student to read the same story, albeit at varying levels of complexity. “This facilitates the social learning that happens when students engage in a shared discussion of the text,” Cogan-Drew notes.

Second, digital reading programs can make leveling more discreet, preventing students from being teased or stigmatized for reading at a lower level. Compared to the large numbers emblazoned on the covers of many leveled-reader print books, the computerized versions call far less attention to the degree of competency of their users.

At the same time, students using these programs are often given the option of dialing up or down their reading level themselves, supporting the development of their “metacognition,” or awareness of their own cognitive abilities. “You might think that kids would always make the stories as easy as possible to read, but that’s not what our data suggests is happening,” says Cogan-Drew, who notes that students often ratchet up their reading level in pursuit of more detail on an interesting story.

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Newsela in particular takes advantage of the nimbleness and speed of the digital medium, offering students high-interest stories about the issues of the day, from the domestic abuse scandal involving NFL football player Ray Rice to the bungled efforts by the Secret Service to protect President Obama. The company licenses content from media companies like the Associated Press and Scientific American, then enlists its team of writers to reformulate each news story to suit four different ability levels, from beginning to advanced (Newsela also provides users with the original, unaltered news story.)

“New-generation leveling tools like Newsela allow every student to read the same story, albeit at varying levels of complexity.”

Like other digital reading programs, Newsela uses short online quizzes, taken by students after reading each article, to help evaluate students’ comprehension and adjust their reading level accordingly. Such “formative assessments” ensure that no student is unfairly labeled by an outdated evaluation—another potential advantage of computerized leveling over its paper-and-ink counterpart, which offers no automated way to monitor students’ increasing fluency.

Ironically, these digital improvements on traditional leveled reading arrive just as the practice of leveling itself is coming in for criticism. Commentators like Timothy Shanahan, an emeritus professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, have recently argued that leveled reading programs provide students with too little challenge. Better than having each student read at his or her own level, they say, would be asking all students to tackle texts appropriate to their grade level, with teachers supplying help when necessary.

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This is the approach advocated by the Common Core, the set of academic standards that has been adopted by most states. “Common Core asks teachers to think carefully about what children read and choose grade-level texts that use sophisticated language or make significant knowledge demands of the reader,” Pondiscio wrote last month on the Fordham Institute blog. The question teachers ask themselves, he added, should not be “Can the child read this?” but “Is this worth reading?”

The defenders of leveled reading and the champions of complex texts may share more common ground than they realize, however. Both agree that to become fluent readers, students must read a lot on their own—and such independent reading calls for not-too-easy, not-too-hard selections that look a lot like leveled reading. Meanwhile, both sides also concur that students should be asked to wrestle at times with more challenging texts—but in the classroom, where teachers are available to offer help and head off discouragement.

This mix of comfort and challenge, along with the exciting possibilities opened by digital reading programs like Newsela, can offer students the best of all worlds: one that’s been made both complex and comprehensible.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Annie Murphy Paul

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer; the author of two previous books, The Cult of Personality and Origins; and the creator of the popular Brilliant Blog. A contributing writer at Time magazine,...

Letters to the Editor

5 Letters

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  1. Anyone who advocates that all students always read rigorous grade-level texts ignores “novice” English learners and students with learning disabilities that affect reading comprehension. They also appear out of touch with how much a single teacher in a classroom of 30 students can do to provide ample context as a prereading activity, and help all diverse learners with reading skill difficulties and/or comprehension/critical thinking skill difficulties (e.g., making inferences from abstract concepts for students with higher functioning autism).

    A balanced approach is usually the best, perhaps reserving grade-level texts for whole class or small group reading activities or targeted students read comprehensible short texts as a pre-reading activity to give context and some key words before reading the relatively brief grade-level text.
    Newsela appears exciting.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with giving students a challenge, but I agree with Mr. Carr that a balanced approach is best. If teachers always offer texts at students’ frustration levels, students may be pushed, but they won’t want to read very much on their own. For students to become strong readers, they need to read a lot, too.

  3. I agree with many of the points made in the article and further explained by John. Ultimately, the purpose is to create young people who grow into adults who read for meaning and enjoyment. How do you get them from where they currently are to where you want them to be? Almost four decades in the classroom has shown me that providing text beyond ability neither motivates or teaches. Instead, meaning is lost while reading frustration level text. Once foundational knowledge is gleaned from an independent or instructional level read, students may then have the courage and willingness to tackle slightly more sophisticated text which the article details. That is how readers grow. The notion that we can have one txt to meet all readers in a single classroom is as silly as saying we can offer sone size of clothing and smaller or larger students can then tailor as needed. Think of the savings! One text never met the needs of all students because they are different. They bring different background knowledge, different semantic knowledge and different ways of making meaning from what is read. It certainly is easier to use one piece of text. For the teacher and the district and the feds. It just isn’t easier for the person that matters the mot in this scenario-the reader. What we offer today will shape how they read tomorrow.

  4. The practice of “leveling” texts relies on two faulty assumptions: that texts actually have identifiable, discrete levels, and that a text should be matched precisely to “where we are.”

    Much of the literature we read exists at many levels at once. Take this passage (spoken by Eeyore) in Winnie-the-Pooh:

    “Friends,” he said, “including oddments, it is a great pleasure, or perhaps I had better say it has been a pleasure so far, to see you at my party. What I did was nothing. Any of you–except Rabbit and Owl and Kanga–would have done the same. Oh, and Pooh. My remarks do not, of course, apply to Piglet and Roo, because they are too small. Any of you would have done the same. But it just happeened to be Me. It was not, I need hardly say, with an idea of getting what Christopher Robin is looking for now”–and he put his front leg to his mouth and said in a loud whisper, “Try under the table”–that I did what I did–but because I feel that we should all do what we can to help. I feel that we should all—”

    And then the other animals start making a commotion, because they don’t know what he’s talking about.

    The vocabulary is relatively simple here, but the syntax and wit are complex. The thing is, a small child will still grasp that this is funny–that Eeyore is going on and on and not saying much. Those complex sentences then make a mark; it becomes easier, over time, to grasp what they actually do say.

    Children–and adults–benefit from reading literature that is not precisely matched to them, literature that pulls them toward new understanding and awareness.

    When one reads literature (including literary nonfiction), one is not only making sense of the words but absorbing the rhythms and cadences. Understanding is not only literal but also lyrical and logical. When students read a work of literature together as a class, the teacher can draw on the text’s different aspects and bring out various levels of understanding. One does not have to reduce the text to simple sentences in order to “level” it.

    A big problem with deliberate “leveling” (i.e., rewriting) of text is that it ruins the literature itself. Of course, if you’re talking about a news article, the loss may not be so great–but news articles shouldn’t be the focus of English class anyway.

  5. As a developmental reading instructor at a community college, I am convinced that much of the reason students fill our classrooms in the first place is that they have not wrestled with complex text before they arrive at college. My second language students and even students with various disabilities need experience in wrestling with complex ideas. I am often awed by their willingness to and interest in tackling subjects that no one has ever brought to their attention: climate change, genetic engineering, etc. Their language skills improve once they have something to motivate their interest. Support them, encourage them to read – don’t dumb down their reading material. They can do it!

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