Beyond Guided Reading: How Leveled Texts Can Support Research-Based Literacy Practices in the Classroom

The term “science of reading” has become mainstream over the last few years. Most of the attention it receives comes under the context of phonics—that is, the benefits of a systematic and explicit foundational skills curriculum. And that is an important aspect of the science of reading! But what we hear less about is how the science of reading encompasses much more than only foundational skills. The science of reading actually represents “a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.

So, the science of reading extends beyond the ability to decode words and includes research-backed practices that support the growth of reading comprehension skills, too.

Many text types, including leveled text, can support research-based approaches to developing comprehension skills. Using leveled texts in the classroom doesn't always mean giving students texts that fall into their "designated" reading levels. Knowing when and how to use a text's reading level to support research-based practices can open up a world of opportunities for meaningful literacy instruction and practice. By providing access to texts at a range of reading levels in the right ways, teachers can support the reading growth of all students. Below are some of the ways that leveled texts align with research-based literacy findings.

Matching Text Level to Purpose

Knowing a text's level is valuable information in determining how the text will be used. Leveled texts are not meant to take the place of decodable texts in early literacy learning. Instead, they can co-exist with decodables and support reading comprehension skills through a variety of implementations. As students progress in their mastery of phoneme-grapheme mapping, more options for leveled texts open up to them.

  • Shared Reading: Research indicates that explicit instruction is an essential component that builds more proficient readers. In shared reading, teachers and students share responsibility for navigating the text. Teachers can use higher-level texts to explicitly model print concepts, fluency, and close reading skills in whole class or small group settings.
  • Small Group Guided Reading: Higher level, more challenging texts, rather than texts at a student’s designated reading level, are appropriate for small group reading sessions with a teacher where there is opportunity for discussion, questions, and scaffolding. This is the time, when a teacher is close by and at the ready, to provide challenge and get gears turning.
  • Independent Reading: Students benefit from independent reading texts that are at or near their reading level—texts they can engage with without feelings of frustration or comprehension struggles. Additionally, by pairing text with audio support, like the Listen option in RAZ’s book library, students can read along with more advanced, complex texts, scaffolding their comprehension.

Building Knowledge

Reading comprehension is closely tied to students' ability to bring background knowledge to a text. Students build knowledge by reading "content-rich nonfiction," which leads to deeper world knowledge, new vocabulary, and increased understanding of texts. This knowledge-building can happen through read alouds, shared reading experiences, small group reading, and independent reading. As students build knowledge about a topic, they will often be able to read texts that surpass their independent reading levels.

Acceleration to Close Learning Gaps

Research shows that students who are reading below grade level need access to on-grade level material—rather than below-grade level material—to catch up. A landmark report by The New Teacher Project indicates that remediating by providing struggling students with below-grade level material perpetuates the achievement gap. Instead, providing access to on-grade level resources and text, along with support and scaffolds to make up the difference, can help accelerate students into grade-level work. Knowing a student's reading level, then, is crucial to understanding how much scaffolding a student needs to succeed with grade-level text.

Increasing Reading Volume

Students need to work with a wide variety of texts, and a lot of them, to develop their comprehension skills. Though teachers may consider text complexity, topic, reading level, or targeted comprehension skills, the bottom line is that students need to read often AND they need to read a variety of texts. We also know that student choice is a significant internal motivator. When provided with a large library of texts spanning many topics, students can choose texts at their reading level that appeal to their interests and keep reading relevant and engaging.

Supporting Vocabulary Acquisition

The link between vocabulary development and reading comprehension is well documented. Students need to acquire the skills that will help them determine the meanings of new words, leading to better overall reading comprehension. RAZ’s leveled books include an emphasis on story-critical and academic vocabulary and can be used to teach students new or challenging words in real time—teachers can preview a text to determine which words to target, or students can benefit from book glossaries while reading independently.