“Are levelled reading groups the best way to teach reading?”
That was the question posed in an article I read recently.
I’ve never been much of a fan of levelling, so here’s the question I’d ask instead: “How would you like to spend your school life in the bottom reading group?”
I met a student once who was honest in her opinion about it. Samantha, a former member of a bottom reading group told me, “I don’t like it." You can give the group the name of a colour, flower or animal, but there’s no fooling these students.
Around the same time, I read a challenging article by Australians Kath Glasswell and Michael Ford, 'Let’s Start Leveling about Leveling'. It's an important article (read it if you have time), and it fed into my own beliefs that levelling is a somewhat inflexible and idealistic response to the challenging task of teaching children to read.
Of course, the idea behind levelling is to group children with similar abilities together to challenge those who need to be challenged and provide more assistance to those who need it. And that’s great! But here’s the thing: my experience in all of my time in schools is that the students reading below the mean (not just in the lowest groups) have difficulty with their self-esteem as learners, and this affects their achievement.
Conversely, some students put in the higher groups become invested in being ‘bright’ and are reluctant to take risks. It’s the students just above the mean who are often the most willing to give learning a go.
The article I mentioned at the beginning said pretty much the same thing: “[Levelled reading groups] can exacerbate achievement gaps and even slow reading growth for some children unless the groups are fluid and focused on skills rather than overall achievement.”
So what’s the alternative to levelling students?
Instead of having levelled reading groups, try putting students on the same playing field as their peers. Liberate the “bottom reading group” students from their levelled groups and texts, and, fully supported by you and the rest of the class, have them work with grade-level text so that they can clearly see the level of reading they can and should aspire to.
Doing this says to students, “The point isn’t to get it all right away, the point is to grow your understanding and learn strategies that will help you.”
It creates a true learning community – when students, including English language learners and struggling and reluctant readers, read the same text as everybody else, learning becomes about growth, not intelligence. Freed from levelled groups, students can worry less about being smart, and put more energy into learning – from the text, the teacher and each other.
So I ask again, “How would you like to spend your school life in the bottom reading group?
Of course, you could try evening the playing field and having whole-group shared reading with a CSI Literacy kit. Or you could have mixed-ability guided reading sessions with our short chapter series, CSI Chapters.
See the range.
About the author
Neale Pitches is the founder of CSI Literacy and a former teacher, principal and CEO of Learning Media.
Neale presents internationally on literacy and school leadership, and was honoured by the Queen in 2003 for his contributions to New Zealand education.