"Just right" books revisited: 3 ways we undermine student learning

Common practice and conventional wisdom among many literacy experts suggest that the best way to help improve student reading comprehension is to assign “just right” texts—those that are pitched at a student’s instructional reading level. The theory is that you want to challenge students to read books that are just hard enough to push their comprehension, but not so difficult that they’ll throw up their hands in frustration.

Does a focus on “just right” texts adding to the gap between advanced readers and their below-level peers?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post wondering whether this focus on “just right” texts was doing a disservice to our most-struggling students, even adding to the already large reading and content gap between advanced readers and their below-level peers.

A new book published by the International Reading Association and written by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Diane Lapp provides yet more evidence that the focus on “just right” books may in fact be undermining student learning in three critical ways:

1. Assigning “just right” books makes reading too easy.

“Perhaps one of the mistakes in the past efforts to improve reading achievement has been the removal of struggle,” the authors argue.

As a profession, we may have made reading tasks too easy. We do not suggest that we should plan students’ failure but rather that students should be provided with opportunities to struggle and to learn about themselves as readers when they struggle, persevere, and eventually succeed.

Of course, advocates of the “just right” theory would argue that they allow for this struggle. After all, a student’s “instructional” reading level is defined as being difficult enough that they need to struggle, but not so difficult that they throw up their hands in frustration.

However, the authors argue that the most common method for determining a student’s “just right” reading level is misguided, and that it actually encourages teachers to assign texts that are simply too easy to push comprehension and learning. Commonly, teachers are told that just right texts are those that the student can read with approximately 95 percent accuracy with a comprehension level of 90-100 percent (as measured by comprehension questions). The authors cite evidence that suggests that we’d do better to help students struggle through more difficult texts—those that the students can read with only 85 percent accuracy and with a comprehension level of 75 percent comprehension—or even lower.

2. The “just right” theory overlooks the important role instruction should play in improving comprehension and building knowledge.

Central to the “just right” theory of reading instruction is the idea that students will learn more by reading books that are pitched at their personal reading level, than by being forced to read books that are too difficult for them to understand.

Of course that’s true, assuming those are the only options. In reality, though, students learn more—and their comprehension improves more dramatically—when they read more challenging and difficult texts with appropriate scaffolding and instruction from the teacher.

How best to scaffold texts depends, of course, on the students: their knowledge and skills gaps, and so on. But, if we are to help students improve their comprehension and build knowledge, the burden should be on the teacher to develop short- and long-term plans and lessons that are focused on helping students read and understand more difficult and complex texts.

In other words, according to the book, “the text difficulty level is not the real issue. Instruction is. Teachers can scaffold and support students, which will determine the amount of their learning and literacy independence.”

3. It has focused attention on teaching skills, rather than on teaching texts.

The only way to develop reading skills is to use them while actually struggling through texts.

Strong readers are those who have developed broad and deep knowledge about the topics they’re reading and who—unconsciously—apply a variety of comprehension strategies as they read. Skilled readers will, for example, slow down when reading a more challenging passage. Or they’ll re-read the passage multiple times. Or they’ll look up unfamiliar words. And on. These are coping strategies that they’ve developed and honed over-time. And they are muscles that will simply not be exercised if students are not regularly asked to struggle with more difficult and complex texts.

Unfortunately, too much reading instruction has focused on teaching skills in isolation or having students “practice” them in contrived ways with relatively simple texts. Such exercises are pointless. The only way to develop these skills is to use them while actually struggling through texts. And the only way to force that struggle is to select appropriately complex texts and to ask students to engage with those texts in deep and interesting ways.

In the end, the “just right” theory of reading instruction is focused on the right goal—having students read independently and with deep understanding. But the way it tries to get there may be exactly what is holding our students back from achieving at the levels they need.

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