‘Frustration-level’ materials increase reading achievement

iStock_000006625549XSmallIn a study of paired reading in second-grade classrooms, researchers tried to find the optimal difficulty level for improving poor readers’ skills. Alisa Morgan, Sunset View Elementary School, Provo, Utah, and Bradley R. Wilcox and J. Lloyd Eldredge, Brigham Young University, randomly assigned 51 below grade level readers to one of three experimental groups. Each group was assigned a significantly different reading level from which to choose books. Researchers compared reading gains of students in these groups.

Paired reading refers to two students reading aloud together. The more proficient reader reads expressively at a comfortable pace, running his finger along under words as he says them. The less skilled reader follows along, reading aloud with his partner.

Previous research with paired reading has shown that it is very successful in improving reading skills. Paired reading exposes poor readers to more difficult material than they could read on their own, while providing meaningful reading practice for their more skilled partners. It has not been shown, however, at what point the difficulty of the text begins to hinder progress. The question these researchers ask: “Does the difficulty level of the materials used make a difference in the amount of progress the weaker reader makes in paired reading?”

For this study, teachers identified children who read below grade level. Students were tested with the Burns-Roe Informal Reading Inventory and with a running record of their word recognition, comprehension and reading rate made while they read a grade-level book.

Independent reading level is the level at which students can read 99 percent of the words correctly with 90 percent comprehension. Instructional level is defined as 85 percent correct word recognition with at least 75 percent comprehension. Frustration level is reached when less than 85 percent of the words are recognized or comprehension falls below 50 percent. A student’s instructional level is considered to be his reading level.

Poor readers in this study scored at the nonreader, pre-primer or primer level on pretests. Each was paired with a more skilled reader in their classroom for 15 minutes of reading each day during their recreational reading time. The study lasted for 5 months, with approximated 95 paired-reading sessions.

Each poor reader was randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups. The first group was given books at their instructional level (pre-first grade to low first grade). The second group read books two grade levels above their instructional level (high first grade to low third grade). The third group read books four years above their instructional level (high third grade to low fifth grade). Bins of narrative and expository books at each level were provided for every classroom.

Teachers were responsible for carrying out the experimental program. They received reminders from the researchers throughout the study to make sure they paired poor students with proficient students capable of reading books at the experimental level. Pairs were rotated about once a week. Teachers monitored students to make sure they were carrying out paired reading correctly (sharing one book, reading expressively, looking at each word etc.) Teachers also checked to make sure students were choosing books from the correct bins and that books were placed in the proper bins.

Study Results

At the end of the school year, researchers compared reading gain scores of the three groups. They also compared the post-test scores for word recognition, comprehension and reading rate for each group. No significant differences were found between classrooms. Test results revealed that all three groups made gains in reading skills regardless of the difficulty level of the materials used. The second and third groups that read material significantly above their reading level made greater gains than those reading at their instructional level. Therefore, it appears that to progress more rapidly, students must be exposed to more difficult material.

The students who were assisted to read material two years above their level made the greatest gains. From informal observations, it appeared that poor readers in the third group seemed to be less motivated to read books four years above their reading level. These books had significantly less pictures and more words and the children did not seem ready to make the transition from picture books to chapter books. At this level of difficulty, some students appeared to be turned off and paid less attention.

This study does not indicate the exact point at which frustration defeats the purpose of paired reading. Additional research is needed. But Morgan et al. conclude that children do not have to be taught with instruction-level materials. Poor readers appear to improve significantly more when they read with a partner at higher levels that expose them to more unknown words and complex language structures.

“Effect of Difficulty Levels on Second-Grade Delayed Readers Using Dyad Reading” The Journal of Educational Research Volume 94, Number 2, December 2000 Pp. 113-119.

Published in ERN December 2000/January 2001 Volume 14 Number 1

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