Social science at its scariest and Silas Marner

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True or not true: “Leveled reading is intuitive and smartly packaged (who wants kids to read “frustration level” books?), but its evidence base is remarkably thin. There is much stronger research support for teaching reading with complex texts.” (

I strongly suggest readers tackle the URL above. Leveled reading has been considered a best practice for years now. What is the evidence for this belief? Apparently, evidence is thin on the ground. What evidence there is supports leveled reading during the earliest school years. Beyond that, the weight of evidence falls behind more demanding material. At least, so the above article claims, and I have been blindsided by so many dubious interpretations of shoddy studies by now that I am willing to consider the above contention not only possible, but likely. What is the research-based support for leveled reading? More importantly, has that support been unjustifiably used to choke off the reading of more demanding texts?

My husband and I were discussing the fact that we both read “Silas Marner” in middle school. I read “Moby Dick” in middle school. He is rereading Silas Marner now. Here is part of a paragraph from page 31, a paragraph that extends 39 lines down the page:

“That, at least, was the condition of Godfrey Cass in this six-and-twentieth year of his life. A movement of compunction, helped by those small indefinable influences which every personal relation exerts on a pliant nature, had urged him into a secret marriage, which was a blight on his life. It was an ugly story of low passion, delusion and waking from delusion, which needs not to be dragged from the privacy of Godfrey’s bitter memory. He had long known that the delusion was partly due to a trap laid for him by Dunstan, who saw in his brother’s degrading marriage the means of gratifying at once his jealous hate and his cupidity. And if Godfrey could have felt himself simply a victim, the iron bit that destiny had put into his mouth would have chafed him less intolerably.”

Both my husband and I waded through that vocabulary in our early teens. We are agreed that “Silas Marner” is probably an inappropriate middle school choice, but not because of the verbiage. A great deal of life experience is needed to understand Silas Marner. Still, I suspect we were both the better for the literature choices of our time. As the article referenced above observes, selecting dense and complex texts, as well as leveled reading, may be a better best practice than endlessly protecting our students from “excessively difficult” material. Who decides when material is too difficult? Too often, I believe we are being presumptuous when we assume we know what a student ought to read.

I remember a student of mine who came to me in middle school reading at a first grade level. At one point during the year, she picked up Twilight. Day after day, she picked up Twilight. Twilight represented a giant leap for my girl, but she persisted. She wanted to know every detail of Edward and Bella’s romance. Nothing I did that year probably helped that girl as much as her tenacious attack on the prose in Twilight. Sentence by sentence, she fought through that book.

While I support Pondiscio and Mahnken’s article, I do want to pull out one paragraph, feeling the need to add my own caveat.

“By marked contrast, 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 (teachers should also be prepared, of course, to offer students support as they grapple with challenging books). Instead of asking, “Can the child read this?” the question might be, ‘Is this worth reading?'”

That one line inside the parentheses above represents a big whammy. Yes, teachers will need to offer support. I’m sure many of my middle school peers had no chance of getting through Silas Marner without support. We spent weeks on that book. We may have spent a month on Moby Dick. A problem with Common Core demands in this time of nonstop testing rests in the pace expected from teachers. If we try to teach these rich, complex texts too quickly, we will be wasting our students’ time. Rich, complex texts cannot be batted out in a few days. The discussion necessary to understand texts and subtexts, especially in an unfamiliar historical context, demands weeks of work. A shallow reading of a deep book will provide little benefit and may do harm. We need to encourage reading. Spending a week ploughing through incomprehensible pages will certainly discourage reading.

That said, Alfred Tatum, Dean of the College of Education and director of the UIC Reading Clinic, said, “Leveled texts lead to leveled lives.”

Eduhonesty: He may be right about that.