boy reading bookAs you know, students will make optimal reading progress when they work in material at the appropriate level. The problem is that the definition of “appropriate level” changes depending on the context. When should you give students material at their independent level? How about their instructional level? What is the difference between the two? And is it ever appropriate to let them work at their frustration level? If you’ve ever found yourself asking these questions—or if you find yourself needing to explain these concepts to parents—you’ve come to the right place! We’re here to break it down for you.

Independent vs. Instructional Level: What’s the Difference?

A student’s independent reading level is the level at which the student can read successfully without help. Independent-level material is material that the student reads fluently without difficulty. Experts recommend that students’ accuracy should be around 98% at this level and that they should be able to answer 90% or more of the comprehension questions correctly. Students can use independent-level material when reading for enjoyment or when practicing a new reading strategy. Ultimately, we want students reading independently at their grade level.

A student’s instructional reading level is the level at which a student can read with support from a teacher and/or program. Because of this support, the student’s instructional level is higher than their independent level. According to experts, a student’s instructional level is the level of material in which they demonstrate at least 90% accuracy and a score of 60% or better in comprehension. Students will often read material at or slightly above their instructional reading level in a fluency intervention. The Read Naturally Strategy includes teacher modeling, repeated reading, and progress monitoring.  With these supports in place, working at or slightly above instructional level challenges the student and accelerates their reading achievement.

Determining a Student’s Independent and Instructional Reading Level

Educators often use a reading inventory to determine students’ instructional and independent reading levels. These tools are designed to accurately assess students’ reading abilities. Reading inventories and benchmark assessments will help you identify whether there is a need for a reading intervention like Read Live or Read Naturally Encore.

Read Naturally Programs: Independent or Instructional?

Students using a Read Naturally Strategy program (Read Live or Read Naturally Encore) should be placed at or slightly above their instructional level. This is because the program provides audio support and other scaffolding to accelerate progress. With this support, the students can handle more challenging material.

What About “Frustration Level”?

A student’s frustration level is a level at which fluency and expression are lacking. The student is reading word-for-word, halting, and with less than 90% accuracy and less than 60% comprehension. Typically, teachers avoid having students read this material. However, if a student is asking to read something too challenging, there is no harm in letting them try, especially with a supportive teacher or program. They might surprise you. In this video, Read Naturally founder Candyce Ihnot shares the unique story of a student wanting to work in a more challenging Read Naturally level. Although he needed a lot of help at first, he made significant progress over time. He was engaged and motivated enough to rise to the challenge.

Talking to Parents

Often, parents will receive a reading inventory report and need clarification on their child's independent vs. instructional level. For example, the report might say a fifth-grade student’s instructional reading level is at the fifth-grade level. Parents will often assume this means the student is reading at grade level. However, this is not the case. If the student’s instructional reading level is at the fifth-grade level, their independent reading level is lower than that—and, thus, below grade level.

Similarly, it is not uncommon for a parent to see that their fifth-grade child is working in level 5.0 in Read Naturally programs and assume this means their child can read at grade level. Teachers should explain that, although the student’s instructional level (5.0 in Read Naturally programs) might line up with the grade level (fifth grade), the student’s independent reading level is lower. Typically, students will graduate out of the intervention when their independent reading level is at or above grade level.

For More Information…

This Read Naturally blog article explains how the Read Naturally Strategy allows students to select engaging material at a level that might feel “too hard” (instructional level) at first—but, thanks to the Strategy, students experience success, build confidence, and make progress quickly.

In this Read Naturally blog article, reading expert Jan Hasbrouck discusses why accuracy is the foundation of reading fluency, which is why inventories measure accuracy to determine reading levels. Good interventions, like Read Naturally Strategy programs, prioritize accuracy as well.

Please reach out to us here at Read Naturally if you have questions about this topic or if we can support your work with students in any way.