Why Teachers Should Choose Scaffolding Over Leveling

Dr. Deep Sran
February 16, 2016

When choosing a text to assign in their classrooms, teachers naturally consider the abilities of their students. No teacher wants to assign a text that is completely incomprehensible to the student. It’s impossible to have a fruitful class discussion when a majority of students are not able to grasp the meaning of the text. On the other hand, teachers also want to select a text that is rich enough to challenge their students’ thinking and reading abilities.

There are two solutions to this dilemma: leveling and scaffolding. They offer distinct approaches to selecting texts to improve student engagement and learning. I will go through several aspects of these two approaches and share why the research shows scaffolding is the best choice to improve student and teacher outcomes.

Choice of Text

With leveling, the choice of text is driven by an assessment of both student reading level and the difficulty level of the text. The leveled reading approach essentially seeks to match the difficulty of the text to the reading level of the student. Each student’s reading level is assessed based on the number of errors they make while reading, with the goal often being 95 percent accuracy. A student will only be assigned texts that he or she can read independently with great accuracy. This approach assumes students will learn better if they are assigned texts they are able to read on their own without frustration.

For leveled reading to work, two determinations must be made accurately: the student’s reading level and the level of the text. Each of these determinations is prone to error; determining the reading level of a text or a student can only be done imprecisely. Even under a leveled approach, teachers may be assigning texts that are too difficult or too easy for their students because they are using imprecise measurement tools.

“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.”

— Robert Pondiscio and Kevin Mahnken, “Leveled Reading: The Making of a Literacy Myth

This approach limits the types of texts teachers can assign. A text must already be leveled in order to be considered, and its difficulty must meet the reading level of the students. What is most worrisome in my view is that the leveled reading approach loses sight of whether a text is worth reading in the first place (Pondiscio & Mahnken, 2014). The selection of the text is driven by lexile or other level measurement rather than by interest or relevance.

Scaffolded reading avoids the problems with leveled reading outlined above. Teachers can assign any texts their students can read with instructional support, and the choice of text is driven by whether the text is worth reading rather than whether it aligns with the student’s reading level. Teachers do not have to rely on dubious measurements to determine what they can assign to their students--they are free to choose what they think is going to engage their students and then provide the necessary tools and resources to make the text accessible. The focus shifts from measured level to what actually matters to students and teachers: the richness, relevance, and importance of the content.

The Role of Instruction

The leveled approach is based on an implicit assumption that students will read assigned texts without instructional support (Shanahan, 2011). Recall that the student’s reading level is determined by what the student can comprehend without any help or intervention. This ignores what a student can accomplish with a teacher’s guidance and effectively takes the teacher out of the equation (Stahl & Heubach, 2005; Vygotsky, 1986).

Scaffolding recognizes that classroom reading does not occur in a vacuum. What makes scaffolding effective is the intervention of the teacher--someone who understands his or her students and knows what level of support they need. Scaffolding magnifies the role of the teacher in helping students to engage in their reading.

“Instructional level theory posits that the text difficulty level relative to the student reading level is the important factor in learning. But that ignores the guidance, support, and scaffolding provided by the teacher.”

— Timothy Shanahan, “Rejecting Instructional Level Theory

The role of the teacher is an essential difference between these two approaches. At Actively Learn, we believe that any approach to learning that does not empower the teacher results in a loss for both students and teachers. Teachers lose control over instruction and the attention of their students, while students miss out on the essential intellectual and social interaction that makes learning meaningful.

Scaffolding depends on the teacher’s knowledge and intervention in enriching student learning, and this is what makes it the better choice. It brings reading back into the context of the student and teacher interaction and improves engagement and depth of learning.

Student Growth

Leveling lowers the bar on student expectations and growth. By assigning a particular reading level to a student and limiting the choice of text, leveling introduces reduced expectations for many students (Fisher & Frey, 2014). Once a student has been classified at a low reading level there will be reason for teachers to expect less from that student. These low expectations will gain momentum over time, and, most alarmingly, may be internalized by the student. These have serious long-term negative consequences for student learning.

Scaffolding, on the other hand, is designed to take advantage of the student’s zone of proximal development. It empowers students to take on texts that are challenging and complex, and increases the teacher’s expectations of what students can achieve with the proper support.

Unlike leveling, scaffolding emphasizes the actual skills that support deep reading. It demonstrates to the student how to make a complex text comprehensible. The student begins to understand how to make sense of challenging texts: what questions to ask, what contextual knowledge is required to comprehend concepts, and how to draw connections across ideas. The student who understands how scaffolding works is able to tackle the sort of reading that he or she will encounter as an adult. The student who does not reach beyond his or her current challenge level will not be able to master this skill and will lack the confidence to take on higher-level texts.

Teacher Satisfaction

On its surface, leveling appears to make the teacher’s job much easier: it can seem less time-consuming for teachers because it does not require teachers to support students when they read. Since students are reading texts aligned to their reading ability, they should not (assuming the leveling was done accurately) require guidance in order to understand the text. This supposedly increases teacher satisfaction by reducing the effort of creating instructional support.

Despite appearances, however, I would argue that the total amount of teacher work required to improve student outcomes is actually greater with leveling because students are reading texts that are not as engaging or educationally rich. Reading will be less motivating and active for students and they will get less from the text--not because they do not understand the content, but because they do not have interest in what they are reading. In other words, students will learn less with leveling.

Scaffolding enables students to read more challenging texts that engage their interest, in part because the texts are of higher quality and in part because the content of the texts is important in the larger world. Better texts facilitate the work of the teacher because students want to participate in reading and discussion. Making class time worthwhile and building student interest and stamina are much easier with scaffolding.

The instructional support required by scaffolding may discourage teachers with limited time and resources. Fortunately, technology can facilitate the scaffolding approach by giving teachers the tools to easily provide instruction to their students. A platform like Actively Learn provides built-in vocabulary support and simple ways to assess student progress in order to provide individualized assistance. Adding notes to guide student reading becomes as simple as highlighting text and typing a few sentences of explanation. The work that the teacher puts into creating these questions and annotations can be easily repurposed for future classes. Many texts on our online platform include existing questions and notes that greatly reduce the time in preparing readings for students.

Given the greater educational potential of high quality texts, and the scaffolding technology makes possible, I have found that scaffolding saves time and effort over the long run because students are actually engaged and learning deeply.



Allington, R. L. (2013). What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520–530.

Atwell, N. (2007). The Reading Zone: How to Help Kids Become Skilled, Passionate, Habitual, Critical Readers. Scholastic Teaching Resources.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2014). Scaffolded Reading Instruction of Content-Area Texts. The Reading Teacher, 67(5), 347–351.

Pondiscio, R. & Mahnken, K. (2014). Leveled reading: The making of a literacy myth. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Shanahan, T. (2011). Rejecting Instructional Level Theory. Shanahan on Literacy Blog.

Stahl, S.A. & Heubach, K. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25–60.

Student Achievement Partners. Research Supporting the Common Core ELA/Literacy Shifts and Standards. Link.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language - Revised Edition. MIT Press.


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