Beyond Leveled Readers: A Lesson from Candy Crush

I have been on the same level for two weeks. I am frustrated and want to move on. I have the skills to attempt other levels, but I’m forced to stay where I am. I want to try new things and learn new strategies. Sure there are a few things I struggle with, but I also know I could be successful at other levels. Most of all I have the motivation to try.

I’m not referring to reading levels in the above paragraph. Right now I’m stuck on Level 311 of Candy Crush Saga. Yes, I’m a little addicted to popular game. I know I am not alone! This game has an average of 45.6 million monthly players according to Wikipedia.  It was fun for a while. Right now it is not. Right now I am frustrated. I am ready to give up. I want to move forward, but I am not allowed to. Someone/something else is making the decision for me.   It is keeping me from experiencing new things in a complex saga.

This dilemma has made me think about what we might be doing to students by keeping them at specific reading levels, especially over longer periods of time. Are students bored at their present level longing to give other reading material a try? My Candy Crush experience coupled with reflections from a recent Reading Conference I attended are the inspirations to this specific blog post.

One of the keynote speakers at the Iowa Reading Conference was Doug Fisher. I’ve been an admirer of the work of Doug Fisher and his co-author Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp for a long time. Check out their website: Literacy for Life!  Their books are written in a style that is easy to understand, yet complex enough to push your thinking. I find their presentation style very similar. I have been fortunate to learn from both on multiple occasions this year.  Their work has been so helpful in guiding my understanding of many aspects of literacy, RtI and the implementation of the Common Core.

By now, if you have done any studying of the Common Core, you realize standard 10 calls for students to read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently. This is contradictory to what we have witnessed in classrooms for the last 10 to 20 years. Small group instruction with the use of leveled text matched specifically to the reader became the norm. We have used diagnostic assessments to determine students’ instructional reading levels, matched them to text, and have expected them to read basically at that instructional level (or independent) until we determine their next appropriate level. Some classrooms/schools have spent numerous hours color coding books with sticky dots leading students to THEIR LEVEL.  Deviating from that level is determined by the teacher (in some cases).

The small group instruction provided at specific levels was meant to be flexible. Ongoing formative assessments such as running records were to determine if students were ready to progress to the next level. Yet, how often these formative assessments are administered has varied from classroom to classroom. For some it is weekly, for others quarterly, for others these types of formative assessments do not even occur.

Dr. Fisher’s session “Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives” examined 5 points to accessing complex text. His presentation can be found on the resource page of his website titled Iowa: Reading like Detectives. (You may also be interested in the Fisher/Frey/Lapp book with a similar title: Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text.)

During the presentation Dr. Fisher quoted Dr. Alfred W. Tatum, Director of the UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) Reading Clinic.

“Leveled text leads to leveled lives.” 

The goal of using leveled text was to move students through levels and meet grade level exceptions. Dr. Fisher explained that we are not seeing gaps close. Many students are reading at levels below grade level expectation.  The use of leveled text (aka guided reading) did move us from primarily teaching from a “one size fits all approach” to the teaching of smaller groups of students and providing us the opportunity to witness the successes and challenges of our readers.

Yet, during this small group instruction with leveled text, the text has become the scaffold. Dr. Fisher suggests that the teacher become the scaffold during these small group sessions rather than the text in order to move students into more complex text and complex thinking. He reminded us that simply assigning hard books will not ensure that students learn at high levels. They need scaffolded instruction as explained in Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility.

Leveled readers do and still serve a purpose, especially at the primary grades.  But, as students enter intermediate grade levels they need to be exposed to complex text as this slide shows the differences between the old and new lexile ranges. (shared by Dr. Fisher) Complex doesn’t always equate to a level. We must remember that the Common Core State Standards suggest using qualitative and quantitative measures when matching text to the reader and the task.

One method, but not the only one, is the use of close analytic reading. This process guides the reader to slow down. It promotes multiple readings of a single short passage as well as the much-needed use of collaborative dialogue between students. Instruction is built upon strategies rather than the text itself. Dr. Fisher encouraged us to continue to develop our understanding and use of close analytic reading by using the teacher as the scaffold rather than the text. Small group instruction can still exist, just repurposed at times.

When the teacher becomes the scaffold, students can be exposed to text at more complex levels. Close reading calls for the teacher to develop a series of guiding questions to navigate student through multiple readings of the short passage. Students are encouraged to have ongoing dialogue about the text – hence also working on the speaking and listening standards of the Common Core. More can be found about Close Reading in my post titled Close Reading: Am I Getting Close. I am not an expert with this approach – merely a learner hoping to assist teachers is this shift. Reading, implementing and reflective blogging continue to guide my learning.

Short sound-bits from a 45 minute keynote presentation provided just the right amount of information to push my thinking. I plan to check out the Fisher/Frey YouTube Channel for more examples as well as continue reading and using methods of close analytical reading to scaffold students with the use of complex text.

Dr. Fisher mentioned that students LOVE close reading of complex text. I can see why. Being stuck at a level and not allowed to move forward is frustrating. Right now I don’t think I will ever get off of Level 311 in Candy Crush Saga! I dislike that something else is making the decisions for me. It is turning me off of the popular game. (Perhaps that is a good thing!) We certainly do not want to turn our students OFF of reading.

Let’s encourage students to read, think, discuss, and share beyond a prescribed level while providing them the instructional scaffolds needed to succeed.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic!

Books of interest on this topic include:

Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text (Fisher, Frey, Lapp)

Beyond Leveled Books: Supporting Early and Transitional Readers in Grades K-5 (Sibberson, Szymusick, Koch)

Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility (Fisher, Frey)

Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading (Fisher, Frey, Lapp)

Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text (Fisher, Frey, Lapp)

Using Data to Focus Instructional Improvement (Fisher, Frey, Lapp)

Productive Group Work: How to Engage Students, Build Teamwork, and Promote Understanding (Fisher, Frey, Everlove)

Explaining Reading, Second Edition: A Resource for Teaching Concepts, Skills, and Strategies (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy) (Duffy)

Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Beers, Probst)

Close Reading of Informational Texts: Assessment-Driven Instruction in Grades 3-8(Cummins, Blachowicz)


  • Justine 1 Jul

    What a superb blog post! You have inspired me to rethink my approach on many different levels. I particularly like the way that you differentiate between scaffolds and place the teacher back in the centre of the students’ learning experience.

  • Amy Illingworth 2 Jul

    I love your thoughts here! I, too, am addicted to Candy Crush and often get frustrated when I am stuck on a level without control of the situation! I am currently in a doctoral program and have had the pleasure of having Dr. Fisher as a professor. I enjoy his website, his books, and his knowledge on this subject. Close reading is a strategy we can all stand to learn more about and practice in the coming years. Thank you for opening the dialogue!

    • Kathy Perret 2 Jul

      Thanks so much for the comment. I’m glad the topic made sense. Best wishes with your doctoral program. It must be amazing to have Dr. Fisher as a professor!


  • Rita Butlett 11 Aug

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was at the Iowa Reading Conference as well, and your thoughts are right on!

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