Homogeneous is [not always] a bad word!
by Janet Chapman
Some adults today have painful emotional memories of long past days of "Dick and Jane" and reading groups of Redbirds and Bluebirds. Those traditional, inflexible, homogeneous reading groups of the past could often be humiliating and demeaning, although many learned to read effectively under such instruction. Homogeneous, or ability-based reading groups must have had some value then and can, if incorporated appropriately, have value for reading instruction in today's schools as well. The key for effective homogeneous reading group instruction in today's classrooms is a small, flexible, group based on instructional need in a specific strategy.
Homogeneous reading instruction in the United States came under fire during the 1980s when researchers raised several issues of concern. One issue was that homogeneous reading instruction exacerbated inequalities among students. Another concern was that race and socioeconomic status played a role in grouping. Still another disturbing concern was that teachers actually provided less or inferior instruction to lower performing groups. According to Wilkinson and Townsend (2000), these concerns led to a decline in homogeneous reading group instruction in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The decline of traditional homogeneous reading group instruction has resulted in the bulk of reading instruction in today's classrooms taking place in a whole class format, with one story from a literature-based reading arts program sufficing as the basis of instruction. Engaging but ineffective, authentic literature in these anthologies is often too difficult for the students on the given grade level to read independently (Hoffman, et al. 1998). Literature-based basals contain material on varied levels and result in students reading a range of levels, in no particular order, in the course of a year (Tompkins & McGee, 1993). This is homogeneous instruction at its most insidious, and is definitely a "bad word" use of homogeneous.
Using one text selection as the basis for reading instruction for an entire classroom of students is ludicrous given the heterogeneous nature of today's classrooms. Classrooms of students are not homogeneous. Schools of today, much more so than those of yesteryear, are ethnically, culturally, socio-economically, and intellectually diverse. It is proposed that in 10-15 years, at least half the population of public school students in the United States will be non-white (Hodgkinson, 2000-2001). Because of the great and ever-increasing diversity in schools, Goldberg (2000) emphasizes that although needed skills may need to be standardized, reading material should be highly diverse. Changing demographics, as well as social promotion, inclusion, and various backgrounds of experience ensure the heterogeneous nature of schools and classrooms today and in the future.
How can the issues of inappropriate leveled texts and heterogeneous classrooms be addressed? A look at what is known about effective reading instruction can help determine what should be done. For decades, the pendulum of reading instruction has swung back and forth. Each swing has resulted in more understanding of the process of learning to read. From this increased understanding, generally accepted guidelines for effective reading instruction are being established. Some of these guidelines address student reading levels. First of all, students need to be appropriately assessed for their independent reading level. An independent reading level is identified by three elements. These three elements are accuracy, or the ability to decode 98% or more words in the text; fluency, or reading with appropriate rate, phrasing, intonation and expression; and comprehension, the gaining of meaning from the text. The determination of a student's independent reading level is of primary importance because the majority of student reading should take place at this level (Allington, 2001, Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). Once a student's independent reading level is determined, an instructional reading level can be established. This is the level at which explicit, specific, reading strategy instruction should take place. Most authors suggest an instructional level is only slightly below the independent level, at about 95% accuracy, with fair fluency and moderate comprehension. Anything below this level is considered frustrating and students should rarely, if ever, read at a frustrating level (Allington, 2001; Fountas & Pinnell, 1996).
Obviously, not all students in a class will be at the same independent or instructional reading level. Supposing these guidelines are widely accepted, it is therefore inappropriate to expect that whole class reading instruction with one text will be adequate to meet the diverse needs in a typical classroom. The obvious question then becomes, "How can diverse needs be met?" and the obvious answer becomes, "With diverse instruction!" Now, another obvious question is, "What do diverse needs and diverse instruction have to do with homogeneous?" The answer: small, flexible, homogeneous (good word!) groups of students assembled for short periods of explicit reading instruction. These groups would not be like the Redbirds and Bluebirds of the past, which were mostly static and unchanging, proceeding through an ordered series of texts. These modern day homogeneous reading groups would change depending on the students' stage of reading development, the strategy being taught, (phonics, semantics, intonation, sequence, etc.), and would incorporate different texts at students' instructional reading levels. The homogeneous factor would be the specific instructional needs and levels of the students.
In New Zealand, long known for its high literacy rates, this type of flexible homogeneous grouping is the norm and is actually dictated by the Ministry of Education (Wilkinson & Townsend, 2000). These authors emphatically state "Ability level grouping is used effectively in these classrooms to support emergent and early readers" (p. 460).
In their action research study, Wilkinson and Townsend, in contrast to the data from the 1980s in the United States, determined placement into groups was based solely on instructional needs, teachers spent more time with lower ability readers, instruction consistently included reading for meaning, and instruction took place with texts at appropriate levels of difficulty.
Brown (2000) studied classrooms and teachers in the Midwestern United States and found the use of different types and levels of text for different students within classrooms. She suggests that it is not necessary to choose any one type of text for effective reading instruction, but that by matching different types and levels of text to individual or small groups of students teachers can guide them through the phases of reading development. Brown cites the motivational factors of having students read text that is interesting and not too difficult. She also recognizes the importance of teachers reading aloud from authentic literature as a motivator and model for fluency and reading for enjoyment.
A well-known and utilized concept in education, Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development" (1962, p. 104), epitomizes this idea that students should work with material slightly ahead of their independent level in order to promote development. Like so many concepts in education, the idea of actually giving students something they can read almost independently and tailoring instruction to their individual weaknesses, is one that wise teachers have always employed. Swartz (2002) describes exactly this as she describes her 19 years of teaching experience. She laments that many experienced teachers are made to feel guilty or that they are wrong for sticking to methods they know work for their students. Swartz goes on to acknowledge that as the pendulum swings, more and more is learned, and all teachers, both new and experienced, should use the knowledge gained to improve their teaching.
Homogeneous (good word) grouping for reading instruction, if used appropriately, can be very effective. Grouping students with similar needs for short periods of time, for explicit reading strategy instruction, in appropriately leveled text, is an answer to meeting the diverse needs of students in today's classrooms. Homogeneous (bad word) grouping of a diverse group of students, with diverse instructional needs, in a single class in a single text is poor grouping, poor teaching, and a disservice to students.
Wilkinson and Townsend (2000) sum up the support for homogeneous reading group instruction as they categorically state results from their study, "…suggest that ability grouping, as one part of an integrated language arts program, can provide effective contexts for teaching lower ability readers as well as higher ability readers (p. 470).
Allington, R.L. (2001). What really matters for struggling readers: Designing research based programs. New York: Longman.
Brown, K.J. (2000). What kind of text: For whom and when? Textual scaffolding for beginning readers. Reading Teacher, 53, 292-308.
Fountas, I.C., &Pinnell,G.S.(1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Goldberg, M.F. (2000). Demographics- Ignore them at your peril. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 304-306.
Hodgkinson, H.(2000). Educational demographics: What teachers should know. Educational Leadership, 58, 4, 6-11.
Hoffman, J., McCarthey, S.,E lliot, B., Bayles, D., Price, D., Feree, A., et al. (1998). The literature-based basals in first-grade classrooms: Savior, Satan, or same-old, same-old? Reading Research Quarterly, 33, 2, 168-197.
Swartz, L.K. (2002). Hi, my name is Velma. Phi Delta Kappan, 84, 14-15.
Tompkins, J.A., & McGee, L.M. (1993). Teaching reading with literature: Case studies to action plans. New York: Macmillan.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Wilkinson, I.A.G., & Townsend, M.A.R. (2000). From Rata to Rimu: Grouping for instruction in best practice New Zealand classrooms. Reading Teacher, 53, 460-472.
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