Reading texts are best aligned with content, not skill levels


April 18, 2018 | Ben Grimley |


An excellent article published by The Atlantic (view it here) captured key findings from NAEP reading panelists, who last week examined why reading scores have remained flat for two decades.

According to Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia, reading comprehension depends far more on topical knowledge and vocabulary than on how much a student has practiced comprehension skills. "The best way to boost students’ reading comprehension," summarized the article, "is to expand their knowledge and vocabulary by teaching them history, science, literature, and the arts, using curricula that that guide kids through a logical sequence from one year to the next..."

This expresses the Speak Agent pedagogy more eloquently than we ever could! Our tool supports learning of concept knowledge and related vocabulary tied to the scope and sequence for your curriculum in each content area. Our approach is to integrate content and language, rather than to drill skills in a way that lacks authentic context. The ability to tailor and individualize to your content needs and pacing is a big part of what makes Speak Agent special.

Individualization is not about selecting texts with the right Lexile level for each student. In the same NAEP panel, Timothy Shanahan from the University of Illinois debunked the idea that giving students texts at individual reading levels is superior to giving them shared grade-level texts. As he writes in this blog post, there is no evidence that this works. Instead, the learning science indicates that students learn more by reading texts that contain many words and concepts that are unfamiliar or not yet mastered.

Marilyn Jager Adams, visiting scholar at Brown University, confirmed this in her remarks: “Giving children easier texts when they’re weaker readers serves to deny them the very language and information they need to catch up and move on.”

Speak Agent uses games and activities, e.g., Tall Tales, Vocab Lab, and Scrambled Sentences, that pepper target vocabulary throughout narrative passages. Because of the aforementioned research, the Lexile level of the texts do not individualize. Instead, various supports such as audiovisuals, game levels, and hints, provide scaffolds for students to progress through challenging texts. By providing on-level content, we give students the tools and the opportunities to catch up! Learn about our initial findings with elementary science content here.

Ben Grimley is CEO and Co-Founder of Speak Agent, Inc.

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