The ability to read with comprehension is the cornerstone of education. Until a student has learned to read and write with the degree of proficiency needed to make independent learning possible, the academic portion of their education should be focused on helping them acquire those skills. They can and should work toward mastering content standards in the process, but care should be taken that the books and other written materials utilized do not present challenges the students are not capable of meeting.
In any classes involving a considerable amount of reading it is important to match the difficulty level of the readings assigned with the reading abilities of students. Ideally, in situations where readings are going to be assigned to an entire class, students would be assigned to classes with other students of roughly equal reading ability. If students are going to do a great deal of independent reading or read and discuss a variety of selections in small groups, it would not be as important to have an entire class with the same level of reading ability.
There are standardized tests available that can make it relatively easy to match each student, or group of students, with reading materials that are challenging, but comprehensible. The Degrees of Reading Power test (DRP), for example, rates the reading ability of each student on a scale of 1 to 99. The difficulty level of reading materials can also be rated on the same scale, thus making it possible to match each student with reading selections that challenge them, but do not frustrate them. Utilizing a well-designed test to match groups of students with reading selections appropriate for their ability level is an important means of assuring the proper placement of students.
Some subject-matter classes may also benefit from ability grouping. There are situations where prior knowledge is important, or where students need to master certain basic concepts before they can successfully attempt more complex problems or procedures. In these instances, falling behind the class can put students in a hopeless position. Supplemental materials and activities designed to provide remedial help for slower students and enrichment for advanced students can alleviate this problem to some extent, but preparing two or three different sets of materials and activities for a classroom that includes students with average, above- average, and below-average abilities, is more of a challenge than many teachers can meet, especially if they are preparing lessons for several different subjects.
A classroom full of students with a wide range of abilities can make it extremely difficult for a teacher to maintain the proper pace of instruction. No matter how fast or how slow material is covered, at any given point, some students have mastered the material, while others have not. Teachers are often faced with the painful choice of either frustrating slower learners by moving too fast or boring advanced students because the pace of instruction is too slow. There are some situations where ability grouping is important, and other situations where it is not, but the judicious use of ability grouping could make the process of acquiring an education considerably less painful for slower learners without hindering the progress of students who learn at a faster pace.