A Question on Text Complexity

  • balanced literacy Common Core State Standards
  • 05 February, 2013

Teacher question:
I am looking for some clarification on the guided reading discussion. It would seem by many that you are saying that students do not need to work at their “instructional” level while learning reading skills and strategies. What I think you are saying is that once they are beyond decoding text up to a second grade reading level it is no longer necessary to do this. Sounds like once they get here they are reading and they can then move on to being taught comprehension using more complex text with teacher guidance. Is this what you mean? Or are you in fact saying that leveled guided reading of all sorts is not effective? Should students in K and 1 not worry about comprehension at their instructional level and just work with guidance and support from a teacher through higher more complex text?  If so, at what point do we begin to understand what they can actually do on their own?

Shanahan response:

  Good questions. I hope I can clarify. Let’s try this:

  Text difficulty matters a lot with beginning readers. They have to figure out the decoding system and much of this knowledge comes from abstracting patterns from the words they read. By keeping text relatively easy early on, we make it easier for them to figure out the code. Thus, guided reading and other schemes for nurturing beginning readers and bringing them along step-by-step through increasingly difficult text levels make a lot of sense. Definitely use them with beginners.

  Once kids reach about a beginning second-grade decoding level, we don’t need to be as scrupulous about text difficulty. Students can learn from a pretty wide range of difficulty levels, and text difficulty is not a reliable predictor of student learning.

  If the issue is teaching reading, then matching text complexity with student reading levels is NOT the issue. That’s where guided reading and similar schemes go wrong.

  Placing students in more challenging books is a good idea because it increases opportunity to learn (there is more to figure out in challenging texts). This is important since our kids do not read effectively at high enough levels.  

  But just placing students in more challenging text makes the same error that guided reading did; it just replaces an over-reliance on one kind of text-student match with another. Increases in text difficulty levels need to be coordinated with increases in the amounts and quality of scaffolding, support, encouragement, and explanation provided by the teacher. If a text is relatively easy for students, as with a traditional guided reading match, then they won’t require much instructional support with that text (though there won’t be much to learn from such texts either). But if the text is relatively difficult for students, teachers will need to be a lot more energetic in their teaching responses.

  There is more to be learned from challenging texts, but this means that there needs to be a lot more teaching with such texts. Instead of asking what book level to teach someone at, teachers should ask, “If I place a student in a book this challenging, how much support will I need to provide to enable him/her to learn from this text?"  


See what others have to say about this topic.

brenda Adams Jun 19, 2017 11:25 PM


After reading both the question and answer here I am still a little unclear. My understanding of guided reading is to scaffold support for students in a book that is a little more difficult for them.If done correctly guided reading shouldn't be where students are reading books that are easy. Since the common core or no one else has determined how difficult is difficult then I think we do need some sort of guide (the ones we have used) to help teachers determine.

I haven't the impression at all that common core is against guided reading. I feel that we should teach from whatever complext text level we need to model good reading skills and strategies for our students. Texts like the exemplars in Common Core are an example. I think all students should be given opportunities to learn from these harder texts. However, there is a difference in learning to read and reading to learn.I would love to get in on the research that follows these theroies. I think it will prove to be very interesting to follow such research and its results.

V Jun 19, 2017 11:26 PM


Thank you for your clear explanation. The argument between "independent-reading books" and close-reading of shared complex texts seems to be an in-going debate for many. I totally agree that once students are able to decode at a second-grade level, they should be reading rigorous grade-level texts with degrees of scaffolding in place as a support!

Katherine Casey Jun 19, 2017 11:26 PM

"If a text is relatively easy for students, as with a traditional guided reading match, then they won’t require much instructional support with that text (though there won’t be much to learn from such texts either). "

If the text is relatively easy for the students, then it is not a guided reading match. If it is relatively easy, it is an independent level text and scaffolding by the teacher is not necessary. The whole point of an "instructional level text" is that it is too challenging for the student to read without scaffolding by the teacher, but not so challenging that the teacher is doing most of the work for the child. Your description of "a traditional guided reading match" does not reflect an understanding of text complexity as explained by Fountas & Pinnell and Jan Richardson (author of Next Steps in Guided Reading). Whose definition of a "traditional guided reading match" are you using? Which current guided reading researchers are advocating using a text in guided reading that is "relatively easy" for the student?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 11:26 PM


Actually what you are thinking of as challenging text (by Fountas and Pinnell's definition) means students--without any teacher assistance--will be able to read the text with word accuracy in the mid 90%s and reading comprehension between 75-90%. Text that easy does not give students enough opportunity to learn. (If a youngster can read a text with 90% comprehension on a first read without teacher help, that youngster does not need a teacher).

Jeri Skulky Jun 19, 2017 11:27 PM


Dear Dr. Shanahan,
My question relates to the balance between text selections for guided reading for a student with a severe decoding disability as found with dyslexia. These students are often found in upper grade levels exhibiting very poor decoding skills but with a wealth of world knowledge and oral language proficiencies. They have “gotten by” but still cannot independently read grade level text. So, grade level text appears challenging for these students. What advice do you offer Language Arts teachers that work with this type of student profile in order to close the ever expanding gap between this student’s performance and that of his grade level peers?
Jeri Skulsky

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 11:27 PM



I would say that if a youngster is still struggling to read text after several years of instruction, I would worry less about what the match of the student to the text (so getting them right at level should be less of an issue), and a lot more about how are we going to help them to succeed with this text.

For this kind of reader, the number one support is going to be oral reading fluency work (there are certainly other things that can be done, too), but this one would have the biggest likely payoff (and it is most likely to end up with the students being able to read the text at the end).

Lots of repeated reading, reading while listening, echo reading, neurological impress, paired reading, etc.--kids reading the text aloud, repeatedly, with feedback as necessary. You also can help kids with this, by parsing the text (dividing the sentences up so the student can see where to pause). Of course, if the students are as low as you say, then supplementing this work with high quality explicit decoding instruction makes sense, too.

What Are your thoughts?

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A Question on Text Complexity


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