Complex Text for Beginning Readers... Good Idea or Not?

  • beginning reading text complexity
  • 29 June, 2019

Teacher question:

I know you get a lot of pushback from teachers when you say that we should teach with complex text. But I agree with you. I don’t like all the testing and teaching kids in so many different books. This might surprise you, but I wonder why you don’t emphasize teaching complex text with children in kindergarten and first-grade?

Shanahan responds:

Many states have adopted educational standards that emphasize teaching students to read texts at particular levels of difficulty.

This approach was long eschewed in fear that it would frustrate students. The claim has been that if kids were taught from texts beyond their instructional level (in other words texts that they couldn’t already read with 95% oral reading accuracy and 75% comprehension) that learning wasn’t possible. 

Research has repeatedly shown that not to be the case, however, and states have finally set text level targets that students should try to reach. 

However, no state has set such text requirements in grades K-1.

One of the reasons for this wise omission is because beginning readers need to learn to decode.

Recently I asked my three-year-old grand-daughter why she couldn’t read, and her response was, “I don’t know the words.”

That in a nutshell is the beginning reader’s greatest task…. figuring out how to the read the words.

According to the National Reading Panel and the National Early Literacy Panel, explicit phonics instruction is a big help in surmounting that hurdle. But research also suggests the importance of the words in those early reading books. Texts that include lots of word repetition, spelling redundancy, and conceptual familiarity appear to be facilitative of “code cracking” progress.

Ramping up text difficulty in Kindergarten and Grade 1 would mainly mean using rarer words, repeating them less often, and obscuring the consistency of their spelling patterns. That means making the texts more difficult to read (lower comprehension) AND impeding student learning progress (slowing the students’ grasp of decoding).

Research shows a different pattern with second-graders. Making instructional texts more challenging does interfere with comprehension. But—and here is the important point—it doesn’t make those books harder to learn from. In fact, studies show just the opposite. The increased difficulty provides greater opportunities to learn.

Educators have long confounded the role text plays in comprehension and in learning to read.

They’ve assumed that students needed to comprehend texts easily if they were to learn to read from them. Research has not supported that idea.

Comprehensibility and “learnabilty” are different concepts, at least when it comes to reading in Grades 2 and up.

It makes great sense for students to comprehend the texts they are working with at school, but such comprehensibility is not the starting point. In order to learn from text, one doesn’t have to start out comprehending. Comprehension does not have to happen without diligent effort and support.

It would be shrewder to think of instructional level not as the “price of admission” but as our instructional goal. That means we could work with texts that students cannot read comprehension well, but by the time we finish they’d be able to read them with at least 95% accuracy and 75% comprehension. 

We should treat beginning readers differently that we do older readers when it comes to beginning text.

By all means, read wonderfully complex books with sophisticated vocabulary to kids in kindergarten and grade one, but keep the words familiar, simple, and repetitive with the books they are to read themselves.

Sending kids to second grade with solid decoding skills and rich oral vocabularies will give them the foundation they’ll need to be able to learn from books that are beyond their instructional level when they are no longer beginners.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Shawn Slakk Jul 07, 2019 08:22 PM

Real texts with proper support is always the best choice. Yes, decoding is important, but growth, affirmation and discussion of the text is also important. Kids like to have fun, big, fancy words. Complex texts can be chunked, discussed and worked with for comprehension. If they get too heavy, let them know that that happens to adults and good readers too and show them how to work through it!

Marilyn Jun 30, 2019 12:51 AM

I totally agree with you that students need to learn first to decode. We certainly can read complex texts to them and enrich oral vocabulary but they first must learn the foundational skills that will allow them decode words they may already know. As a reading specialists, I can tell you that I see far too many older students who missed those foundation skills and are unable to decode words they should read with ease.

Hanora Broderick Jun 30, 2019 02:46 AM

If we confine young children to their lexile level we doom the struggling reader to a narrow world with narrow ideas, information and possibilities. What a child can decode and what she can learn can be worlds apart. That's ok. Teachers shouldn't become anxious that a struggling decoder is somehow a struggling thinker. That's not true. Teach them poetry, history, politics, geography and how to communicate an opinion. Don't make them wait to see, explore and question the world until their decoding skills are just right. Too many opportunities will be lost.

Sara Jun 30, 2019 10:24 AM

What about older students in 3rd-5th grades who have not learned to decode? Our school has a separate reading intervention time that we use to pull students for explicit phonics instruction if they are a BR because they have not learned to decode words. These older students are getting grade level instruction during their regular reading block. I am referring to 3rd-5th grade students in reg ed and students with learning disabilities (like a processing disorder). Do you think we are in the right track?

Miriam Giskin Jun 30, 2019 01:30 PM

I taught second grade for ten years and saw this in practice all the time. This thinking also relieves the decodables versus leveled readers war I have witnessed in my role as a Reading Teacher. What the child needs when they need it should be our mantra, plus the expectation that comprehension takes effort.

Deb Dunn Jun 30, 2019 04:43 PM

I think this is the most important sentence of all: "By all means, read wonderfully complex books with sophisticated vocabulary to kids in kindergarten and grade one, but keep the words familiar, simple, and repetitive with the books they are to read themselves." It is never too early to teach and expose children to sophisticated vocabulary and ideas, engaging them in conversation about them, and helping them making connections to their own world and lives. But in order to help them learn to read independently we need to offer them predictable, patterned texts with explicit instruction and scaffolding if they aren't learning to read by "osmosis" (i.e the phenomena of some children "naturally" learning how to read, as if their brains just soak it up and don't seem to need explicit instruction. Every now and then I come across young children that can do this).

Richard Gentry Jun 30, 2019 04:59 PM

Understanding the science of reading based on research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience brings a good bit of clarity to questions raised in this post. As Tim points out literally hundreds of studies support that word reading is the best predictor of reading proficiency. Researcher Linnea Ehri’s guidance for tracking beginners through five phases of word reading and decoding leading to automatic word reading which perfectly align with Gentry’s encoding phases of invented spelling demonstrate the outcomes of developing reading and spelling brain circuitry expected to be in place by the end of first grade. By end of first grade we should see the advent of a consolidated-automatic-alphabetic word reading and spelling phase. The move from Phase 3 (typically first half of first grade) to Phase 4 is a move from slow and laborious word reading and spelling to automatic use of consolidated chunks of phonics patterns along with automatic word reading and spelling which reduces the memory load and enables comprehension. Indeed there should be instructional differences in what we do in K-1 when the brain circuitry for reading and writing are being developed and for instruction in grades 2 and beyond when foundational reading circuitry should already be in place.

So the Phase 4 first grader who reads Level F Big Wheels at Work in the second half of first grade is learning to read and reading to learn simultaneously even as he engages in deep levels of comprehension. On pages 4 and 5 he reads: “Here is a backhoe. Deep groves in the tires help it grip the earth. It has a strong arm that can dig a hole or tear down a building.” (Haneray, 2013 used with permission) Then he turns the page and reads about a wheel loader. His brain’s word form area benefits from automatically reactivating sight words back, deep, it, along with -ack, -eep, -it, and -ip beginning reading chunks. He may learn new rarely spoken vocabulary such as grip and groove. Upon turning the page he learns how the backhoe compares to a wheel loader engaging in comparison and contrast for comprehension.

So to the teacher who posed the question about teaching in K-1 with complex text: Don’t worry! For beginning readers in K-1 well selected leveled texts offer plenty of fodder for comprehension and learning. (Adapted from Brain Words: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching, Gentry & Ouellette, Stenhouse, 2019)

Patrick Manyak Jul 01, 2019 01:41 AM

I definitely appreciate Tim's response. In terms of texts for beginning readers (K-1), I know that research on decodable vs. predictable books has produced mixed results, but I have long been impressed by Juel & Roper-Schneider's study from 1985. Here are the key points of the study:

• All district teachers provided the same 20-30 minute phonics supplemental instruction
• Classes then used one of two different basals – one decodable (regular words clustered, repeated, presented to emphasize regularity) the other with an emphasis on frequent words
• By Nov of 1st grade: decodable kids were better decoders & showed greater reliance on letter-sound relations, extending beyond those taught; the students using the "frequent word" readers were identifying words more on visual appearance
• End of 1st – decodable kids were far better reading novel words; the frequency reader kids often appeared to abandon phonics strategies when attempting to read words.

The authors concluded: “Emphasis on a phonics method seems to make little sense if children are given initial texts to read where the words do not follow regular letter-sound correspondence generalizations. Results of the current study suggest that the types of words which appear in beginning reading texts may well exert a more powerful influence in shaping children’s word identification strategies than the method of reading instruction.”

To me, this is pretty powerful stuff, even if later studies produced varying findings. I believe that we simply aren't "using all the best tools" in terms of teaching beginning reading if decodable texts that allow students to apply their growing phonics knowledge aren't at least a healthy part of the K-1 reading diet. I received a full set of the WRIGHT SKILLS DECODABLE READERS from the publisher out of the blue years ago. My two kids took their first steps into reading using these books, and they were great! I have loaned them to primary/SPED teachers at each of my wife's schools over the years and they have found them indispensable. If you can get your hands on them, do! I also happened to receive samples of a new set of decodables from the Great Minds organization. The match the Wilson Fundations phonics sequence and are crafted to be engaging and content rich. They looked very good to me. Check them out at...

Tim Shanahan Jul 01, 2019 02:34 AM


Beginning reading is beginning reading. If a 5th grader reads like a kindergartner or first grader, then I would definitely use beginning reading texts and work on decoding. However if that child could read like a beginning second grader, then I’d ramp up the text difficulty including using grade level texts.


Valerie Chernek Jul 09, 2019 03:52 PM

Mr. Shanahan... Love the discussion and bringing awareness to new ways of thinking.

Sheria Hall Feb 02, 2020 01:48 PM

Mr. Shanahan,

I am all in for students being introduced to complex text in Kindergarten, my question - Should they be writing paragraphs with a focus statement, detailed support sentences and a conclusion at this level?

Karen Phillips-Banks Jul 28, 2022 05:22 AM

I am in total agreement with your article. It would be futile to attempt to teach a child to read from complex text when they are not able to read the words.
I do, however, have a question. In this article, you mentioned that ramping up text difficulty in Kindergarten and First Grade would impede student learning progress and that research shows a different pattern for Second-Graders. However, as a Second-Grade teacher, I have students who read on a Kindergarten or First Grade level, therefore ramping up text difficulty for them would impede their learning progress as well. Therefore, where you mention students in terms of grade-level, (e.g. Second-Graders), in the context of this article, shouldn't we consider our students in terms of their instructional levels (e.g., students reading on Kindergarten Level; students reading on Second-Grade Level)?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 28, 2022 12:34 PM


The research has not separated out second-graders who are on-level from those who are behind. Nevertheless, if my students had not developed basic decoding skills by second grade, i would definitely make that the priority -- which would not only involve heightened emphasis on explicit targeted phonemic awareness and phonics instruction but I would stay to texts that were decodable and those with controlled vocabulary. Dealing with other complexities of text would not be the major issue with such students.


Michelle Jun 22, 2023 09:39 PM

Glad I stumbled across this blog post. I recently attended a conference where text complexity was a major focus of improve outcomes for students, but the examples provided were all grade 3+ and I wondered what this meant for me as a 1st grade teacher. Thank you for including that we should be using complex text as a read aloud and for oral language development while still having a primary focus on decoding skills.

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Complex Text for Beginning Readers... Good Idea or Not?


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