Don't Confuse Reading Comprehension and Learning to Read -- Rereading

  • rereading reading comprehension
  • 07 May, 2022

Teacher question:

You say that we should teach students to read with grade level texts. But my professor (I’m working on a master’s degree in reading) says that would be a big mistake since harder texts have been found to lower students’ fluency and comprehension (Amendum, Conradi, & Hiebert, 2017). Your research says one thing and his says something else. How can I sort this out? I kind of think that he is right since my students don’t read as well when I put them in the grade level books.

Shanahan response:

This is an easy question to answer: I’m right and your professor is wrong. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!

That didn’t convince you? Well, let’s try again.

The correct answer to your question depends on what your purpose is.

Your professor (and the research study he cited) are focused on how well students can read a text. They are correct – students generally don’t read harder texts as well as simpler ones. That means that if your goal is to ensure students read a particular text well – fluently and with high comprehension – then place the students in those easier texts.

However, ensuring a strong reading performance with a particular text is rarely a teacher’s goal. The point of lessons isn’t to demonstrate how well students can already read a text.

No, lessons are supposed to help kids improve their reading ability. That’s a very different thing.

Your professor is confusing reading comprehension and learning to read. Research shows that students read simpler texts better, but it doesn’t show such reading to be particularly powerful in making students into better readers.

In fact, the research shows just the opposite (Shanahan, 2020).

More complex texts provide students with an opportunity to learn – to learn the unknown words, to learn how to untangle the complex syntax, to learn to track the subtle connections across a text, and so on. If students can already read texts reasonably well (95% fluency, 75% reading comprehension), there isn’t much for them to learn from those texts.

The article that you cited recognizes the difference. “If we give students more complex texts without any support, we are unlikely to see the benefits... Specifically, we draw attention to the importance of scaffolds and instructional supports to assist students as they read more challenging texts” (Amendum, Conradi, & Hiebert, 2017, p. 146).

In other words, they are saying that you can’t just dump hard texts into your classroom and expect to see reading gains.

Don’t avoid complex texts – teach students to read them.

How to do that? There are many scaffolds and instructional routines that have a basis in research (there are several blogs, articles, and PowerPoints about that on this site) but let’s take a quick look at one easy to use support that really helps.

There is a surprising amount of research that explores the impact of rereading and usually with positive results. When understanding doesn’t come automatically from a single read, it makes great sense to devote some time to rereading.

What might you expect with a second reading?

  • Improved reading fluency with lower reading times, fewer regressions, and a greater depth of comprehension (Xue, Jacobs, & Lüdtke, 2020)
  • Comprehension improvement especially for low comprehenders and students with low working memory (Griffin, Wiley, & Thiede, 2008)
  • Incorporation of more information into students’ text memory – particularly causally connected information (Millis & King, 2001)
  • Improved literary appreciation (Kuijpers & Hakemulder, 2018)
  • Improved metacomprehension (Rawson, Dunlosky, & Theide, 2000)
  • Improved integration between text and graphics (Mason, Tornatora, & Pluchino, 2015)
  • Readers perceive the text as being easier to understand (Margolin & Snyder, 2018)

Having students reread texts or parts of texts can improve student reading performance. But even rereading benefits from instructional guidance.

The study that found greater attention to causal connections (Millis & King, 2001) found this to be true with both good and poor readers, but the impacts were greatest with the better readers. Good readers had a clearer idea of the kinds of information to seek when they reread. Teaching students to look causal connections, including signal words (e.g., because, so, so that, if… then, consequently), would make sense.

Lack of that kind of instruction may be why some studies report no benefits from rereading (Callender, et al., 2009) or that rereading is less effective than other more intentional study approaches (Weinstein, McDermott, & Roediger, 2010).

One interesting study with elementary students found that reading and rereading had no impact on reading comprehension. But reading-retelling-rereading was effective (Koskinen, Gambrell & Kapinus, 1989). Perhaps the retelling step sensitized the students to what they were missing, which made the rereading more purposeful. Another study successfully guided fourth graders to reread specific parts of the text with positive results (Bossert & Schwantes, 1995).

In any event, rereading has the power to transform a difficult read into an easier one and learning to make sense of texts that one can’t already read easily is at the heart of successful reading instruction.

Tell your professor that!


Amendum, S.J., Conradi, K., & Hiebert, E. (2017). Does text complexity matter in the elementary grades? A research synthesis of text difficulty and elementary students’ reading fluency and comprehension. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 121-151.

Bossert, T. S., & Schwantes, F. M. (1995). Children's comprehension monitoring: Training children to use rereading to aid comprehension. Reading Research and Instruction, 35(2), 109-121. doi:

Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 30-41. doi:

Griffin, T. D., Wiley, J., & Thiede, K. W. (2008). Individual differences, rereading, and self-explanation: Concurrent processing and cue validity as constraints on metacomprehension accuracy. Memory & Cognition, 36(1), 93-103. doi:

Koskinen, P. S., Gambrell, L. B., & Kapinus, B. A. (1989). The effects of rereading and retelling upon young children's reading comprehension. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 38, 233-239.

Kuijpers, M. M., & Hakemulder, F. (2018). Understanding and appreciating literary texts through rereading. Discourse Processes, 55(7), 619-641. doi:

Margolin, S. J., & Snyder, N. (2018). It may not be that difficult the second time around: The effects of rereading on the comprehension and metacomprehension of negated text. Journal of Research in Reading, 41(2), 392-402. doi:

Mason, L., Tornatora, M. C., & Pluchino, P. (2015). Integrative processing of verbal and graphical information during re-reading predicts learning from illustrated text: An eye-movement study. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28(6), 851-872. doi:

Millis, K. K., & King, A. (2001). Rereading strategically: The influences of comprehension ability and a prior reading on the memory for expository text. Reading Psychology, 22(1), 41-65. doi:

Rawson, K. A., Dunlosky, J., & Theide, K. W. (2000). The rereading effect: Metacomprehension accuracy improves across reading trials. Memory & Cognition, 28(6), 1004–1010.

Shanahan, T. (2020). Limiting children to books they can already read. American Educator, 44(2), 13-17, 39.

Weinstein, Y., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2010). A comparison of study strategies for passages: Rereading, answering questions, and generating questions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(3), 308-316. doi:

Xue, S., Jacobs, A. M., & Lüdtke, J. (2020). What is the difference? rereading Shakespeare’s sonnets—An eye tracking study. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 14. doi:


See what others have to say about this topic.

Harriett Janetos May 07, 2022 05:55 PM

Thanks, Tim, for this very useful information which confirms my experiences teaching third graders. I recently came across a video on PALS (peer assisted learning strategies), which incorporates rereading and retelling. It's a program out of Vanderbilt. I'm wondering whether you've heard about it and have any specific recommendations related to it. My understanding is that the chosen reading passage for the peers to read together is at the 'instructional level' of the academically weaker student, but I can see value in doing this activity with grade-level material. What are your thoughts?

"With PALS, every student in the class is paired, and each pair consists of one student who is academically stronger than the other. PALS sessions vary from 20 to 45 minutes in duration 2 to 4 times a week. During these sessions, the students in a pair take turns as tutor and tutee while working on structured activities that introduce grade-relevant skills and hones in on the difficulties each pair of students may be experiencing. The pairing creates 10 to 15 instructional experiences in a given classroom."

Tracy Martin May 07, 2022 05:52 PM

One additional challenge with improving the learner's reading comprehension is increasing their mental stamina for reading challenging text. Are you able to provide any suggestions for developing their mental stamina when engaging the challenging text?

Wilma D. Salas May 07, 2022 06:12 PM

Hello. It was a great experience of learning journey readibg your response to thus particular question concerning the grade level texts and improving reader's fluency and comlrehension. Relative to your rrsponse, I would like to ask how do teachers determine whether a text is a complex one? Will it be correct to first consider the reading ability of the readers in determining whether a text is complex or not?

Timothy Shanahan May 07, 2022 06:46 PM


Yeah, PALS is good (as are similar routines). Personally, when I have kids reading to each other as partners, I supervise it -- cruising among the pairs. I think that works best and allows the teacher to adjust texts accordingly (if a kid is being overwhelmed by a text, you can make and adjustment). No question that the further the teacher is from the student, the less benefit to a placement in more challenging text. I'd probably go a bit harder at third grade than they recommend -- try dropping back to 90% accuracy on a cold read and see how that works. I think you'll get more learning without more frustration on the part of the kids. You might be able to go harder than that, but probably not very much (85%??). With younger kids (K-1), I definitely would not go that hard because of the need for a decoding focus.



Timothy Shanahan May 07, 2022 06:54 PM


Indeed, difficulty and length multiply each other... hanging for an especially hard read is not bad for a short period, but may be too much for a long period. How to build stamina? Do the same kinds of things that I've recommended above but do in short doses (think in pages or numbers of word to be read). Start out with short texts or short pieces of text -- could be as short as a single sentence. When students show they can read the short piece well and maintain stamina, start increasing the length... 1 sentence, 2 sentences, 1 paragraph, 2 paragraphs, 25 words, 40 words, 70 words... keep doing that kind of exercise, stretching kids out for longer reads. Question them closely to make sure they are really reading it well. Don't make it a straight climb up... do 2-3 harder or longer reads, then drop back to some easier ones, and then ramp it up.


Timothy Shanahan May 07, 2022 07:08 PM

Difficulty and complexity are different but related concepts. Difficulty has to do with how hard someone finds a text to be (as measured by how well they comprehended, how long it took them to read, or their own self judgment). Complexity has to do with a series of continua that exist across texts... vocabulary varies in terms of how common the words are, how abstract they are, their numbers of potential meanings, whether the words are in embedded in idiomatic expressions, etc.; syntax varies in terms of how long and complicated the sentences are, the amount of embedding, etc. We can go through that for pretty much every feature of text: cohesion, organization, relationship of text to graphics, including the content -- depth, level of detail, explicitness of the content.
More complexity overall tends to increase difficulty -- but that is not always the case. Fifth grade books are more complex than 2nd grade books and yet at your reading level, switching from one to the other is not a problem. Similarly, a student might find a book on a familiar topic to be quite readable, even if similarly complex texts on less familiar topics would not be.
I usually depend on readability formulas, like Lexiles, to give me a rough sense of the relative difficulty of a text. That will provide a reasonable approximation -- this text may be a little hard for 2nd graders. I'll give it a read myself looking to see what the potential barriers to understanding (those complexity features). That way I can focus some instruction on those features (or at least some comprehension questions to see which ones are problematic for my students).

In the example in this blog entry, I am really just looking for text difficult -- for these students -- since the way I'm going to try to get them to deal with the features isn't through direct feature instruction but through rereading. I only needed a text hard enough that my students wouldn't do well with it on a first read.


Taylor May 07, 2022 07:46 PM

Something else to think about also is how hard is too hard for a student? Frustrating texts, more frequently than not, are going to cause students to become frustrated and feel demoralized. Disengaging the learner like that is devastating to reading instruction.

Timothy Shanahan May 07, 2022 07:49 PM


That has been claimed for a long time, but research hasn't been able to find that kind of disaffection. In fact, placing kids in texts that we would have said would be frustrating are improving kids reading better than the easier texts. The idea that harder means frustrating, just isn't true.


Kay Stahl May 08, 2022 04:40 AM

It is disappointing to me that this research is not more widely touted in teacher education, professional development, and among district curriculum decision makers. I visit many schools who use the workshop model or Fountas & Pinnell Guided Reading protocols that limit students’ reading to their “instructional level.” Many schools have totally abandoned the shared reading of rich, complex texts. When they do a shared reading of challenging text, it is often a short “close reading” exercise that is isolated from broader knowledge building or wrestling with complex issues. Thanks for explaining this so clearly with good examples. Hopefully, your broad influence will move the needle a bit on this issue.

Dr. William Conrad May 08, 2022 04:48 AM

How does this article inform the Balanced Reading Approach (aka Fountas and Pinnell) to learning to read? Balanced Reading is based on a theory of action that students can improve their reading ability and comprehension through an exposure to increasing levels of text complexity. In my view Balanced Reading is based on a failed theory of action that reading ability can be acquired in the same way that oral language is acquired through increased exposure. As you argue, reading must be taught. As Chomsky argues the ability to acquire oral language is hard-wired in the brain and requires minimal exposure to be acquired. Reading is different. It must be explicitly taught. What are your thoughts? Have you read The Fog of Education?

Timothy Shanahan May 08, 2022 06:47 PM

William --
For 150 years, reading educators have claimed that students had to read texts that they could read easily if they were to learn to read. For the past 70 years, the advice has been much more pointed-- with claims that there were particular ways to match kids to books that somehow improved reading achievement... Fountas & Pinnell's version of Guided Reading is a popular example of that. Over the past couple of decades, however, research has been accumulating that suggests that students (Grades 2-12) make greater learning progress when they work with relatively harder texts. Teaching kids with texts that they can read with 95% word reading accuracy and 75-89% reading comprehension on a cold read with no assistance simply gives them too little opportunity to figure anything out that would help them read better. My point here is that if teachers are going to follow the research -- and they should -- they should worry less about how well kids read on a first swing, and how they can help kids to improve on a second (figuring out what stumped you the first time contributes more to learning).


Taylor May 09, 2022 12:25 PM


A reply to you from my earlier comment(Sorry I cannot directly reply on the thread!). I'm talking texts that are <90% and below for students to decode are too hard. Is this what you're referring to also that research is saying is okay for students to work on? It's been my own personal experience as a reading specialist that typically when students are given these too hard texts to try they want to just put them down.


Timothy Shanahan May 09, 2022 01:11 PM

Research studies have found that the kids who make the greatest learning gains in reading are working with texts that are considerably harder than that (80-85%). I don't believe that a particular level of difficulty will consistently result in the most learning, but suspect that the critical ratio is the difficulty of the text to the amount of support that teachers provide. The harder the text, the more instructional support that is necessary (rereading is one of those supports -- vocabulary instruction is another). Except with beginning readers, there is no good reason to protect kids from harder texts unless you expect the kids to do this reading on their own. Otherwise putting kids in easy texts limits the amount they can learn from that text.

paul worthington May 09, 2022 03:53 PM


Just curious. Clearly there are individuals differences in childrens abilities to comprehend just as there are in learning to read (i.e. phonemic awareness, etc.). Are you aware of anybody having tackled the question, "at a basic brain level what is to language comprehension that phonemic awareness is to decoding"? Said differently, what is the neurological code of comprehension that separates good comprehenders from tose who struggle to comprehend? I see many kids who haver excellent decoding skills and average or above vocabulary, no ADD/ADHD, who are not in an impoverished home or school environments, yet have seriously impaired oral and written language comprehension.

Timothy Shanahan May 09, 2022 05:16 PM


I do not, but that is not surprising. For most of the history of those kinds of neurological study, they were only able to see what was going on during the reading of a single word (yes, most of the neurological study of reading is not reading in the sense of reading text but of reading single words). They can now do a bit better than that and we are seeing some studies of certain aspects of grammar, etc. It will likely be awhile before that kind of research will be the source of exciting hypotheses.


Jace May 09, 2022 07:16 PM

It's just like physical exercise. Any given exercise is always hard at first but once done over but not repetively the growth of the muscle and the reason for exercise becomes clearer and has better outcomes of growth.

Tricia Christopher May 13, 2022 03:19 PM

My question is not of particular intellectual challenge. Where can I retrieve a copy of the vintage-looking graphic of the woman reading - shown at the beginning of the blog? It reminds me of my mother when she was young, and she was an avid reader. I'd like to frame it and put it on my porch.

Thank you.

Sana Golemgeske Jun 28, 2022 09:31 PM

Rereading, or more specifically repeated readings, is something many of my students balk at. We already read that... Do you have any suggestions on how to model rereading especially for struggling readers? Any suggestions for strategies to each them in an intervention setting that would support what they might encounter in a content area class at grade level?

Timothy Shanahan Jul 02, 2022 08:44 PM


There are two reasons to reread: (1) repeated reading refers to orally rereading text, this is done to develop fluency -- the ability to read text accurately, with automaticity, and with the ability to do some first level interpretation of a text, such as pausing in the meaningful places; and (2) to provide a deeper interpretation of a text (to identify information that wasn't noticed or appreciated the first time around). Depending on your students' needs either or both of those purposes may come into play.

For the second one of these, it is important that the texts be demanding enough that students will benefit from rereading (benefit in the sense of improving their comprehension). That means more demanding texts and more incisive questioning.


What Are your thoughts?

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Don't Confuse Reading Comprehension and Learning to Read -- Rereading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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