Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text

  • amount of instruction text complexity
  • 26 June, 2016

Blast from the Past: This entry posted on June 26, 2016, and was re-posted on January 31, 2018. Since this entry was first posted several states have backed out of their commitments to see that kids are taught to read more complex text than in the past. I certainly understand their fear of having to tell teachers that teaching children to read at "their levels" is not such a good idea for the kids. It makes teaching easier admittedly because it means you don't have to teach very much. But what is easier for the teacher is a rip off of the kids. This week working on these issues with a group of educators who are seeing this as an equity issue--because poverty kids, minority kids, second language are usually taught with easier texts than the majority kids get to read. We can do better.

Last week I pointed out that from grades 2-12 it wasn’t necessary to match students to text for instruction to proceed effectively. Research has not been kind to the idea of mechanical “instructional level” criteria like 90-95% accuracy (e.g., Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977;  Kuhn, Schwanenflugel, Morris, Morrow, et al., 2006; Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge, 2000; O’Connor, Swanson, & Geraghty, 2010;  Powell, & Dunkeld, 1971; Stahl, & Heubach, 2005;  Stanley, 1986).

Language learning doesn’t work that way.

That got lots of response, online and off. Some of it quite angry, too. Although I answered many queries and shout-outs, I thought a little more formal response this week might be in order. Here are some key ideas when thinking about teaching kids to read with more complex text than we might have dared to use in the past:

 1. No, an easier text is not more motivating.

Several respondents thought it only common sense that students would be frustrated by harder texts and stimulated by easier ones. I know that feeling. I shared it much of my career until I analyzed the evidence.

One thing researchers have found repeatedly is that student readers tend to select books at their frustration levels for independent reading (e.g., Donovan, Smolkin,  & Lomax, 2000). Of course, with really low readers, what else could they choose? But this appears to be the case for the better readers, too. I guess their curiosity about the content of the harder materials outweighs their fear of failure. Looking back, I did a lot of that kind of frustration level reading myself as a boy—not always fully understanding what I read, but learning much from the struggle.

Researchers thought students would lose motivation when reading harder texts (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013). Reality has been more complicated than that. Readers’ motivation does vary across a text reading—but the degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be the source of that variation.

And, the idea that we want students to be challenged, but not too much—they can miss some specific number of words, but only that number and no more—just hasn’t panned out. When learning and book placement have been studied there has usually been no connection at all or the harder placements have led to more learning (in other words, our relatively easy book matches may be holding kids back, preventing them from exposure to more challenging features of language and meaning).

If we are going to make these decisions based on our imaginings of how children must feel, then not only should we think of how frustrating it might be to struggle with a text that contains many words you don’t know, but we should consider how boring it must be to always deal with content aimed at younger kids who already can read as well you can.

2. No, not all texts need to be at an instructional level.

If one challenges the idea of placing kids in instructional level books to facilitate learning (e.g., guided reading, Accelerated Reader), why is the alternative to only place kids in frustration level texts? The idea that all reading should be at the instructional level is wrong in part because of the inherent notion that all reading experience should be at any particular level. Text difficulty should vary; kids should move across a range of texts from easy to difficult.

In the teaching of most skilled activities (e.g., foreign language, dancing, bicycle racing), the idea is not to protect the learners from harder applications of those skills, but to vary the routines between relatively easy challenges and those that scare and potentially embarrass the learner. If you have any doubt, go learn to do something.

3. No, text level is not the only feature of the learning situation that can be varied.

Not only should texts vary in difficulty, but the amount of help, guidance, explanation, and scaffolding ought to vary, too. When kids are placed in frustration level texts they need greater support than when they are reading instructional level or independent level texts—just the opposite of what many of our instructional routines provide.

I should intentionally place kids in easier or harder text and should add or withdraw support based upon need. When kids are in easy texts, the training wheels can be taken off. When they are in harder texts, as a teacher I need to be prepared to offer greater guidance and support. That means easier texts when reading with 30 kids, and harder texts—certainly beyond the normally prescribed levels—when I’m sitting closely with 6-8 kids and can monitor more closely and intervene more easily.

If your teaching skills are so limited that the only way to protect kids from failure is to keep them always in the shallow water, then so be it. But for most of us, there is a greater range of pedagogical response available that would allow kids to swim often in deeper water without drowning.

4. No, a more challenging text will not disrupt kids’ development of decoding skills.

I heard from some last week that if you placed kids in more challenging texts then they just guessed at words. That might be true if you were to do this with beginning readers, but grade 2 is not beginning reading. Kids should be placed in relatively easy texts initially (grades K-1), texts that have clearly decodable or consistent spelling patterns.

Then when they start taking on a greater range of texts—when they can read a second-grade text, you will usually not see that kind of guessing based only on context. In any event, whatever patterns of reading behavior are elicited by such challenging text matches at that point, they have not been found to slow kids’ reading development or to disrupt their growth in decoding ability from that point. In fact, O’Connor and her colleagues (2010) have not even found it to be an issue with our most struggling readers—those older learning-disabled students who might still be trying to master many of those beginning reading skills.

I understand the concerns and discomfort in putting kids in frustration level materials given all the reading authorities that have told you not to do that. But a careful review of that advice reveals a shocking neglect of studies of doing just that. No one, however, is saying just throw kids into hard text and hope they make it. One wouldn’t do that with beginning readers, and when kids are ready for such immersion tactics teachers have to teach—it isn’t like those routines where you hope the text is easy enough for kids to learn with a minimum of teacher help. And, finally, much learning comes from practice under varied levels of complication and difficulty—just because traditionally you were told all reading instruction should be at the instructional level doesn’t mean that when teaching with more complex text that you should aspire to such uniformity.


Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading.Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27,11-20.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Kuhn, M. R., Schwanenflugel, P. J., Morris, R. D., Morrow, L. M., Woo, D. G., Meisinger, E. B., Sevcik, R, A., Bradley, B. A., & Stahl, S. A. (2006). Teaching children to become fluent and automatic readers. Journal of Literacy Research, 38, 357-387.

Morgan, A., Wilcox, B. R., & Eldredge, J. L. (2000). Effect of difficulty levels on second-grade delayed readers using dyad reading. Journal of Educational Research, 94, 113-119.

O’Connor, R. E., Swanson, L. H., & Geraghty, C. (2010). Improvement in reading rate under independent and difficult text levels: Influences on word and comprehension skills. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 1-19.

Powell, W.R., & Dunkeld, C.G. (1971). Validity of the IRI reading levels. Elementary English, 48, 637-642.

Stahl, S. A., & Heubach, K. M. (2005). Fluency-oriented reading instruction. Journal of Literacy Research, 37, 25-60.

Stanley, N.V. (1986). A concurrent validity study of the emergent reading level. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Florida.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Dr. Dea Conrad-Currry Apr 06, 2017 05:22 PM

An anecdotal note of agreement...

A few years ago, I taught a group of tenth-grade struggling male readers. The class didn't begin as an all boy class, there were actually three girls in the class. And the class wasn't intended to be a struggler's class--random scheduling. Regardless, the only students making any progress were the girls. The boys were too busy preening and playing one-upmanship to gain female attention to concern themselves with reading. But I was given permission to make this class work for the boys. After switching the girls out (two boys for each girl) we got down to business. That is when honesty prevailed and I really learned the ability level and frankly, academic experience and worldliness of my boys.

Not one had ever read a book cover to cover. Many had been in the juvenile justice system. They had weak and often, inappropriate social skill. This was a class of young men with multiple issues. To make this long story short, I gave them a list of whole class novel possibilities and book talks on each one. They came to a consensus on "Holes." I paired that with a graduate-level published text on the nature of relationships among juvenile delinquents. Great success. They read whole class, in guided groups, and independently. They discussed the novel and the psych text--as they related to one another and how they reflected and were reflected in reality. They grew intellectually and personally.

After we finished with that "unit", they begged to read Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea (a required text in my tenth grade curriculum)--granted not a reading level that is challenging but a novel with complex ideas and moreover, not particularly engaging in terms of action and contemporary appeal. 6/27/16

Timothy Shanahan Apr 06, 2017 05:22 PM


I consider your story to be an example of teacher courage. I don't know that I would have been so brave, but congratulations to you (and to those young men) for your act of bravery. We've been so dedicated to protecting kids from embarrassment, that we have protected them from learning. Thanks for not doing that.

tim 6/27/16

BC Seely Apr 06, 2017 05:23 PM

I think support is the key word here. 6/27/16

Barbara Powers Feb 01, 2018 11:10 AM

One flaw I’ve observed (& since rectified) is that teachers often stop reading more difficult texts with students when they reach their “instructional levels” as published by the authors of these assessments. Too many times children are stopped and taught at this level, when in reality they frustrate at a much higher level. We now always find that ceiling so we can provide that scaffolded instruction at the higher level in small groups. Our data shows it makes the world of difference, and our students are excited about reading.

Jennifer Throndsen Feb 01, 2018 02:31 PM

We have actually been piloting a strategy in many of our schools to increase the rigor of the text students are engaging with. The results have been phenomenal. The strategy is called Dyad Reading. The basic idea is that you place students in grades 2 and up in text 2-3 grade levels about what they can read independently and strategically partner them with a more capable peer. The results have been phenomenal. One study showed an average of 213 Lexile gains after 95 days of implementation. The strategy takes 15 minutes a day--not sure we have any stronger instructional strategies that take so little time than Dyad Reading. I had another teacher email me last week that the average gain by middle of year was 247 Lexiles in her class. The best thing is not only is the striving reader making significant gains, but the stronger reader is, too--both partners are benefiting from the practice. Dr. Shanahan, your work around more complex text has been the encouragement we needed to do better for kids and this strategy is proving, again, that we underestimate kids and their ability to handle challenging text.

Lisa T Brown, PhD Feb 01, 2018 02:35 PM

I worked with Brad Wilcox to replicate the Morgan, Wilcox, Eldredge (2000) study and to explore the impact of paired oral reading with difficult text on lead readers and assisted readers. BOTH lead readers and the assisted readers in the study made statistically significant increases on all measures, reading from books two to four grade levels above the struggling reader's current reading level (Brown, L. T., Mohr, K. A. J., Wilcox, B. R., Barrett, T. S., 2017. The effects of dyad reading and text difficulty on third-graders’ reading achievement. The Journal of Educational Research.?DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2017.1310711). Providing students with peer support and giving them challenging text is not much more work for the teacher, after the initial setup of reading levels and partnerships. This peer-assisted experience provides struggling readers with positive social interactions in the context of reading; positive experiences with challenging text; and facilitates increases in word recognition, comprehension, and fluency. An important finding in this study is that lead readers also experience statistically significant growth while mentoring their peers. Paired oral reading is currently being used in schools throughout Utah through the efforts of the Utah State Board of Education Literacy group. Utah schools and after-school programs are having phenomenal success through using this method for 15 minutes a day and are seeing great gains in reading achievement for all students, particularly those in at-risk populations.

Tola Feb 02, 2018 01:22 AM

I think the real problem is that students are not supported with their reading of frustration level texts. Yes, let's read the hard stuff, but let's also teach kids how to read it. I think there is also a time and place for both. If it is a fast paced history class with lots of reading students may need a text at their level. If it is a whole class read, let's get challenged. We should never put all our eggs in one basket and we should honestly consider how we become good readers. We don't learn on a clear cut linear path.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

Further Explanation of Teaching Students with Challenging Text


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.