How Can I Teach with Books that are Two Years Above Student Reading Levels?

  • challenging text
  • 02 February, 2013

Blast from the past: Originally posted February 2, 2013; re-issued October 26, 2017. I have gotten similar questions the past few days so thought it a good idea to reissue this one. Teachers keep telling me that the education standards don't mean that kids should be asked to read texts above their instructional levels. I worked on the education standards, and, indeed, they do mean that kids should be learning to take on the complexities of texts that may be beyond their so-called instructional levels. This entry provides some suggestions on how to make this work.

Teacher question:
I teach 4th-grade general education. I have read several of your articles the last few days because I have a growing frustration regarding guided reading. I believe a lot of your ideas about what does not work are correct, but I don't understand what you believe we SHOULD be doing. I am confused about how to give students difficult textbooks to read without reading it to them. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I do not know how to scaffold science or social studies text for students that are 2 years behind without reading it to them. I also feel pressure in these subjects to read it to them because I thought it was more important for them to understand the information thoroughly by reading the text aloud, having thoughtful discussions, and follow up activities. Every time I think I know what I should be doing, I read another article and realize that I am doing that wrong too. So, please give me guidance on how to best teach nonfiction and fiction text to my class whole group. What strategies and types of activities are the best?

Shanahan response:

I feel your pain. What would it look like to scaffold a fourth-grade lesson from a social studies book with children reading at what formerly we would have referred to as a second-grade level? I think there are a number of possibilities.

First, I would “level” (pun intended) with the kids. That is, I would not try to hide from them that I was going to ask them to read a book that we would in the past have said was too hard for them. The point here is motivation. People like a challenge and kids are people. When you ask them to take on something really hard, let them in on the secret so they know to be proud of themselves when they meet the challenge.

Second, and here I have to be a bit experimental, trying some choices that might turn out not to work—or, more likely, that turns out to be not as efficient as some of the other choices. My first attempt would be to read the chapter we were going to work with, trying to identify anything that might trip the kids up: specific ideas that I thought were especially complicated or subtle or abstract, key background information that they might not know yet, essential vocabulary, sentences that might confuse, cohesive links among the words that could be hard to track, organizational structure that might require highlighting, and so on. Basically, what makes this text hard to comprehend? With that information, I would now make a decision: is the difficulty something to be prevented or monitored?

Sometimes, I will think that a problem is so big that I must get out in front of it. If there is something that you are certain the kids can’t figure out that might discourage them or that wouldn’t be worth the time, then, by all means, intervene early. If I think the key to understanding this page is a particular vocabulary word, I very well might explain that word before having the kids attempt the page. But often, I would rather have the students give it a try; there is nothing wrong with trying something and failing the first time. I can monitor their success with questions aimed at revealing whether they got that point or not, and I can follow up with assistance. So, if the students don't connect a particular concept and process appropriately because of a confusing cohesive link (like not recognizing that “it” referred to the planentary ring and not gravity), I will get the kids involved in trying to connect the various references throughout the text.

Third, the scaffolding described above will likely require some rereading—either of the whole chapter (fourth-grade science and social studies chapters are surprisingly short, so rereading the entire chapter is usually not that big a deal). Thus, they try to read it; I question them and help them work through the problems; and then they reread it (perhaps more than once), to see if they can figure it out the second or third time.

Fourth, let’s say I have tried that and the process has been really slow and labored or the kids are being tripped up, not by the ideas, but by their struggle to recognize and read the words. If this is the case, before I even get to the reading and scaffolding and rereading described above, I would have the students do fluency work. For example, I would have the students mumble read the text (or a part of the text) at their desks. Or, I would partner them up and have them engage in paired reading, take turns reading one page aloud to their partner, and then listen and helping as the partner tries the next page. That kind of oral reading practice with repetition can be a big help in raising the students’ ability to work with that text. Once they have read it like that once or twice, you’d be surprised at how much better they can read it for comprehension. Thus, they would then be ready for step two above. As I said, you have to be experimental—trying out different combinations and orders of fluency work, reading, scaffolding, and rereading.

This can be painstaking. But, in the end, the students will have read the material that formerly you would have protected them from. They will have both the science or social studies knowledge, but it will have come about because of their own interactions with the text, rather than because you read it to them or told them what it said. By engaging in such efforts (and this is a real effort—it involves a lot of teacher planning, modeling, explaining, etc.), the students become better able to handle harder text than they could at the start. Over time they build the strength to handle more challenging language with less teacher guidance.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Judith Morais Jun 19, 2017 11:28 PM


Thank you for bridging the gap between the countless generalised discussions on how to address literacy development and the needs of the teacher in the classroom. My ESL students are older teenagers with just 2 to 6 months of english who, as refugees etc are keen to move into grades 9 and 10 as soon as possible. Here's what I do to develop their content literacy
1. Always model, demonstrate, show a video etc to learn about the topic first and highlight vocabulary etc this way. (As Shahanan as pointed out, it is important to identify the inaccessible parts of the text before introducing students to it)
2. We read texts in small chunks and ensure they are not just empty words, but that students can recognise the meaning. One way to do this is to fill in concept maps as we read.
3. Our texts are always reread at least 3 times within the week, each time with a different focus and with less teacher direction.
My ESL programme must run in a 9 week cycle with students ideally moving on to the next level within the term. I have found this broad strategy ensures students' literacy levels do improve dramatically.

Patrice Bucci Jun 19, 2017 11:29 PM


Mr. Shanahan, I have been following your work for years and have benefited greatly from your insight into the area of teaching reading. As a Title I Reading specialist who has worked with countless struggling readers over the years, much of my work included mentoring the classroom teachers of these children, and cautioning them about putting these students in texts that are too hard. Since the Common Core's arrival many of us have been wondering just how to make grade level and exemplar text accessible to this population of students. I understand that these kids need to have access to grade level text, high quality literature and enhance vocabulary instruction. I understand your suggestions as to how to do this. The problem as I see it is that many classroom teachers do not have the luxury of what you suggest, the " sweet work of slow reading "( ASCD). Too often teachers are pressured to move students through curriculum, because principals with Ipad apps are checking off their movement through pacing guides. Teacher evaluations linked to standardized test add additional pressure to hurry through curriculum so that time can be spent practicing for high stakes testing. My question is, how to encourage ALL the stakeholders to promote the kind of reading instruction you are suggesting?
And finally, after reading Samuels/Farstrups work on Researched Based Reading Instruction, we have to be mindful of the background knowledge and the hierarchical knowledge needed to engage with this kind instruction...we seem to have lost sight of this important idea. We need rich, intentional, responsive teaching, not basal reading program scripts, we need lots of instructional conversation, not quiet classrooms, we need engaging texts , not excerpts from great literature, we need the luxury of time in order to do all this. I have loved your work, and I hope that you resist the mantle of CCSS supporter if it means you have to push an agenda in absolute terms... please...remember these are little people whose literate lives depend on us.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 19, 2017 11:29 PM


One of the basic design principles of common core was "fewer, bigger, better." That is, instead of having teachers focused on large numbers of standards of uneven size, these standards focus on major outcomes only. For that reason, I have come out against the use of pacing guides of the type you note. Also, I have defended the use of background information to prepare students to read certain texts--but am against the kind of mindless ritual preparation it has devolved into (when students are lacking key background, by all means provide it, but often that is not the issue so turn your attention to what is actually missing in a given case).

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How Can I Teach with Books that are Two Years Above Student Reading Levels?


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