How Much Text Complexity Can a Teacher Scaffold?

  • text complexity challenging text
  • 13 May, 2015

Blast from the Past: This entry was first posted on May 13, 2015 and it was reposted on September 24, 2018. This question has been coming up again recently, so I took a look at my original answer. It is still pretty darn good. Older students have been telling me how much they hate working in what they call the “stupid books,” meaning books at their supposed reading levels that are below their levels of intellectual and social functioning. Despite claims by proponents of “guided reading” giving kids such a steady diet of easy-reading books is definitely not in their best interests.

Teacher question:

            How much of a "gap" can be compensated through differentiation? If my readers are at a 400 Lexile level, is there an effective way to use an 820-level chapter book? 

Shanahan response: 

            This is a great question. (Have you ever noticed that usually means the responder thinks he has an answer).

            For years, teachers were told that students had to be taught with books that matched their ability, or learning would be reduced. As a teacher I bought into those notions. I tested every one of my students with informal reading inventories, one-on-one, and then tried to orchestrate multiple groups with multiple book levels. This was prior to the availability of lots of short paperback books that had been computer scored for F & P levels or Lexiles, so, like most teachers at the time, I worked with various basal readers to make this work.

            However, a more recent careful look at the research shows me that studies are not finding any benefits from such matching. In fact, if one sets aside those studies that focused on children who were reading no higher than a Grade 1 level, then the only results supporting specific student-text matches are those arguing for placing students at what we would have traditionally called their frustration level. 

            Given this research and that so many state standards now require teachers to enable students to read more challenging texts in grades 2-12, teachers are going to need to learn to guide student reading with higher level text than in the past.

            Theoretically, there is no limit to how much of a gap can be scaffolded. Many studies have shown that teachers can facilitate student success with texts that students can read with only 80% accuracy and 50% comprehension, and I have no doubt, that with even more scaffolding, students could bridge even bigger gaps.

            I vividly remember reading a case study of Grace Fernald when I was in graduate school. She wrote about teaching a 13-year-old, a total non-reader, to read with an encyclopedia volume. That sounds crazy, but with a motivated student, and a highly skilled teacher, and a lot of one-on-one instructional time, without too many interruptions… it can work.

            But what is theoretically sound or possible under particularly supportive circumstances does not necessarily work in most classrooms.

            I have no doubt teachers can scaffold a couple of grade levels without too much difficulty. That is, the fifth-grade teacher working with a fifth-grade book can successfully bring along a student who reads at a third-grade level in most classrooms. But as you make the distance between student and book bigger than that, then I have to know a lot more about the teacher’s ability and resources to estimate whether it could be made to work.

           Nevertheless, by preteaching vocabulary, providing fluency practice, offering guidance in making sense of sentences and cohesion and text organization, requiring rereading, and so on, I have no doubt that teachers can successfully scaffold a student across a 300-400 Lexile gap--with solid learning. 

            But specifically, you ask about scaffolding a 400-Lexile reader to an 820-Lexile text. If you had asked about 500 to 920, I wouldn't hesitate: Yes, a teacher could successfully scaffold that gap. I’m more hesitant with the 400 level as the starting point. My reason for this is because 400 is a first-grade reading level. This would be a student who is still likely to be mastering basic decoding skills.

            I do not believe that shifting to more challenging text under those circumstances is such a good idea.

            To address this student’s needs, I would ramp up my phonics and spelling instruction (I want my students to encode the alphabetic system as well as decode it). I might increase the amount of reading he or she is expected to do with texts that highlight rather than obscure how the spelling system works (e.g., decodable text, linguistic text). I would increase work on high frequency words, and I would increase the amount of oral reading fluency work, too. I’d do all of these things.

            But I would not shift him/her to a harder book because of what needs to be mastered at beginning reading levels. We’ll eventually need to do that, but not until the foundations of decoding were more firmly in place. 

           An important thing to remember: no state standards raises the text demands for students in Kindergarten or Grade 1. They do not do this because they are giving students the opportunity to firmly master their basic decoding skills. It isn't the distance between 400 and 820 that concerns me--that kind of a distance can be bridged; but a 400-Lexile represents a limited degree of decoding proficiency, and so I wouldn't want to shift attention from achieving proficiency in reading those basic words.  



See what others have to say about this topic.

Ed Jun 13, 2017 02:23 AM


Hi Dr. Shanahan,

I've posted here about this before, but thought I'd chime in again since the topic seems to be continuing.

My main response is toward your general notion of the research surrounding teaching kids "at their level."

First, I think the way you're describing instructional/skill levels obfuscates the issue a bit. Instructional level, by definition, means the level at which a child can benefit from instruction, including with scaffolding. Frustrational, by definition, means the instruction won't work. Those levels, like the terms "reinforcement & punishment" for example, are defined by their outcomes, not intentions. If a child learned from the instruction, the instruction was on the child's "instructional" level.

Where we may be getting confused is that I think you actually are referring to teaching reading comprehension using material that is in a child's instructional level with comprehension, but on a child's frustrational level with reading fluency. This is a much different statement than what I think most teachers are getting from your messages about text complexity, to the point that I think they're making mistakes in terms of text selection.

More generally, I'd argue that there is copious research supporting using "instructional material" to teach various reading skills. Take, for example, all of the research supporting repeated readings. That intervention, by definition, uses material that is on a child's "instructional" level with reading fluency, and there is great support that it works. So, the idea that somehow "teaching a child using material on his/her instructional level is not research supported" just doesn't make sense to me.

In terms of this specific post about how much one can scaffold, I think it largely depends on the child and specific content, as lexiles and reading levels don't fully define a material's "instructional level" when it comes to comprehension. I know many 3rd graders, for example, that could be scaffolded with material written on an 8th grade level, but the content isn't very complex, so scaffolding is much easier.

The broad point here, Dr. Shanahan, is that we're over-simplifying, therefore confusing, the issue by trying to argue that kids should be taught with reading material on their frustrational level, or on grade level despite actual skill level. People are actually hearing you say that we should NOT attempt to match a child with a text - that skill level or lexile is completely irrelevant - when I believe you know you're saying that "instructional level" is just a bit more nuanced than providing all elements of reading instruction only on a child's oral reading fluency instructional range

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 02:23 AM


Thank you! This information has been most helpful!

Candace Kelly-Hodge Jun 13, 2017 02:24 AM


The best scaffold is interest level and background. Chun (2009) Critical Literacies and Graphic Novels for English-Language Learners stated that OECD (2004) research found that "students' levels of reading engagement were more important than the socioeconomic backgrounds in predicting their literacy performance." p. 145

Anonymous Jun 13, 2017 02:25 AM


At our school Kindergarten and first grade use F&P reading levels, while second and up use Lexiles, so reading this I was curious about first grade being at a 400 level, which is beyond most of my first graders as measured by MAP testing. I went looking and found this. Can you give us more specifically what skills are needed to reach the level where readers can meet the challenge of more difficult text? For instance, phonics is usually taught in a typical sequence of letter sounds, CVC words, consonant blends and digraph, long vowel/silent e, followed by other long vowels and r-controlled vowels, etc. Where do kids need to be fluent before you can challenge them?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 02:25 AM


When it comes to Kindergarten and first-grade levels, F&P levels are much more nuanced than Lexile levels. Essentially, I labeled 400 level as first-grade simply because it was lower than the level Lexiles states for grade 2 (Lexiles do not attempt to set beginning reading levels).

The difficulty of beginning reading texts are highly dependent on decoding ability, knowledge of particular high frequency words, the degree of repetition, use of pictures and so on. F&P captures some of these and they badly neglect some others (decodability is not well represented in their system), but Lexiles and other similar measures don't address any of these beginning reading issues.

There are many researchers who are working right now to try to answer this question-- of what a valid gradient of text difficulty would look like across grade 1-- and those results are just starting to become available. I hope to write an entry on this soon.

The Weekly Sprinkle Jun 13, 2017 02:26 AM


I am highly interested in what you and research has been showing about text complexity. When you say that teachers can scaffold students to within these frustration do you see that playing out in a daily classroom? Would you still suggest guided reading groups of similar readers is optimal but with more difficult text? Or would you say a conferring method, where you would be meeting with a variety of students one on one? Yes, I do agree that I can scaffold students in a frustration leveled text, but I can't do it with all 20 independently and simultaneously. Thank you for your wisdom and I look forward to reading your response.

Kim Strobel Jun 13, 2017 02:27 AM


I understand that we used to believe that students needed to spend the majority of their time reading text that was at their independent level so they could be freed up to be able to decode and comprehend simultaneously or so was the school of thought at one time. I understand that we have found out this approach did not give us significant gains and I can see how we haven't been able to close the gaps in many of these cases. It makes sense to me that students need time in more complicated text with scaffolds and support in place. What I am trying to figure out a typical 90 minute block (although I know we don't want to confine ourselves to time limits) previously students would spend about 30 minutes in whole group/shared reading and then the other 60 minutes would be spent either being filtered out to literacy stations to work at their independent levels on skills previously taught, so then teachers could then meet in small groups with students to give them the supports with more complicated texts. I'm just trying to figure out how to re-structure my reading block to support the rigor you are speaking about in your blog. If I have 27 students and for 60 minutes I can send all but 5-6 of them out to station work while I meet with my first small group, then I can usually meet with 3 groups per day which is approximately 15 students. But that would still mean that some days students are spending 60 minutes working independently so that I can meet with small groups. This is where literacy station practice has helped me as a teacher. It's given me the time to be able to meet with more than one guided reading group per day. So, how to I continue to meet the demands of small guided reading while also giving students the appropriate amount of practice with deeper texts? Do you support the practice of literacy stations and if so, what do you believe they look like? I know there are many ways to structure a reading block, but it would help to give some specific details for how this might look in a classroom.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 02:27 AM


This is a great question and one that I hope to write about more. Basically, I think the more kids are reading on their own (or under teacher supervision at a greater distance--such as whole class teaching), the relatively easier the texts should be. So, indeed, increasing the text level for readers in small groups with direct teacher supervision would be one certain step. Another would be that it is important to develop student response routines that do not tell everybody else the answer. Thus, asking a question of a student who is certain to know the answer is probably not your best bet--since it prevents everyone else from having to figure it out. I am big on multiple response (such as having students writing answers), so the teacher can do things like push kids back into the text to figure out an answer that they have erred on. Finally, I think it would be a mistake to overdo it. Decide on some number of words that you're willing to tell students, or identify a set number of sentences that you'll be prepared to reduce with the kids. Decide on a few issues that you will target. Slow and steady--instead of trying to do everything for every text and for every individual child.

Mitchell Brookins Sep 25, 2018 12:13 PM

I’m definitely glad this issue has been raised again because it is still a source of frustration for many of us. We all know that if you exposed children to more, they learn more. So no, I’d never advocate for keeping kids at a certain reading level. Our goal is to increase the text complexity as scholars learn reading behaviors that are effective in helping them navigate. Teaching them strategies that pushes them beyond what they can do currently.

My frustration is it seems as if the remedy of the day is to just give kids access to grade level if doing this will magically solve/address this issue. All experts seem to say is scaffold...scaffold...scaffold!

It’s not uncommon that there schools who have 30-60% of their third and fourth graders reading at first grade levels. Knowing this, districts are filling the ELA block with grade,level complex texts with no focus on phonics/decoding instruction. How is this a sound practice? Kids are accessing these texts through read aloud, discussion, but yet, overall reading achievement isn’t moving. The amount of time it’s taking to scaffold fourth graders, whose proficiency level is at first grade, through a 300-page 4th grade novel is consuming the entire ELA Block... there is no time for anything else. It’s very frustrating and again, the only answer is scaffold grade-level, complex texts. How are these moves truly equitable?

I’ve read case studies that show teaching kids one-year above their current reading level does yield improvement. However, as that gap widens to 2-3yrs above, the learning outcomes aren’t as much as the 1-year. However, we have schools who are literally using texts 3-4yrs above their students’ reading level and assuming this alone will work without instense remediation as well.

I’ll get off my rant, but I feel in the past 8yrs, we’ve ran with this increase text complexity initiative to the extreme and the application is flawed.

What Are your thoughts?

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

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How Much Text Complexity Can a Teacher Scaffold?


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