If Students Meet a Standard with Below Grade Level Texts, Are They Meeting the Standard?

  • 01 February, 2020

Teacher question:

When working with state educational standards are the expectations for the student to be able to accomplish each of the standards with grade level text. Some of us believe that if a fourth-grade student can determine the main idea in a second-grade text that the student has mastered that standard. Please help us settle this argument.

Shanahan response:

Actions like identifying a main idea or summarizing a text or comparing characters’ traits are considered to be skills. Text levels (like fourth-grade text or Level L or 950Lexiles) are degrees of text difficulty or complexity.

Readers have to implement their reading skills within texts of varying levels of complexity.

If a student is able to identify a main idea in a second-grade text, then he is meeting the second-grade standard. Students need to be able to demonstrate that they can make sense of texts in the ways described in the standards, but they have to be able to do this with texts commensurate with their grade levels.

At the end of the year, they’ll be tested on fourth grade, not second grade, texts. And, of course, if they continually are working with texts that are a year or two behind their grade level, when they leave high school they’ll be at a horrible disadvantage.

Teachers get way too wrapped up in the skills that are included in state standards and how to get around having students actually read grade level texts, and don’t pay enough attention to the variations in contexts under which these skills have to be implemented.

The analogy I have long used is weightlifting. There are all kinds of weightlifting skills or, more properly, exercises: squats, pulls, presses, curls, and so on. But those exercises are meaningless unless there is sufficient weight on the bar. Concluding that a weightlifter is doing well because he can successfully execute 15 arm curls would be foolish, because it matters if those curls are done with 5 pounds or 50 pounds of weight.

It’s the same thing with reading. That one can answer lots of different kinds of questions is very nice, as long as the texts are demanding enough to make the questions worth answering.

Several years ago, ACT (the college testing people) figured out that if texts were simple enough, prospective college students could answer any kinds of questions about them, no matter how complicated osubtle the questions. But, if the texts were particularly hard, then even simple questions about them blew the students away. It’s the text, not the skills, that matters most.

Our job as teachers is not to teach kids how to read books they can already read reasonably well (like “instructional level” texts), but to enable them to make sense of texts that they can’t already read.

Focus more attention on how you are going to enable boys and girls to read fourth-grade text successfully than on practicing particular skills with texts that are already relatively easy for them.

Those standards should not be thought of separately from text considerations.

Yes, students are supposed to be able to make causal connections among the ideas in science text. But it matters whether this is being done in text with sufficiently sophisticated language and content. Language and content that matches these students age and grade levels (in terms of content, intellectual development, curiosity, and social needs).

Yes, it matters if students can determine the main idea of s text, but whether the standard says so explicitly or not, students must do this in a wide range of texts. These texts should vary in content, difficulty, length, style, organization, format, explicitness, and so on. Determining the main idea in a newspaper article will be quite a different experience than doing so with a history book. Making sense of the author’s point when the language and content demands are so simple that a 7-year-old can handle them is very different than learning to do this with a text aimed at 9-year-olds. The increases in depth, complexity, and sophistication of language will require more effort, insight, and perseverance.

We need to teach students to make sense of grade level texts. If we don’t, then no matter how skilled students may seem to be, they will not be meeting our educational standards and they won’t be on track for literacy-enriched lives.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Joan Sedita Feb 01, 2020 06:30 PM

Tim, I am so glad you wrote this post and addressed this topic. Students who struggle with grade level text deserve to have teachers who know how to explicitly teach close reading skills through modeling and think aloud using challenging text. This may mean going sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph to show students how to unpack complex sentences, use the context or word parts to try and figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words, how to identify or infer the big ideas and relevant supporting details, how to paraphrase or summarize those main ideas and details in their own words for deep processing and long-term memory, etc. etc.

Cathy Callow-Heusser Feb 01, 2020 06:31 PM

GREAT post! Thank you so much for this statement and taking this stand. I get so discouraged when I see teachers settling for what this teacher describes. They are making life decisions for these kids—life decisions with potentially negative outcomes for these children, and therefore our society.

Mitchell Brookins Feb 01, 2020 07:15 PM

I'm just surprised this was even a question. The goal is always grade-level mastery. I'm not sure how one can think one can meet the demands of the standards using a below-grade level text. The demands of some of these standards are directly aligned to what texts at a certain complexity affords.

Angie Lambert Feb 01, 2020 07:42 PM

I would like to seek more clarification regarding kindergarten. My district kindergarten team was having this very discussion yesterday as we were creating proficiency scales for the grade level requirement. In determining the measurement for proficiency on the standard, some teachers were saying that the student needed to show that they could read a grade level text and answer questions; others said that grade level texts were not complex enough and that students needed to hear a more complex text read by the teacher and answer questions to show proficiency. I would appreciate your input.

MM Feb 01, 2020 08:10 PM

So I should head to the gym with the expectation that with coaching and practice I will one day do arm curls with 50 pound weights? Who knew my doctor was so wrong about my physical capabilities! Huh...she said due to my physical condition that 15 pound arm curls would be an appropriate goal.

Oh, and my challenged students better get cracking to comprehend and analyze those grade level texts. Never mind that their specialists have determined that their life skills will not include a demonstration of their knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9).

I believe we've gone too far with rigor, GRIT, and the growth mindset and we forget that our students are individuals. Each one has a place in our society, with strengths and weaknesses. Yes, set the bar high, but attainable. Determine what a "high bar" is for each student.

The definition of a "literacy-rich life" is specific to each person. Simply because some students are not capable of reading and comprehending grade level texts does not condemn them to literacy poverty.

Some of my most literacy-challenged students are rich in kindness and compassion. Seems our society is desperately poor in those skills.

Jeannette Feb 01, 2020 08:29 PM

“We need to teach students to make sense of grade level texts. If we don’t, then no matter how skilled students may seem to be, they will not be meeting our educational standards...”. Absolutely! We also need to provide a variety of purposes of reading those texts without always doing the heavy lifting for kids. We don’t only have a lack of reading volume going on in schools but to much leveling going on without much exposure to grade level text. Why not give kids grade level text and provide different levels of support?

Lois Letchford Feb 01, 2020 08:39 PM

I love the analogy between weightlifting & reading!

Harriett Feb 01, 2020 09:37 PM

Like many, when I first heard your position about instructional vs. grade-level texts several years ago, I was confused--and skeptical. But once I applied your recommendations to a third grade class last year, I became totally convinced. I recently wrote a piece about my experiences with these third graders https://fordhaminstitute.org/national/commentary/play-doh-plato-all-students-need-grapple-grade-level-text, and I referred to you several times, including in my concluding paragraphs:

"Timothy Shanahan asks: “If low-performing fourth-graders are to be taught from second grade books, when do they catch up?” Certainly, this was the question I kept asking myself about my struggling students. Another one of my third graders had come to my second grade intervention session mid-year reading at the kindergarten level—basically a non-reader. However, she was a diligent worker, and she ended third grade with a CAASP ELA score of 2/4, “approaching proficiency.” Without the push and practice from grade-level text, she would have been lost trying to navigate that arduous assessment.

The answer to the old joke—How do you get to Carnegie Hall?—is also the answer to how you get students to read at grade level. Practice, practice, practice—with grade-level text."

Audrey Feb 01, 2020 10:19 PM

I think it all goes back to how we are teaching our students. If we provide students access to high level read alouds that allow students to think and discuss high level texts then their comprehension will grow. If we provide them with shared reading experiences of grade level texts, then their decoding and fluency will grow. If we provide them scaffolded support of practicing these same skills in instructional level texts then they’ll move more quickly to being able to access grade level texts independently. And... if we give them opportunities to read texts that they’re interested in and can easily access, then they’ll build the stamina needed to read for longer and longer times while also applying the skills they’ve been working on at all levels of texts. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes many different opportunities in many different leveled texts to raise a reader who thinks deeply.

Erin Feb 01, 2020 11:40 PM

My question is, if students are reading far below grade level and are lacking basic phonics skills, would the best course of action be spending Tier 2 time explicitly teaching these lacking skills and then teach the grade-level appropriate text and skills tier 1? And is it more important that students below grade level can apply skills to grade level text using compensatory strategies (sometimes called “test taking strategies”) rather than truly reading and comprehending the grade-level text? Thanks !

Tim Shanahan Feb 02, 2020 03:02 AM

No one is asking that kindergarten or first grade children be taught to read with harder text. It is critical that they learn to decode and using texts that repeat words and particular spelling patterns frequently — that’s the complexity of beginning reading.


Tim Shanahan Feb 02, 2020 03:09 AM

Perhaps we are trying to make too many kids reach levels of literacy that will allow them to succeed in college, the workplace, or the military. But it makes more sense to do that than to continue to match kids to books based on a 1942 study of a small group of 4th graders that found they were able comprehend well books they could read with 95% accuracy — especially given that research shows this to have no positive benefit for kids’ learning.


Tim Shanahan Feb 02, 2020 03:14 AM

If kids are low in decoding they definitely should receive phonics instruction. However, if the student has basic phonics down (can read like a beginning second grade reader), then the student also should working to read grade level text.


ME Feb 02, 2020 03:08 PM

How many educators don’t realize that “reading levels” and “grade-level” texts are based on norms, and not some inherent “difficulty” of the text itself?

“Reading levels” are arbitrary. Therefore, if a student is reading below grade-level standards due to poor decoding and/or spelling skills, then *that* is their area of instructional need. Leveled-texts and teaching comprehension “skills” won’t solve that problem.

If students have trouble comprehending grade-level texts, then it’s more likely that they need *some* effective reading strategies, and also a knowledge-rich, knowledge-building curriculum.

I cannot believe that some depend on “reading levels” to save their students when instruction in phonics, spelling, and content-rich curriculum are absent from the classroom.

No wonder students cannot read!

Kerry Feb 02, 2020 03:21 PM

Thank you for this post. I’m curious what your thoughts are regarding foundational skills. My daughter has excellent comprehension (and has since kindergarten) but lacks decoding skills. They say her accuracy is high but she self-corrects more than she should. Her fluency is at about the 10th percentile. Because she’s comprehending the material, they’d prefer to give her extra time and audiobooks. We’ve decided to do private tutoring but it’s difficult for me to comprehend the district’s position.

Brenda Thomason Feb 02, 2020 09:49 PM

I’m a 7th grade ELA teacher with students reading from 9th grade level to 3rd grade level. For remediation they are put in a reading lab doing Reading Plus. They are reading texts on their level and answering comprehension questions. How in the world do I get the 3rd graders to the 7th grade standards?

Tim Shanahan Feb 03, 2020 04:32 AM


If someone can read on a 3rd grade level how does reading at that level improve their ability to read harder books? Which is what research is showing— that it doesn’t work.

Go into my publications and look at some of the articles and powerpoints showing how to scaffold kids’ encounters with more appropriate texts.


Angela B Peery Feb 03, 2020 05:53 PM

Because you're a literacy expert, you may want to fix the typos in this post. "Osubtle" and "s text" are the ones I saw immediately. Oops.

Leigh Vandebogart Feb 05, 2020 02:19 PM

I completely agree that students should be reading grade-level texts and scaffold appropriately. I'm relaying a question I hear often from my colleagues: what about assessing students using grade-level texts? If teachers are trying to measure grade-level reading comprehension using grade-level texts on an assessment, but have students who are struggling to independently read grade-level texts, should their reading passages be differentiated?

PATRICIA HARRIS Feb 05, 2020 11:09 PM

To show or prove their ability to determine the main idea in text, it is my belief (and years of observations) that students should be able to perform the same tasks using grade level text as they would text that is below their grade level. Text written at each level is more sophisticated or complex and requires higher level reasoning skills and the ability to analyze that text. Students must/should also be able to consider the context in which higher level vocabulary is used in the content, which is in direct correlation with their knowledge of higher level vocabulary that that is needed to communicate outside the realms of lower level texts. To sum it up, in my opinion, students who are able to determine main idea using Below Level Texts are not meeting the Standard for their Grade Level, because the complexity of the texts are different. It's obvious that, if given the test using Grade Level Texts, the student(s) wouldn't pass the Test. However, students, no doubt, could be categorized as having Made Progress, because some level of the Standard would have been met.

alexandra ameduri Feb 08, 2020 08:09 PM

As a second grade teacher, I immediately got defensive about this post because I feel like people outside of the classroom forget or have no idea the realities of working with below-grade level students. I think this post is food for thought and after reading comments, I will definitely be diving into your publications and power points.

I work in a low sociology-economical school that is 98% title 1. My students lack basic vocabulary and 16 of my 20 students read below grade level. While I teach second grade standards and read book on or above grade level in read aloud, weekly assessments mandated by my district are crushing. I have second graders on an emergent level-1st grade level. I do remedial phonics instruction in intervention time and offer free tutorial before school, but there inability to decode grade-level texts means they can never show second-grade mastery even if their listening comprehension is.

I am currently working on my masters in reading and am constantly learning and applying my learning. The most dangerous teacher is a teacher who is unwilling to evolve.

Amy Haugen Feb 13, 2020 10:57 PM

I teach English language learners. It is common knowledge that you need to provide comprehensible input for language learning to take place. Give them a grade level text....it’s going to do nothing. Give them a text they can attack....learning happens. I encourage you to go on a trip to Japan and read a 4th grade level text in Japanese. See how much you learn as well as how confident you feel about yourself as a student. Pretty sure you won’t be able to score well on “the standard”.

Michael Kamin Mar 04, 2020 06:52 PM

I don't always agree with you, but here we're in complete alignment. Too often this question has come up and it is exactly what leads to a poorly done version of balanced literacy and readers workshop. To really be teaching to "the standards," educators need to provide frequent, consistent, extended periods of time for students to grapple with texts significantly above their independent reading level. But that is not to say that students shouldn't also apply this learning to texts in their zone of proximal development in more differentiated reading (literature circles, independent reading, etc.). It's about balance.

Hearher Mar 14, 2020 02:47 PM

As a parent, how can you determine (without asking the teacher) which level your child’s account is set to?

Rosemary WestMy Jun 27, 2020 11:18 PM

Amen...that civil right pupils have to be schooled does not mean they should be having lessons that skip differentiated instruction! If a child doesn't understand, we teach. Any effort less is unfair to a child. Thank you Tim Shanahan!

J. Aug 15, 2020 03:00 PM

After reading this article (several times), I have determined you have not been in a classroom in some time. The rigor of 3rd and 4th grade is far above what a student that is 2-3 grade levels below grade level. We need explicit directions on how to address these below grade level students. The powers that be have become so hung up on standards and testing scores and not addressing the actual need to teach a student to read no matter what grade level they are in. Get out and see what teachers are struggling with before you write another article. We are struggling and you are making comparisons to weight lifting. Sorry but not sorry. We need to get back to basics and stop all this meeting standards, test scores, and what's going on in the story and worry about if a student can actually read. Comprehension will come when a student learns to read.

Kim Simpson Jan 09, 2021 03:42 PM

What do you do if you are teaching this 2nd grade standard, "Identify information gained from visuals and words in the text, and explain how that information contributes to understanding of the text", but the students can't read the grade-level text? I suggested the teacher read the text to them first and then have the students practice reading it by themselves before digging into the essence of the standard. Any suggestions?

What Are your thoughts?

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

Comment *

If Students Meet a Standard with Below Grade Level Texts, Are They Meeting the Standard?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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