More Bad Ideas about Why We Should Avoid Complex Text Reading Instruction

  • challenging text author awareness
  • 07 January, 2018

Welcome to 2018.

  During the interim, several intriguing questions have been submitted and soon I’ll be taking those on. This posting responds not to your questions, but to some public comments made by various colleagues concerning complex text and its use in instruction. My comments are responses to their handwringing over the requirement that we teach kids to read complex text. 

  1. We should be concerned about the use of complex text for instruction because text complexity has a negative correlation with reading comprehension and reading fluency.

  The premise here is correct, but the conclusion is false. This is what logicians refer to as the non-sequitur fallacy. I know of no one who rejects the idea that complex text is harder to read and understand than simple text.

  There are definitely quibbles over whether some approaches to measuring text complexity are adequate, but even then the notion is that more complex texts will be harder to understand. Researchers long ago showed that while shorter sentences tend to be easier to comprehend than long sentences, there are many exceptions to this correlation. If sentences are shortened to omit explicitly stated causal connections, for instance, the brevity tends to reduce understanding more than it facilitates it. (That kind of work was not an argument about whether text complexity made comprehension more difficult, but over where such complexity resided.)

  Conceding that the use of more complex texts will likely lower students' daily fluency and comprehension performance with the instructional passages—which it will—tells us nothing about whether or not we should require complex text instruction.

  To get to there, one needs to add another premise—an unstated one in this case. The missing premise is the claim that students learn or learn best from texts they comprehend easily and that they don’t from relatively harder texts.

  As I’ve written before, evidence for that hidden premise doesn’t actually exist, though educators cling to it as a matter of faith. The experimental studies—studies where difficulty levels of texts are systematically varied to determine if that factor affects learning--have not found that working with easier texts improves learning.

  The confusion between how well kids can read the instructional texts and how much they learn is misleading. Indeed, complex texts tend to be more difficult, tend to elicit reading performances that are not as polished as what can be demonstrated with easier texts. However, that does not mean that kids learn less from the more challenging texts. In fact, it appears to be the opposite!

  2. Educational standards that require teachers to teach students to read complex text are over-emphasizing the role of text in reading comprehension.

  This one surprised me a bit. The theory my colleague works within claims that reading comprehension is the result of an interaction between reader, text, and task. Not a bad idea that one, and one that I would have expected to support the idea of complex text--given its place in that holy trinity. My colleague's fear seemed to be that requiring complex text would lead to an undervaluing of the role of task (e.g., question types) in classroom reading work.

  Accordingly, her argument was that text complexity is not such a central issue in reading comprehension. Her evidence that text complexity was being overvalued? She noticed that different National Assessment questions about the same text elicited different levels of student performance. Seventy percent of students could answer a question about a given passage, while only 35% could answer other questions from the same passage. She attributed this difference to the fact that some tasks or questions required literal recall and others depended upon inferencing (though assessment research has long found performance levels on those tasks not to vary in any consistent way across passages).

  Her analysis is shaky again because of an unstate and indefensible assumption—the assumption that all portions of a text should be equally challenging.

  Obviously, sentences that include especially challenging vocabulary words will be harder than ones that use plain language. Questions about such sentences--even if drawn from the same text--are likely to differ in how well students do with them. We’ve long known that ideas that are high in the information hierarchy of a text will be better grasped than ideas that are lower in that hierarchy. That means you would usually see big variations in performance if they tapped an understanding of different information from the same text. Thus, the idea that 70% of kids can answer a question about one aspect of a text, but only 35% of kids can answer a question about another aspect doesn't necessarily tell us anything about readers or tasks since all of that variation may--or may not--be attributable to the text alone.

  I don’t think that problem with her argument means that we, therefore, need to teach text of a particular Lexile level, though it suggests to me the need to engage kids in the of reading texts that they will not comprehend easily—texts that may trip them up in particular ways. That means focusing more attention on what makes texts difficult and less on teaching question types and the like.

3. We shouldn't be stampeded into teaching complex text based upon flawed research studies--studies that varied not just text complexity but the instructional methods.

  Again, a correct premise, but a shaky conclusion.

  This claim points out that those experimental studies that I tout do more than just compare the impacts of the book levels on learning. The experimental groups that were being taught with the harder texts were sometimes being taught differently than the students who worked with the easier texts.

  For example, in one of those studies, the experimental groups working with the harder grade level texts did more fluency work than the guided reading comparison group that read the easier books. Perhaps the study outcomes have been due to those variations in instruction rather than to the text levels themselves.

  That is a fair concern, but I have two fair responses to it.

  First, while this charge is true of some of the studies that I cite, there are others in which it is not the case, but with the same outcome results. The same finding—that teaching kids with instructional level texts either doesn’t help or actually hinders readers to learn to read—is obtained whether the instruction has been held constant or not. Thus, if this concern is used to impeach the evidence, it can only do so for part of the evidence (and still doesn't explain why no studies that have tested teaching kids with easier texts have found any benefit).

  Second, frankly, I would expect good instruction with complex text to look different from good instruction with simple text. This point is extremely important for educators to understand.

  If I were trying to teach kids to read with books that they already could read with a high degree of accuracy and without much need of instructional support (the so-called “instructional level”), then I would expect the kids to spend a large amount of time reading those texts—doing substantially more reading then I see in a typical guided reading classroom. And I would expect much more required engagement with the texts than is afforded by the shallow small-group discussions that are usual in those classrooms. Perhaps I’d increase the amount of classroom reading by 3-5 times over the current amounts and would greatly reduce the small group talks in favor having kids writing much more and more extensively about those easy texts and doing more extended projects (probably a lot more work would be pushed away from the school to be done at home given the low demands of the texts and the notion that kids would learn so much just from doing the easy reading).

  If, on the other hand, I were working with really hard texts such as those required by more than 40 states then my students would certainly do more fluency work, and they would read shorter texts more intensely (with a lot of group discussion and the like). I’d ask the kids lots of questions about ideas in those texts, especially questions that got at the ideas that I thought might be difficult to gain due to particular aspects of the texts’ complexity. I would have the kids engaged in much more rereading than is common, too.

  Of course, good instruction is likely to be a blend of both of these visions—since no one in their right mind would expect instruction to only emphasize hard to read texts (though it is odd that so many of my colleagues have long held to the idea that kids should read only what for them would be easy texts--prohibiting so many learning disabled, second language, and racial minority from the opportunity to struggle with the grade level ideas).

  Friends, I think you protest too much. Reading comprehension instruction should not be focused on how to answer particular questions. It should teach students to recognize and gain control over those aspects of text that serve as barriers to comprehension. To accomplish that, kids have to be asked to read texts that they cannot already read easily—even though that will reduce their initial reading comprehension and fluency with the texts we are using for that teaching. Finally, that teaching reading with complex texts means that you will need to make other changes to instruction beyond the book choice is not a problem; it is a reality. Teachers need professional development that goes beyond how to select complex text; it should teach teachers how to teach kids to read complex text. 


See what others have to say about this topic.

Eric Franco Jan 08, 2018 04:16 PM

Thank you for addressing the assumptions, as many of those you addressed continue to drive classroom interventions and reading instruction.

What do you think about the practice of "double-dosing" for reading instruction? Recent research from Johns Hopkins (2017) seems to suggest double-dosing has no significant impact on reading gains and, instead, points to rich instructional strategies. Unfortunately, the study fails to address disciplinary literacy practices -- only published curricula and (READ 180, System 44, ALIAS, RAAL, et cetera). So, here is my question:

is it fair to say that teachers embedding disciplinary literacy strategies/modeling within their respective disciplines really double-dosing, in the most general sense? I'm curious to learn your opinion on the matter.

You can find the study linked here:

Michael Jan 08, 2018 09:29 PM

I am glad to see that toward the end of your blog you mention that, "good instruction is likely to be a blend of both of these visions—since no one in their right mind would expect instruction to only emphasize hard to read texts." The trouble is, in secondary schools, many people do actually expect instruction to only emphasize hard to read texts. I work with many principals and teachers who see the call for complex text as a call to return to days in which students read classical literature and the teacher poses "text-dependent questions" which the students then answer. Sometimes the students are asked to answer individually, sometimes they are given a couple minutes to re-read and/or write a response (if they can), and sometimes there is group work, but many teachers and principals see this method of repeated, day-in-day-out grade level complex text and teacher-generated questioning as the central work of literacy teachers now. I'm wondering if you can speak to how that philosophy fits in with what you're saying above.

I point this out because it is a problem. That results in dramatically lowered rates of reading growth for two reasons:
1) Students read with far less volume and frequency, and often less diversity. They read and re-read small bits over and over. This, of course, almost always also reduces engagement, but let's assume that's not the case.

2) Students don't develop more independence with these grade level complex texts because:
a) grade level text in a secondary classroom is often 2-4 grade levels above students' independent reading level (sad fact)
b) teachers don't make the reading strategy explicit because they believe the text-dependent questions do the teaching,
although they do identify the standard(s) being focused on.
c) students learn that teachers know what questions to ask and do not get any better at asking the questions that lead to
meaning and then reading to investigate the text for answers to those questions. Students' capacity diminishes through a
day-in-day-out instruction on grade level complex text with text-dependent questions.

In secondary education, I'm not seeing "anyone in their right mind" advocate for know complex text or for no questions which focus students on specific sections of text. I am seeing plenty of the above philosophy though.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2018 01:37 AM


The notion of "double dosing" is a good one. The reason I say that is amount of instruction matters a lot in student learning. Generally (yes, there are some exceptions), more instruction is better than less instruction, so doubling up in the sense that study explores is a terrific idea. However, time can never be a variable, but only a measure of some other variable. Thus, time tells us how much instruction/experience these secondary students are getting with academic vocabulary and morphology, oral reading fluency, reading comprehension, and writing. The lack of coordination evident in that work, the lack of attention to providing kids to a full menu of literacy supports (vocab/morph, fluency, comp, writing)... suggest the possibility that there might not be much payoff from the doubling. What double dose classes (that is a double block English period) tends to mean in English is kids find out more about literature and learn very little about reading. Pay attention to the amount of instruction, but always ask instruction in what?

That's why in Chicago I required 2 hours per day of reading and writing work for kids, but did not mandate double block English periods because it is doubtful that it would provide a double dose of what it takes to improve reading.

Timothy Shanahan Jan 09, 2018 01:44 AM


You are definitely correct that there are folks (both elementary and secondary) who think the standards require that all work be done with a particular level of text. The standards require no particular instructional practice, but they do require that we teach students how to read those more demanding texts (hard to do that without an inclusion of at least some text at the prescribed levels). However, just like Olympic athletes who don't do all of their training at one level of difficulty, not all reading should be done at a particular level of demand. This is a big change from past reading instructional advice, which is why I write about it.

I also agree with you that many teachers do not teach, they just give assignments and assume the kids learn from that. That is definitely a problem (and it has been no matter how easy or hard texts have been).

I will disagree with on the readability levels of secondary texts. You are certainly correct that sometimes the texts are harder than the grade level, but in my experience and the handful of studies on such issues, schools are more likely to purchase texts that are relatively easy reading for their kids. The idea has been that there are learning standards in science and social studies, etc. and that easy books will make it easier for kids to access that information (there are even high school comic books on physics and math books that don't use words and content books two-years below level in readability, and reduced difficulty versions of classic novels). 25% of high school English teachers indicate that they choose their books based on student reading levels rather than grade level. The problem of not providing sufficiently challenging texts, then not using them when they are provided, and not teaching kids to read them when they are used is the real culprit here.

Michael Jan 09, 2018 05:31 AM

Thanks Tim, it was really refreshing to hear the blog post put in context. It may be my particular context, but it's frustrating to hear research studies and literacy leaders misquoted, and their thoughts distorted.

I agree, in non-ELA I have seen a definite trend to avoid challenging text, and both research and Common Core appear to point educators toward embracing text in classrooms across disciplines. And I also agree that some teachers over-emphasize text at student reading levels. The statistic you present, 25% of high school English teachers indicating that they chose their books based on student reading levels, seems about right. My work focuses mostly on ELA in secondary, and I find that roughly 25% of teachers over-emphasize student reading levels, and maybe slightly more over-emphasize grade level text. Of course, none of this speaks to how *well* the text is used, as you note.

It seems especially hard for educators to hear "the middle ground." Yes, text-specific questions are good. Yes, teaching students to independently practice and question is actually the end-goal. Yes, routine practice with grade level text is necessary. Yes, routine practice with instructional level texts are also necessary. It must be kept in balance.

Thanks for taking the time to thoughtfully reply.

Tim Shanahan Jan 09, 2018 02:01 PM

Thanks, Michael.

Murphy Corley (Susan Russell) Jan 16, 2018 10:14 PM

I really enjoyed this blog, and I appreciated that you made it clear in the end how important it is to teach both of the visions. Something I found interesting was the statement that ended the blog
“Friends, I think you protest too much. Reading comprehension instruction should not be focused on how to answer particular questions. It should teach students to recognize and gain control over those aspects of text that serve as barriers to comprehension. To accomplish that, kids have to be asked to read texts that they cannot already read easily—even though that will reduce their initial reading comprehension and fluency with the texts we are using for that teaching.”
I worry that now with the common core and all of the pushed standardized testing teachers do just that. They teach students how to answer questions based off of test, standardized test to be more specific. They go to workshops and instead of learning to teach comprehension in a broader and more helpful way they teach our teachers to teach students how to be better test takers. In my recent graduate school class we have been learning about text complexity and how important it is to make sure that the text is something that the students will learn and grow from. Rather it is complex text or simple short text I feel it very important that the students are growing and learning from what they are reading.

Johnny Anderson Jan 18, 2018 06:48 PM

The first point addressed here is one that many of my colleagues struggle with as we implement our school’s current literacy initiative. Too many of them seem to believe in that “unstated” fallacy you described: that students cannot learn from texts that are challenging or difficult for them. They truly think the best learning arises from texts with which students are familiar or can easily use. What I have found though while working with my common planning team is that more complex texts can create wonderful learning opportunities. What we do instructionally to teach the text becomes an important part of the learning process and provides the built-in supports and scaffolds that can lead students to mastery of content. This connects directly to your third point and I have to agree with your statement that “frankly, I would expect good instruction with complex text to look different from good instruction with simple text.” We have found that chunking the more challenging texts into critical excerpts, appropriately developing and accessing background knowledge, and implementing some fluency work to help students comprehend the material have made it more likely for students to not just understand the text but make the connections to the content necessary to master the material.

Ashley Sutton Jan 18, 2018 07:15 PM

I think that you made such a good point at the end of your post about reading comprehension instruction needing to be more multi-dimensional instead of simply focusing on how to answer a set of questions. As with text complexity, reading comprehension is multifaceted. There are multiple ways to evaluate and instruct students on how to comprehend a piece of text. In regards to your statement about students needing to be asked to read texts that they cannot read easily, I agree, however I think that as educators we walk a very fine line between providing text that challenges our students and giving them text that overwhelms them. Teachers must have a good understanding of their student’s strengths and weaknesses related to reading in order to provide them with the “perfect” text. Unfortunately, there is no blanket formula for teachers to use to help them find the correct complexity for each student. The teacher’s knowledge and expertise plays a huge role in locating the right texts for students. Consequently, this means that professional learning opportunities for teachers are essential because they ensure teachers are prepared and well equipped to handle the challenge of text complexity with our students. I believe that the statement that you made about teachers needing professional development to learn how to teach students to read complex texts is so true. Teachers need to understand all the components of text complexity in order to accurately and effectively provide text that is complex yet well selected for the students that we serve.

Kelsey Hester Jan 20, 2018 09:16 PM

As a current educator, I find your thoughts very intriguing. In fact, they encourage me to examine everything I've been taught about reading instruction. Text complexity is a debate that is rather new to me. I didn't realize that it had become such a large issue with the adoption of CCSS. I am a self-contained special education teacher for primary grades, so I don't spend much time in heavy reading instruction. However, research into this topic has widened my perspective in the idea of text complexity and how I see it fall into practice in my school system. I teach in a rural area in the South, and as with most school systems, money drives all. I find that regarding current educational practice, we are trying to make what we've used previously "fit" with new standards and research so that we don't have to spend more money on new curriculum, and as you can imagine, this simply can't work. We engage in this practice because we can't (or won't) afford to pay for better teacher training and better reading programs. This is especially true in the adoption of curriculum, because as discovered in the Reading Wars over the past 60 years, one program doesn't band-aid all issues. I feel that a multi-programmatic approach to reading should be used in the effort to reach all children. I also believe one reason the current reading programs adopted by many schools in my area avoid the concept of text complexity is because we would rather "pre-teach" children with methods in which we are confident and knowledgeable (such as picture walks, activating prior knowledge sessions, etc.) than use the teachable moments that are created as students reading complex texts where issues might arise that we don't know how to address. In essence, I believe the current practices act as a safeguard to protect teachers who could be unable to handle student questions and concerns they aren't prepared for; to rule out all opportunities for mistakes. While this may be true or untrue, as I stated before, I feel a multi-programmatic approach is best. This should be one that uses pre-reading activities to an appropriate extent as well as strategies to address text complexity during reading. Let's allow teachers and students to learn together through complex texts!

April Jan 21, 2018 11:24 PM

I enjoyed your input about text complexity. Recently, I have done some research on this subject, so it was interesting to hear your views on the topic, especially in response to others' questions and responses. A few things I read correlated to other things I have read or heard. One being the type of instruction for different text complexities. The more complex the task, the less complex the text and vice versa. This makes the text more accessible to the students, something I learned about when watching "Simplifying Text Complexity" by Sarah Wessling. After watching this and reading your blog, I agree that we do not need to stop teaching with texts of higher complexity, but rather tailor the instruction to the text. However, I do think it is important to not begin with something that is of the highest complexity, but rather begin slightly higher then gradually move up. You mentioned in another blog that it was important for students to have a lot of practice in many different aspects of reading (vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, etc.), but do you also agree that teacher read alouds are just as important? I have previously read that reading books aloud that are above the students' Lexile levels is a good way to build their reading skills. I wonder if this is another technique for effectively incorporating text complexity into instruction.

What Are your thoughts?

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

Comment *

More Bad Ideas about Why We Should Avoid Complex Text Reading Instruction


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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