Planning Lessons with Complex Text

  • text complexity
  • 06 June, 2020

Teacher question:

I very much like your idea of teaching students to read with grade level books. However, I’ve always taught with guided reading groups, trying to match my students to books that they can already read reasonably well. I don’t know how to go about what you are recommending. Help!

Shanahan responds:

As a primary grade teacher, I, too, always taught reading like that; the same way teachers had taught me so long ago (and the same way teachers usually have taught reading for more than 100 years).

It is hard to change ancient traditions on the basis of research or anything else. It’s even hard to envision how instruction could be different.

But if we’re serious about higher reading achievement – about breaking out of the unremitting mediocrity that sustains current reading levels but never improves them, that keeps children who live in poverty, Black children, immigrant children, and children with disabilities far below the levels of literacy they’ll need to gain the full the benefits of our society – then we must change what we are doing.

Doubling down on current practices might make us comfortable, but its implications for kids are terrible.

I’m happy to hear that you are on board. I hope you represent thousands of teachers willing to make the changes necessary for our kids and for our society.

The first thing we have to do is a change in thinking.

If you think learning to read means reading a series of texts that gradually increase in difficulty, then your job is mainly one of having students practice reading with texts of the appropriate difficulty, occasionally testing to see if you could raise text levels. In that approach, kids learn to read from reading; mainly accumulating word memories (hence, the popularity of word lists, word cards, word walls, and sight word practice).

If you believe those things, you’ll make lots of bad teaching decisions, if the goal is to raise reading levels or close racial, ethnic, and economic gaps.

A better mindset would be to start with the idea that reading is the ability to make sense of text – and that readers have to learn how to negotiate any and all of the features of text that carry meaning. I can list a bunch of those features: decodability, vocabulary (including the ability to make sense of different types of definitions included in texts), syntax, cohesion, text structure, graphics, indexes, tables of context, literary devices, punctuation, the relationship of the information to readers’ prior knowledge, and so on.

Learning to read is learning how to deal with those kinds of text features.

To learn that, one has to have supported opportunities to confront such text features thoughtfully.

Grade level texts or higher (in grades 2-12) are the best choice for this for most students. Those are often the texts that students can’t already read well. The purpose of a reading lesson then is to guide students to make sense of a text that they cannot succeed with on their own and to develop the abilities to deal with such texts.

That’s the mindset part.

With that mindset, you can plan effective instruction. And the first thing to do there, is that the teachers need to read the texts before the students do.

I know I’ve gotten in trouble in the past for saying that. There are “experts” out there who tell teachers the opposite, despite the fact that they’ve never expanded our knowledge of reading instruction through their research, nor have they ever successfully raised students’ reading achievement according to public data, especially those kids growing up in poverty. I’ll accept such disdain, if teachers will just read the books first.

Unless you have some idea of what may trip kids up, it will be hard to develop a worthwhile lesson for that text.

Your ability to spot the barriers will improve over time. I often recommend that teachers try to do this together (it’s amazing how much that increases sensitivity). Also, later, when you are teaching these lessons, pay attention to how it turns out. There will be surprises both ways, things that confuse students that you never anticipated, and things they handle that you were sure they couldn’t.  

I can’t, in this space, provide every kind of guidance, but let me provide a couple of examples. For instance, let’s say you think the text is going to be hard for your kids to decode. They might understand it if you read it to them, but they’ll labor so much over the words, you don’t think they’ll get to the meaning.

In such a case, I suggest that you have the students work on their fluency with this text—before a guided reading experience with it. Lots of ways of doing this – paired reading with teacher involvement is my favorite -- but the basic idea is to have students practicing reading the text to resolve the words.

Perhaps you also could spend time during decoding working on figuring out some of the words that you think might be particularly problematic (showing kids how to break them down and sound them out).

If you have students engaged in those kinds of activities, and when the kids come to guided reading group, they’ll be ready to play.

Another possible barrier to understanding is vocabulary. Most instructional programs pick out words they want to teach students, and that’s fine. But in this case the point is to figure out which words will be a block understanding of this text now. Surely, you can understand a text without knowing every word, and some words you shouldn’t need to focus on because the author helpfully defines them or provides supportive context that allows readers to figure them out. Those items are worth planning questions for – to find out if the kids did those things effectively.

If they didn’t, then your teaching needs to focus on that… showing students how to make sense of such a definition or showing them how to use those context clues. If there are words you don’t think the students know, but are the key to meaning, then you have choices: introduce those words before the reading or provide a written glossary. Or, if you are teaching students how to use a dictionary, that might be a fair choice, too.

With most other features of text, I recommend the same approach. Don’t try to head off all the problems but ask questions that will reveal whether the students were blocked or not. I would do this whether my concern was a particularly complicated sentence structure, a subtle cohesive link or a required connection between the prose and a graphic.

A big part of the planning is to ask questions that reveal to you what is preventing success. Historically, we have asked questions aimed at matching theories (e.g., Bloom’s taxonomy) or at providing practice with particular skills (such as asking questions similar to those that will be included on a test), but what we should be doing is figuring out what the kids aren’t figuring out, so that we can teach them to handle that feature of text.

Thus, if a text says,

“To carry out this evaluation, we chose to look at paired cases of countries with serious human rights situations from each region of the world. In addition to the well-publicized “success stories” of international human rights like Chile, South Africa, the Philippines, Poland, and the former Czechoslovakia, we also examine a series of more obscure and apparently intractable cases of human rights violations in such places as Guatemala, Kenya, Uganda, Morocco, Tunisia, and Indonesia.”

my guess is that students will have trouble connecting the “paired cases of countries” with the two lists of countries included in the second sentence. Therefore, I might ask a question about that: How will the researcher pair countries for this research? Or, why would the author pair Guatemala and Chile, according to this text?

If they can answer my questions, I was wrong, and there is nothing more to be done.

But if they don’t get it, then there is teaching to be done.

“The author has introduced the idea that in his study he has ‘paired’ some countries from the same parts of the world. As a reader, I need to figure out on what basis the countries were paired. Read the second sentence and let’s see if we can get information on that.” And so on.

By the end of working with a text in this way, students should be able to read that text with better fluency and comprehension than started with – and those improvements, over time, will transfer to other texts in the future.

In summary, read the texts, identify potential barriers to comprehension, formulate questions that will reveal whether those features really were barriers, and then, if they are, provide guidance/instruction in how to solve that problem. 

If you would like more examples, go to my website,, click on Publications, click on Powerpoints, and page through to find “Planning Complex Text Instruction”

Good luck.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Carrie Wood Jun 06, 2020 10:22 AM

Where can teachers be directed to find a supply of grade level texts? Also, which screener and diagnostics did you recommended to assess comprehension in grade 2-5?

Patty Jun 06, 2020 10:53 AM

I have the same question as Carrie, Where can teachers be directed to find a supply of grade level texts?

Katie Carmody Jun 06, 2020 12:44 PM

How would you modify this advice for teachers supporting students in MTSS or SPED, where short and long term goals are often written based on text level? If this is an important shift to make for all students, how can one practically speaking make such a shift when leveled literacy is officially enshrined in their support plan? As my school attempts to shift away from leveled literacy, I’m not comfortable with a world in which the most struggling readers are the only ones taught based on “levels”, but also not sure how to effectively make this change.

Joan Sedita Jun 06, 2020 12:49 PM

Thanks, Tim, for covering this topic so thoroughly! What I think you are getting at is about teachers teaching and modeling "close reading" skills and strategies. As you have noted in previous posts related to this topic, it's not enough to simply use challenging text -- teachers have to explicitly teach how to handle what makes the text challenging! This includes planning and delivering a close reading lesson. An important part of a close reading lesson is the embedding of text-dependent questions that target different challenging aspects of the text. Using a sample piece of text (no more than 4-5 paragraphs) the teacher should look for challenges that are related to: key details, vocabulary, text structure (at the sentence, paragraph or longer levels), author's point of view, and central/main ideas. The teacher should also look for major shifts in the text and changes in patterns of writing. The close reading lesson can focus on any of these issues, using text-dependent questions to guide the "unpacking" of the text. "Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives" by Fisher, Frey and Lapp (2011) is a helpful resource for close reading lessons. I recently delivered a free webinar that was recorded and archived titled Creating a Close Reading Lesson that your blog readers might find helpful:

Amy Martin Jun 06, 2020 03:04 PM

Thanks for this post. My school has begun the shift from leveled GR groups to grade-level text small groups. This has been struggle since most of our training and experience has been with movement through the traditional F&P level system. What are yourthoughts for readers in grades 2-5 who are significantly below grade level? For example, more than a year below grade level and in some cases 2 years or more. Is it appropriate to provide a pull-out interventions around decoding - phonics and word work at a lower grade level according to a phonics placement test (provided they are still getting the grade-level text with supports in the core curriculum)? Is it recommended to use more decodable texts than leveled texts in grades K-1?

Timothy Shanahan Jun 06, 2020 03:55 PM

Carrie and Patty--
Textbook programs are typically set up by grade level so that is one way to go. Another possibility would be to use the Lexile or ATOS resources (you can find these online). The Common Core State Standards had several of the major readability forms aligned to grade level (the alignment chart is on their website) -- that would tell you the Lexile or ATOS levels of books to look for.

good luck.

Timothy Shanahan Jun 06, 2020 03:58 PM

The research on teaching with grade level text includes a study by Rolanda O'Connor focused on the learning needs of children with IEPs in grades 3-5. She found no benefit to teaching these children at their "instructional level," that they made as much learning progress as the children who were taught at the easier text levels. When I have shared that information with dyslexic students, they have told me their preference is to work with the more challenging texts.

good luck.

Denise Kelly Jun 06, 2020 04:23 PM

Can we incorporate both methods into our instruction? One to focus on confidence, fluency and the love of reading for reading’s sake? Then in another purposeful time, incorporate text that is guided, modeled with more complexity? From experience, I have never seen a child fall in love with reading in text he hasn’t self selected, navigated and lived independently.

Alisa Jun 06, 2020 07:26 PM

Is it appropriate to mainly teach with grade level text, but also have a time where you are having students read a leveled text??

Elizabeth Jun 06, 2020 07:32 PM

I moved up from teaching middle school to teaching seniors taking dual credit English. I get pushback from my students because they want to read books they select. Because they have done so much SSR, they don't want to read difficult text. They have the mindset that you should always enjoy what you read. They need skills for reading when it gets difficult.

Harriett Jun 06, 2020 10:54 PM

Another resource for grade level text is, which offers the same article at varying lexile levels. Last year I put together grade level "readers" for our 3rd to 6th grade students, three different topics with three to four articles in each topic along with writing assignments. Whenever I pulled a group of below-level readers in my third grade class, it was to help them navigate this grade-level reader. Teaching "complex text" to below-level readers is counterintuitve, but it works.

Tim Shanahan Jun 07, 2020 01:29 AM


That may be true, but the research is clear: kids are more likely to like reading if instruction makes them good readers than to become effective readers because you tried to make them like it.

Indeed, it is smart to teach students with text at a range of levels rather than just one level as in guided reading, units of study, etc.

Good luck.


Karin Jun 07, 2020 02:43 PM

Thank you. As a special education teacher I'm also inclined to use simple texts. I listened to you in the step by step conference last week. I was first surprised to hear your approach. However, I'll take into consideration your approach and try it with my students in September. My only concern is to decide on the "how much complex". I'm also afraid, if some teachers can rely on this approach and use grade level texts - with no extra efforts - without providing enough scaffolding.

Kristin Jun 11, 2020 12:31 AM

I was wondering how you would suggest implementing this strategy to students you do not physically see in class? Our school as I am sure many others are, will be offering virtual school options next year. I am looking for resources or ideas on how to do this or maybe what it should look like. In addition text complexity has been something I struggle with as I want to challenge my students without always doing so with long text. I've noticed I tend to lose the kids attention with long texts especially when trying to model for them how to deal with complex text.

Nicole Jul 08, 2020 02:46 AM

Patty and Carrie, I highly recommend for grades 3 and up. (It’s free!) It is a wonderful resource of texts from acclaimed authors.

Kristi McIntosh Sep 10, 2020 06:15 PM

I agree with the research. Coming from a district where exemplars were non-negotiable, I've seen this research in practice.

Michelle Gomez Jul 05, 2021 12:11 AM

Hello, I am a reading intervention pull put teacher for grades 3-8. Should I also use grade level complex text for this intervention? As well, if I happen to get a beginning reader, is there a sequence of best phonics and vocabulary skills to start with? Do I use a lower level text or grade level text for beginning traders in these grade?Thank you.

Helene Anthony Jan 28, 2021 02:44 PM

I can see how what you are describing does NOT occur in reading workshop where children are reading independently and teachers are conferring with them individually on books that the teacher may not have read. But I don't see how your advice conflicts with using guided reading groups, which is what the questioner asked. If, in fact, the text selected is challenging (not necessarily grade level if that is frustration level for some children), and the teacher is actually providing guidance through the introduction and discussion components of the guided reading session, then is that the same as what you are proposing? Is the issue not the instructional model but the choice of text? That is, materials that students can "already read reasonably well" is too easy. As a teacher educator, I have always encouraged my future teachers to push their students in their guided reading groups because the scaffolding and support are there.

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Planning Lessons with Complex Text


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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