Will Challenging Text Put a Crimp in Students’ Motivation?

  • challenging text text complexity
  • 25 July, 2020

Teacher question:

I know you advocate the idea of teaching reading with more complex text. But what about motivation? Won’t this approach discourage students?

Shanahan response:

I do support the idea of teaching reading with grade level texts. The theory that there is a magical way to match kids to books that will increase learning simply hasn’t panned out. Studies of the instructional level find that it at best makes no difference – that is, kids learn as much from grade level text as they do from instructional level ones. And, in the worst cases, the studies show that those easier text placements actually hold kids back and severely limit their learning.

Within-class grouping in reading is usually driven by the idea of trying to match kids to instructional level books. Studies show that those most likely to end up in the below grade level groups are racial or linguistic minorities, kids with disabilities, and high poverty kids (Hallinan & Sorenson, 1983). Groups who certainly don’t need to have their learning depressed by a flawed and out-of-date theory.

I recognize that when kids are starting out in kindergarten or first-grade, it is helpful to limit text difficulty since those kids need to master basic decoding. Having texts that repeat words and spelling patterns frequently is beneficial. Instructional level is fine in kindergarten and grade one, but by the time kids can read at a second-grade level, research champions more complex text.  

The instructional level scheme was first articulated in the 1940s, and part of the idea behind it was that it would limit students’ frustration. That’s why texts more challenging than instructional level are labeled “frustration level.” But that was the 1940s, when Freud was all the rage. Frustration then was something to be avoided at almost any cost.

The claim was that if students struggled with a text, that would cause frustration which would not only interrupt learning but would upset the child. As a result, he/she would be more likely to act out in class and have other psychological maladies.

Interesting theory… but it is consistent with data from real kids. Several years ago, Linda Gambrell and colleagues did a cool study. They determined which kids were placed in frustration level texts and observed their behavior in class. Sure enough, as expected, it was the kids in frustration level books who misbehaved.

So far so good.

Then they intervened. They changed the book placements so these students wouldn’t be psychologically frustrated anymore. The changes in book placements did nothing to improve these kids’ behavior.

The lowest kids almost always will be placed in relatively harder books than the better readers. Those are also the kids most likely to act out in your class. The mistake is to think that those two facts are connected. We imagine a causal link when none exists.

Roberts found that kids motivation for reading wasn't related to the degree to which the books matched their abilities; in other words, kids at "frustration level" were as interested in reading as their supposedly more aptly placed peers. Even studies that measure changes in motivation during reading tasks finds no connection between the two (Fulmer & Tullis, 2013).

I suspect this whole theory is buggy. Theories of motivation usually tout the motivating power of challenge, not comfort and ease. It is only the reading educator who dedicates himself/ herself to making sure there are no challenges to promote motivation.

Recent studies of the relationship of text difficulty on motivation suggest either no relationship or a markedly more complicated one than we have been operating under (e.g., Rosenzweig & Wigfield, 2017).

I suggest telling your students how demanding the instructional texts are going to be. Explain to them that you’ll be teaching them to books harder than anything they’ve ever tried in the past. Tell them that you will teach them with harder texts than anything you would have attempted with their older brothers and sisters.

Don’t get me wrong. No one wants to fail. It is not enough to tell kids how hard the books will be. You then have to make them successful with those books.

That’s where the teaching comes in. These days my goal is to start with a text that kids can’t read well already. But by the end of a series of lessons they should be able to. They should have command of the content and the vocabulary. They should be able to read it with fluency. Instead of placing kids at their instructional level, move on when they reach that level of proficiency.

When kids are challenged and their learning is obvious, you won’t need to worry about discouragement or a lack of motivation.


Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Gambrell, L. B., Wilson, R. M., & Gantt, W. N. (1981). Classroom observations of task-attending behaviors of good and poor readers. Journal of Educational Research, 74, 400-404.

Hallinan, M. T., and A. B. Sorensen. (1983). “The Formation and Stability of Instructional Groups.” American Sociological Review 48, 838–851.

Hunt, L.C. (1970/1997). The effect of self-selection, interest, and motivation upon independent, instructional, and frustration levels. Reading Teacher, 50(4), 278-282.

Killeen, P.R. (1994). Frustration: Theory and practice. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1, 323-326.

Roberts, T. (1976). ‘Frustration level’ reading in the infant school. Educational Research, 9, 41-44.

Rosenzweig, E.Q., & Wigfield, A. (2017). What if reading is easy but unimportant? How students’ patterns of affirming and undermining motivation for reading information texts predict different reading outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 48, 133-148.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jeffrey White Jul 25, 2020 05:17 PM

Thanks for sharing research on difficult texts. I teach German at a university Which is mush different than 1st language reading instruction. We use a genre based approach and aim to have our students doing extended reading on a novel midway through their fourth semester, and we combine this with writing in the summary genre. We address difficulty and frustration with our students, emphasize this as a process that improves over time, and work on making their reading strategies explicit. We also do a mindset activity that helps them draw parallels between earlier successes with challenges and the demands we are exposing them to with difficult reading. The results have been significant as these students then progress to read even more difficult texts in the 5th semester.

Ryan McCarty Jul 25, 2020 07:17 PM

Tim, i think this piece puts the finest point on what you have been saying for years. I love this point: “The lowest kids almost always will be placed in relatively harder books than the better readers. Those are also the kids most likely to act out in your class. The mistake is to think that those two facts are connected. We imagine a causal link when none exists.” One can see the appeal of “just right” texts to educators; it positions the teacher as masterfully orchestrating the emotional states of students through relatively simple actions- when the reality of what motivates and frustrates students is much more complex. Weaving in the fact that anyone who knows motivation knows challenge is motivating really brings your argument home.

Catalina Rico Jul 25, 2020 08:04 PM

I wonder if we shouldn't also consider the cultural or developmental relevance of texts as a motivating factor. We can challenge our readers with texts that are both complex and culturally and linguistically relevant. As Dr. Shanahan alludes, it is not incomprehensible then that the students least well served by reading instruction are also those students whose complex texts are one dimensional and/or not inclusive of their experiences or ignore the contributions or representation of people like them. Motivation is multilayered and requires that we scaffold not just the challenge of complex text but provide students with the drive to see themselves in the text they are being asked to make sense of. How is this done? With multiple opportunities to see themselves represented, celebrated and seen as experts in the content being presented.

Elizabeth Jul 25, 2020 08:57 PM

I wonder how you feel about placing students in separate classes when they are below grade level readers at the middle school level. My personal experience (not research based) is that those forced into the "other" class often have labels (sped or 504) and/or they are discipline problems. One year on my campus I advocated for "those" kids to be placed in my regular classroom with support. My experience was that they gained not only in academic performance (reading and writing) but their self esteem also grew. I also had zero discipline problems because I think they were engaged and also included with everyone else. Again, this is just my observation. Does the research back me up?

Timothy E Shanahan Jul 25, 2020 10:55 PM


Indeed, the research overwhelmingly backs you up. The top kids get a very small benefit from the practice, the other kids don't, and the kids in the bottom quartile or third end up losing much more than the top kids gain. The damages are academic and social.


Zach Weingarten Jul 26, 2020 12:19 AM

I think it's important to recognize that while challenging grade-level text as part of the general education curriculum is essential for students with disabilities, these students will typically need intensive intervention in addition to what is offered in the general education classroom, in order to make progress. For more information on intensive intervention see: https://intensiveintervention.org/

Helen Howell Jul 26, 2020 07:35 AM

What is the best way to scaffold challenging texts to make them accessible for homework, for example?

Tim Shanahan Jul 26, 2020 03:07 PM


Don’t send home homework that require substantial scaffolding.... students should be taught with harder books, but the teaching part is crucial.



Mitchell Jul 26, 2020 03:20 PM

I don't find that challenging texts are demotivating for students. In my experience, they get demotivated because of the teacher's instructional practice and the relevance of the topic at hand. If a teacher doesn't know how to scaffold appropriately, it results in academic student failure. What child is going to be motivated to continue with complex texts and everytime the teacher places one in front of him, he experiences defeat? Teachers need to approach the work of teaching complex texts from the standpoint of how can I ensure my students MASTER this text. Also, if we are to be honest, lots of children aren't motivated by texts that highlight topics that are not relevant to their context. Sometimes we need to really reflect on what knowledge is essential. Sometimes I look at text selections and think: "Who would be motivated to read that?" I understand that we need to expose children to array of topics, but I also wonder when does youth culture matter. Can we achieve balance between what matters to adults and kids? Kids are saying they are disengaged and we wonder why they aren't motivated. As educators, we really need to look in the mirror.

Tim Shanahan Jul 27, 2020 03:07 AM


Don’t send home homework that require substantial scaffolding.... students should be taught with harder books, but the teaching part is crucial.



Kim Malarkey Jul 27, 2020 01:26 PM

I'm a new teacher and I work with students who have IEPs in a 15:1 and co-teach settings in grades 7 & 8. My 15:1 students were more engaged reading the same novel "A Long Walk to Water" that their general education peers were reading. You're right, though I worry a bit about teaching "Lyddie" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" because the print is smaller, the books are longer, and there are way more multisyllable words to decode. Many of them are reading between a first and third grade level.

I've read both Kiltpatrick books, "Essentials" and "Equipped" and want to assess and teach PA and phonics within using more complex text. My current plan is to start off with Phonemic Awareness and I was looking for a phonics plan, mostly through recommendations from the SOR FB group such as V-S Rewards or 95% Group, but perhaps I can incorporate the phonics teaching within the complex text??? I could pull words from the complex text with similar characteristics and teach a mini-lesson on silent e or the suffix -tion by using word study activities from Kiltpatrick's "Equipped" Ch 6. My students and I also really like Jan Richardson's analogy charts and I may make a Sound Wall. First question, is is better to teach phonics using words from the complex text than through a separate phonics program? I have no OG or Wilson training, but could purchase a phonics program. Second question, should I attempt "To Kill a Mockingbird" with my grade 8 special ed. students in the 15:1 setting? I can scaffold by pre-teaching vocabulary and we supplemented with the graphic novel in the co-teach class last year. I just feel like I will be reading them the whole thing! I really appreciate your thoughts, Dr. Shanahan, as I am literally losing sleep over remediating my students' poor word identification while also challenging them with complex text. They're smart kiddos, but I only see most of them for 45 minutes a day!

What Are your thoughts?

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Will Challenging Text Put a Crimp in Students’ Motivation?


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