Won’t Student Motivation Be Damaged If We Teach with Complex Text?

  • challenging text complex text motivation
  • 08 October, 2022

Teacher question:

I understand your claims that teaching students with grade level texts instead of instructional level texts increases children’s opportunities to learn. However, what about children’s emotional needs, self-esteem, motivation, and self-starting skills when text is challenging. Children who struggle with sight words or sounding out words who are given a hard piece of text will shut down and refuse to try or will act out in the classroom. I always thought that the purpose of avoiding frustration level texts was to avoid frustrating children who were trying to learn to read. What am I missing?

RELATED: Teaching Students to Use Context

Shanahan response:

You’re not alone in your concerns for the motivational or affective aspects of teaching children to read with complex text. I’ll provide an explanation of what they have figured out about these relationships in a moment. First, let me address a misconception that you appear to have.

The idea of having students reading grade level text or difficult text or even frustration level text has not been proposed for beginning readers. The state standards that require students to learn to read grade level texts do so for Grades 2 and up – not kindergarten or first grade. Likewise, all the research that has been done revealing the benefits of teaching students at grade level rather than instructional level were done in Grades 2 and up. There is no evidence that such an approach would be beneficial with younger readers, and there are some serious concerns about its potential value (Hiebert, 1999).

A major factor in text difficulty for young children is the decodability of the text. Students at that point are learning to recognize and use letters and spelling patterns to connect printed words to oral language. Teaching with more difficult texts from the start would mean working with texts that will have less accessible spelling patterns and less repetition of words that helps fix those patterns in memory. Teaching beginners with complex text would be counterproductive.

However, the research suggests that by grade 2, most students are likely to have those most basic decoding skills under their belts and that more challenging texts can be beneficial for learning. Perhaps young children would “shut down” if asked to read more difficult texts, but let’s not find out. There appears to be no potential learning benefit to such an approach, so let’s not go that way.

Given that from Grade 2 on, it is sensible to confront children with texts supposedly at their “frustration levels,” we should be concerned about the motivational implications of that approach.

Researchers have long hypothesized that more difficult text placements would increase reading avoidance and reduce the amount of student reading. The claim has been that overly demanding instruction leads to misbehavior and inattention, and, consequently, to lowered learning and reading avoidance.

Students placed in more challenging texts do exhibit more behavior problems (Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981; Gickling & Armstrong, 1978; Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977; Treptow, Burns, & McComas, 2007). However, only one of these studies considered alternative explanations for this correlation. Gambrell and company observed that lower achieving students were more likely to be placed in what for them were challenging texts and to misbehave. However, these behavior problems were evident whether these students were taught from frustration or instructional level texts. The correlation was more due to who is placed in challenging text rather than the text placement itself. 

Other evidence on this issue is somewhat mixed, but my overall take is that the research has not found clearly found text challenge to be a motivational problem. If it is, it has not yet been proven.

Studies on these issues have varied much in rigor and applicability. In one study, there were only 3 students and there were only 8 in another. Also, their findings were not based on reading alone, but on other tasks too (like workbook activities). Most importantly, I think, how they operationalized the instructional level differed. For example, in one of these studies, the frustration level students had to perform at lower than 80% accuracy in fluency – far below more traditional criteria and not especially convincing.

In a study of the impact of text placement on attitude towards reading (Roberts, 1976), 125 second- and third graders from 6 schools were examined. Fifty-seven percent of these students had been placed in frustration level texts for instruction. Despite this, student attitudes towards reading were as positive for these students as for those who were “appropriately placed.”

Perhaps this should not be surprising given the levels of books that students evidently prefer reading independently. Studies have repeatedly report that students, even the best readers, tend to prefer texts at their frustration levels – presumably because of the appeal of the content and sophistication of the harder texts (Donovan, Smorkin, & Lomax, 2000; Fresch, 1995; Halladay, 2009).

Most of the research on this issue has been conducted with older students. How applicable these data are to the elementary grades is unknown, however I think at least some of the insights this research has generated should be considered.

Researchers have examined how interest and affect may be influenced by text placement during student reading (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013; Tullis & Fullmer, 2013). In these studies, it was theorized that, “demanding tasks can hinder students’ motivation resulting in higher negative affect … and lower interest and enjoyment” (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013, p. 13). To test this hypothesis sixth- and seventh graders read texts at and above their reading levels, and interest and affect were measured immediately before and after each reading. There were variations with the different passages but generally it was found that the better readers started out with greater interest in reading, but as they read the at-level text their interest declined. The opposite was true when they were asked to read more challenging texts. Student persistence more than text difficulty impacted engagement.  

Yet, from these data, it seems unlikely student affect or motivation would vary consistently due to text levels which is consistent with modern motivation theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Ninth graders in Germany were less motivated when required to read more difficult books in their literature classes (Locher, Becker, & Pfost, 2019). But the picture is more complicated than that. According to the students, at least part of this negative affect was due to grading procedures, competition for grades, and whether the texts were classical literature or contemporary literature. Likewise, there was no relationship between text difficulty and motivation when students were selecting texts for their own recreational reading, implicating student self-determination as well. In other words, the relationship between text level and affect was very complicated – and it is difficult to determine what is causing what.

Several studies with older students have found a greater amount of mind wandering during the reading of complex texts (Feng, D'Mello, & Graesser, 2013; Forrin, Risko, & Smilek, 2019; Mills, Graesser, Risko, & D'Mello, 2017; Mills, D’Mello, & Kopp, 2015), though there are also studies that have not been able to find that. In the ones that have, students appear to better able to control their attention when reading easier texts. This relationship disappears when students find the texts to be interesting (Fulmer, D’Mello, Strauss, & Graesser, 2015; Soemer, Idsardi, Minnaert, & Schiefele, 2019). One question this raises for me, is whether we should avoid asking students to read texts they find challenging so their minds won’t wander, or if our instruction should focus on helping them to develop attentional control?

Other approaches to text difficulty and reader engagement have resulted in contradictory findings. Some studies report lower engagement in reading tasks (Guthrie, Klauda, & Ho, 2013), more reports of anxiety, anger, and boredom on the part of the students (Acee, et al., 2010); Efklides, 2002; Efklides & Petkaki, 2005; Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002), and less interest (Durik & Matarazzo). While others have found more reading engagement, deeper cognitive processing, and greater learning (Bjork & Bjork, 2011; Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Linn, Chang, Chiu, Zhang, & McElhaney, 2011; McNamara & Kintsch, 1996).

Whatever the relationship may be between being asked to read difficult text and affect, motivation, attitude, or behavior, it is not straightforward. There are many student, text, and task variables that play a role in all of this, and none of them consistently impacts motivation or engagement.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the possibility that in each situation, with a given text, and a given child, text difficulty may exert some small impact upon motivation. That suggests the need for instructional adjustments.

(1)   Explain to students what you’re up to when you intentionally place them in texts they cannot already easily read. They need to know what the goals are and how they can recognize if they are improving in their ability to handle these texts. Give the students some sense of self determination.

(2)   Students may balk at working with difficult texts in fear of failing. They need to develop trust and confidence in you that you won’t let that happen. I very much like the idea of using the instructional level as an outcome rather than a starting point. What I mean by that is that if on Monday you begin working with a text that students read at a frustration level, that by Friday they should be able to read it with the levels of fluency and comprehension fit instructional level criteria.

(3)   Remember that the teacher’s job is to teach students how to read these texts successfully. Teaching with difficult text requires more than just having kids practice reading with some follow up questions. They need guidance in recognizing and making use of explicit vocabulary definitions that may exist in text, how to use context and morphology to determine the meanings of undefined words, how to break down sentences to enable comprehension, how to track cohesive ties through a text, and how to make sense of text structure, data presentation devices, and literary devices.

(4)   Studies have shown that self-determination and interest can offset any anxiety raised by challenging text demands. Consider allowing for some student role in selecting text; perhaps present two or three challenging text alternatives that the group can choose among or consider topical interests when deciding what complex texts to present.

(5)   Vary your routine. Not every instructional text must be equally hard. You might labor through one or two demanding shorter texts, followed by the reading of a relatively easier and longer one that will require less student persistence and teacher scaffolding.

(6)   Divide a text up and take on parts of it rather than trying to digest it all in one bite.

(7)   Smile, be encouraging. It couldn’t hurt.  


READ MORE ARTICLE HERE: Shanahan On Literacy's Blogs


Acee, T. W., Kim, H., Kim, H., Kim, J., Chu, H.-N. R., Kim, M., et al. (2010). Academic boredom in under- and over-challenging situations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35, 17–27

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Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

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See what others have to say about this topic.

Andrew Biemiller Oct 08, 2022 08:39 PM

Hi Tim,
I think there are more students who have not mastered decoding by the end of grade two--especially in boards that continue to deemphasize decoding in grades one and two. There are even more students whose vocabularies are not adequate to "grade level" texts (really texts readable by "median" children). There are a lot with below-median vocabularies--or worse, below the 4th decile. What is challenging (or easy) for above-median students, can be excessively "challenging" for lower-vocabulary students.
Cheers, Andy

Timothy Shanahan Oct 08, 2022 09:04 PM

Adults imagine that such texts are excessively challenging for those students, when we look at actual data we find that they make greater reading progress when working with more difficult texts. There is no question that harder texts mean lower reading comprehension with the texts being used for instruction -- but it also means greater progress in learning.


Jordan Dave Oct 12, 2022 02:07 PM

Certainly, complex text is great for some subjects, but not for others. When it comes to educational texts, complex text does not have any advantage over simple text.

Khari Shabazz Oct 09, 2022 02:20 PM

Absolutely love the recommendations.

I would encourge educators to unleash the power of whole class and/or small group discourse. Giving children the opportunity to talk to each other about what they read, can motivate and inspire them to overcome difficulty.

Timothy Shanahan Oct 12, 2022 02:12 PM


That actually is not true... in fact, studies show that the use of complex text can lead to higher reading achievement.


David Oct 13, 2022 11:01 PM

Hi, Tim! Florida is in its second year of implementing its new standards for ELA K-2, which we refer to as our Benchmarks (BEST Standards).

You commented that the “state standards that require students to learn to read grade level texts do so for Grades 2 and up – not kindergarten or first grade.”

While Florida’s Kindergarten benchmarks do not require students to read grade level texts, our 1st Grade benchmarks do. https://tinyurl.com/3sspac7y

Do you view this as an error on Florida’s part?

Timothy Shanahan Oct 14, 2022 08:15 PM

Yes, it could be a problem. In the 1980s when beginning reading books grew harder, beginning reading achievement plunged. Nevertheless, there is no direct study of this, so maybe we'll find out that it doesn't matter. Also, in other states, as standards have increased the reading demands on students, teachers have ignored the requirements and have continued to teach students with instructional level texts. Perhaps the same will happen in Florida.


Gayle Meisenhelter Nov 08, 2022 02:08 PM

Hi Tim!
Thank you for your insight. I always learn so much from you. However, the sentence in your article that I would like to know more about is:
"One question this raises for me, is whether we should avoid asking students to read texts they find challenging so their minds won’t wander, or if our instruction should focus on helping them to develop attentional control?" I feel like there is so much depth to this statement...it could be another article! :)

Timothy Shanahan Nov 08, 2022 07:20 PM

Thanks. Research does show that when people read challenging text they are more prone to mind wandering (I think the same thing happens during lectures). Part of Executive Control and metacognition is to be aware when you are losing control of attention and how to redirect that. I do think we need to focus on such issues explicitly with students, though I can't point to specific examples of this in the literature. In a classroom, teachers control this kind of thing by having the texts read aloud, or keeping the portions of silent reading brief, or having kids read relatively easy text... but I'm talking about teaching kids to recognize that that happens, and to regain that kind of attentional control when it does (kind of like athletes do). Indeed, that would make a worthwhile blog entry.


Sebastian Wren Nov 15, 2022 05:26 PM

A lot of the 2nd grade students we work with in our intervention program are not reading with great fluency. Would you agree that explicit fluency instruction (repeated reading with feedback) should probably be with easier text? We do fold in some comprehension and vocabulary instruction in our fluency lessons, but mostly we're focused on their facility with reading the text. In my head I have a rule of thumb that students reading 50 words per minute should have easy text, but students reading 70+ WPM can handle more challenging text.

Timothy Shanahan Nov 15, 2022 10:05 PM


No, I don't. Research has pretty consistently shown that kids make better progress with fluency when they work with texts they cannot already read fluently. 50 wcpm is what an average second grader reads at the beginning of second grade. The notion that you should wait until mid-year second grade for the average student to being working with the kinds of texts associated with the best gains makes no sense to me.


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Won’t Student Motivation Be Damaged If We Teach with Complex Text?


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