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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

The Role of Motivation in Teaching with Complex Text

May 10, 2017

I’m vacationing in Aix-en-Provence. I’ve written before about teaching myself to read French, and now I’m enrolled in a spoken French class. Très hard!!!

Maybe not much of a vacation, and, yet, I’m gaining valuable insights into what we must do to teach successfully with complex text.

Our tour includes about a dozen people; some are studying French, and some are not. Because our group is petite, they could only provide two French options. One for absolute beginners, and the other a mid-level French course attended by immigrants to France.

My self-taught reading lessons — and sporadic forays with Duolingo and Rosetta Stone — placed me well beyond the beginner class. The advanced class is a better fit for me: I can read the textbook with facility, while the oral language demands are well beyond me (translation: I rarely know what is going on). I suspect I can now read French at something like a junior high school level, but my oral language skills are more in line with the attainments of an average two-year-old.

But what of my American classmates? One, with a Québécois background, is far ahead of me; but the other two — ooh la la.

We just finished our first week. The group that we’d joined had been working on a chapter for almost two weeks. That left us two days to master the material before the big exam. Needless to say, we were at a great disadvantage.

I did okay, but one member of my crew was devastated by how poorly she had scored. She was embarrassed and hurt by the experience. If they can’t find something more between the level of the two current classes, she’s out.

The thing is, I’ve observed this student this week and have no doubt that she could thrive in this environment. She is bright and motivated, but her sense of failure (and, let’s be honest, it is a rather small failure in the life of an evidently accomplished woman) and the possibility of social embarrassment (no matter how slight and brief), have been enough to derail her.

Of course, if she were taught at a level of French that was better matched to her current level of functioning she would have felt better about the whole experience. I doubt she would have learned as much, but she would have found it easier to maintain her efforts going forward.

So what does it take to teach someone to read with texts that are at their “frustration level?” Most state standards — and state tests — now require that students learn to read texts of particular levels. No more just teaching children at relatively easy levels (their so-called instructional levels).

Here are some insights from this week:


Learners must have some basic foundation of a language before it makes sense to take on much complexity. In reading, that basically means kids should develop their decoding skills early — and, then later, we can worry about cranking up text levels. K-1 teachers may read complex texts to children, but beginners themselves need to read texts that will help them gain decoding facility and the basic concept of how reading works. Studies show clear benefits from working with complex text as early as grade two, but there are no such studies earlier than that. Focus early instructional attention on mastering decoding skills and applying those skills to texts simple enough to allow success.

It is essential that students have a high level of motivation if they are going to succeed with particularly demanding texts. I hear frequently from teachers who want to motivate kids to be lifelong readers, but not so much about those concerned about motivating sustained learning efforts during reading lessons. Perhaps they think that is already being accomplished, but my own classroom observations caution that they should think again. Obeying is not the same as engagement. Are kids doing as you tell them or are they trying to learn something? Kids need a lot of encouragement to succeed with demanding text, or they’ll end up like my classmate.

Explain to children that they are being asked to do something hard, and let them know how hard it is. We’ve spent generations hiding book levels and reading levels from the kids. I’m suggesting we do the opposite. “Johnny, right now you can read second-grade books. I’m going to teach you with a third-grade book. That means it is going to be hard; even harder than it will be for some of your friends who can already read a bit better. But don’t worry I’m going to help you. Together, if we both work hard at this, you’ll succeed.”

Learning to read is incremental. Find ways of allowing kids to see their gains, week-to-week and even day-to-day. I don’t care if it is an accumulating list of vocabulary words, or a series of graded books/passages that let kids see for themselves that they are making progress. The more specific this information, the better. Occasional conferences and pep talks to discuss student progress make sense, too. Many teachers hold conferences to talk about “independent reading” books, but what about conferences about a students’ reading progress?

Scaffold, scaffold, scaffold. We’ve been working with two different French teachers. One buries us in her quiet and quick oral language and we’re all struggling to figure out what she is saying (and we’re all too anxious or embarrassed to tell her, “répétez ” or “je ne comprend pas” (I don’t understand). While the other teacher speaks more slowly, repeats herself more often, pauses between sentences, does effective member-checking (she’ll look me in the eye and say, “tu comprends?”). They both let us see print versions when we do not understand. In other words, these teachers know many ways to make us successful. They demonstrate. They explain. They show us the same idea in other forms. They even have us reading and rereading texts over and over in multiple ways. That should be happening with kids, too.

How often do you pull a sentence out to see if kids are figuring out how to make sense of its complex grammar? How often are kids being asked the meanings of words that can be figured out from context? How often are you quizzing kids on the connections among referents? Are they just answering questions or are they searching to locate particular information in the text? How purposeful is the oral reading within reading comprehension instruction? Too often, guided reading looks like an oral quiz rather than a quest to figure out what a text says and how to unlock that information.

Repetition is critical. If you are trying to learn to read a text that is above your level, you need to read it multiple times, including reading it both silently and aloud, reading it chorally, listening to it being read while following along, and so on.

We can teach students to read better with more complex text, but we can screw it up, too. Adjusting text levels requires a changing of instructional procedures and supports. 

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"I feel the need of reading. It is a loss to a man not to have grown up among books." —

Abraham Lincoln