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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.

Eight Ways to Help Kids to Read Complex Text

June 27, 2020

Blast from the Past: This entry was first issued on September 6, 2016 and it was reissued on June 27, 2020. This week several readers on social media have reposted some of my earlier writings on teaching with complex text, and this month American Educator published a new article of mine on this topic. Given that, I thought it might be a good time to pull this blog back which suggests several practical steps to teaching students to make sense of complex text. If a better question doesn't emerge in the next couple of weeks, perhaps i'll write a new follow up, adding some additional ways teachers can support the reading of complext text.

Teacher Question: My district is currently "grappling" with the idea of asking students to read complex text if they are significantly below the grade level. As an example, within one fourth grade class, a teacher identified that more than half her class is 1-2 grade levels below the expectation for reading (using multiple measures). Her response is to change the level of the text, and try to move the students forward. The common theme in our schools is that growth is what matters, not proficiency.

However, our new reading series expects students to perform in more complex texts. Even the "approaching" level books are above what we typically would ask struggling students to read. Could you give some specific examples of how to scaffold, when students are unable to read half the words on a page? 

Shanahan's response:

First, determine which grade-level materials are the right fit for each student. If students are reading like first-graders — that is, they are struggling with decoding (and the statement that kids can’t read 50% of the words in their book sounds like kids who are more than 1-2 years below level) — then you definitely should be trying to teach them out of easier books, not grade level ones. Indeed, the complex text prescription is not for them. However, if they are that low, you should be doing more than placing them in low demand reading books. You also should be providing them with substantial amounts of phonics and fluency training in class as well (like 30 minutes per day of each), and, perhaps providing them additional training in those outside of class.

However, if your fourth-graders really are reading like second- or third graders then teaching them with grade level materials makes sense. It not only means that you would be teaching your students what your state has committed you to teach them, but you would be exposing them to content or ideas more appropriate to their intellectual functioning and interests

Second, vary the reading demands on these students who will be working with, what for them, will be challenging text. They should be doing what athletes do, which is varying the degree of difficulty when they train. Some texts should be easier, some harder — with less scaffolding and support with the easier ones, and more with the harder ones. Traditionally, experts have argued that all instructional reading should be at the instructional level; I’m suggesting that it should vary, both up and down for maximum impact. Harder texts give students opportunities to negotiate the features of text that can be barriers to comprehension, while easier texts give them the opportunity to consolidate that learning.

Third, let the kids in on the secret. Tell them what you are doing. Make sure they know that instead of teaching them out of second grade books or other baby stuff you will be teaching them to read out of a fourth grade book; it will be harder, but also more interesting and more respectful. In my experience, which matches a lot of research on motivation, kids like challenge, especially if you’ll help them to succeed with it. The point isn’t to scare the students, but to let them know what’s going on, why you are doing it, and assuring them that you intend to make them successful.

Fourth, if students are far behind, reverse the order that you normally use with guided reading and fluency practice. Most teachers will have kids read a selection for comprehension in the reading group and then have them practice reading that text aloud afterwards. That way, kids can quickly accomplish fluency with a text, since they have already read it once or twice and discussed it with the teacher. However, with kids two or more grade levels behind, it makes sense to reverse things. Give those kids a chance to read the text aloud once or twice before doing the comprehension reading in the group. (This can be done lots of ways: tape recorders, parent volunteers, paired reading, echo reading with the teacher… whatever).  If kids have tried to read through the text once or twice before hand they will be in much better shape for trying to make sense of the harder text. Even though the emphasis of the fluency work would not be on comprehension, they’ll figure out more of the ideas than you might presume and, most importantly in this context, they will have figured out enough of the decoding to have “raised their level” with that text by at least a grade level.

Fifth, preteach vocabulary that the author does not explain or define. If a word is explained in the text or you think kids can figure it out from context, do not take time to preteach it. But words that you don’t think students will know, tell them ahead of time. With fourth graders it is usually enough to give them a glossary for those words.

Sixth, when reading the text for comprehension, chunk it into small sections (a paragraph, a page)… Asking questions at the end of each and guiding rereading when kids can’t answer the questions. As they get better with this, stretch them out, by giving them larger chunks

Seventh, go through the text and identify particularly complicated sentences (e.g., long sentences, sentences in passive voice, sentences with multiple clauses). During discussion time, ask a question about the ideas expressed in those sentences. If students can’t answer them, then take them back to the sentence in the text and show them how to break it down to make sense of it. It’s amazing that teachers, who are often willing to guide kids in breaking down multi-syllable words, don’t provide similar support with complicated sentences.

Eighth, pay special attention to cohesion … kids get lost in synonyms, pronouns, etc. Get students to be explicit about who “he” is, or what animal was being referred to as “the mammal.” There are exercises that can be done to strengthen these skills, like drawing connecting lines between those words, but it can be enough to question kids closely about those relations.

Even more can be done, but those supports are substantial and effective. There is an extensive body of research supporting their effectiveness, both in improving student reading achievement and in transforming frustration level text into instructional text.


Going through the text and identifying complicated sentences works well with students.

As a parent and someone who works in schools, I see how important clear speech can be. Often times students are not given the proper tools to be able to express clearly what they know. They end up getting by with vague explanations and just enough to make it seem like they understand or they understand, but cannot clearly put the words together. I find that there are some children who have a good understanding of the material, but have a hard time expressing their thoughts or giving over ideas, either verbally or in written form. Your eighth suggestion would go a long way in helping this difficulty, certainly with more difficult text, but even with text that is relatively basic. By needing to answer pointed questions about difficult segments of the text they can build their comprehension and verbal explanation skills, so that hopefully as text gets increasingly difficult their skills will continue to improve and teachers will have their radars up to make sure that students truly know the information and do not just accept a general response. There can sometimes also be a memory difficulty when a child often relies on pronouns instead of details and it is helpful to press a little further to make sure that they are clear on who is being referenced. You mention some exercises to strengthen this skill and to build comprehension, but do you have any other specific ways of practicing this type of review for a text? All of the suggestions for dealing with difficult text are great, but I believe that the final one is the least obvious or intuitive, and therefore the most helpful to mention. I really appreciate you compiling this to help educators deal with the dilemma of needing to teach texts that are above the level of some of the students within a class, which happens all too often.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln