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Teacher question: I know you get a lot of pushback from teachers when you say that we should teach with complex text. But I agree with you. I don’t like all the testing and teaching kids in so many different books. This might surprise you, but I wonder why you don’t emphasize teaching complex text with children in kindergarten and first-grade?

Shanahan’s response:

Many states have adopted educational standards that emphasize teaching students to read texts at particular levels of difficulty.

This approach was long eschewed in fear that it would frustrate students. The claim has been that if kids were taught from texts beyond their instructional level (in other words texts that they couldn’t already read with 95% oral reading accuracy and 75% comprehension) that learning wasn’t possible. 

Research has repeatedly shown that not to be the case, however, and states have finally set text level targets that students should try to reach. 

However, no state has set such text requirements in grades K-1.

One of the reasons for this wise omission is because beginning readers need to learn to decode.

Recently I asked my three-year-old grand-daughter why she couldn’t read, and her response was, “I don’t know the words.”

That in a nutshell is the beginning reader’s greatest task …. figuring out how to the read the words.

According to the National Reading Panel and the National Early Literacy Panel, explicit phonics instruction is a big help in surmounting that hurdle. But research also suggests the importance of the words in those early reading books. Texts that include lots of word repetition, spelling redundancy, and conceptual familiarity appear to be facilitative of “code cracking” progress.

Ramping up text difficulty in Kindergarten and Grade 1 would mainly mean using rarer words, repeating them less often, and obscuring the consistency of their spelling patterns. That means making the texts more difficult to read (lower comprehension) AND impeding student learning progress (slowing the students’ grasp of decoding).

Research shows a different pattern with second-graders. Making instructional texts more challenging does interfere with comprehension. But—and here is the important point—it doesn’t make those books harder to learn from. In fact, studies show just the opposite. The increased difficulty provides greater opportunities to learn.

Educators have long confounded the role text plays in comprehension and in learning to read.

They’ve assumed that students needed to comprehend texts easily if they were to learn to read from them. Research has not supported that idea.

Comprehensibility and “learnabilty” are different concepts, at least when it comes to reading in Grades 2 and up.

It makes great sense for students to comprehend the texts they are working with at school, but such comprehensibility is not the starting point. In order to learn from text, one doesn’t have to start out comprehending. Comprehension does not have to happen without diligent effort and support.

It would be shrewder to think of instructional level not as the “price of admission” but as our instructional goal. That means we could work with texts that students cannot read comprehension well, but by the time we finish they’d be able to read them with at least 95% accuracy and 75% comprehension. 

We should treat beginning readers differently that we do older readers when it comes to beginning text.

By all means, read wonderfully complex books with sophisticated vocabulary to kids in kindergarten and grade one, but keep the words familiar, simple, and repetitive with the books they are to read themselves.

Sending kids to second grade with solid decoding skills and rich oral vocabularies will give them the foundation they’ll need to be able to learn from books that are beyond their instructional level when they are no longer beginners.


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About the Author

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 (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
July 5, 2019