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I don’t do this often, but occasionally a study that catches my eye is particularly pertinent to questions that teachers are asking me.

National surveys suggest that middle and high school teachers are increasingly likely to place kids in texts that are relatively easy to read (Rand, 2017; Thomas Fordham Foundation, 2018) — texts that are supposedly at the students’ “instructional levels.”

Teachers ask me all the time how they can be expected to use high school level texts when so few kids in their classes are reading at grade level.

And, yet, high school students often tell me that they hate being placed in what they refer to as the “stupid books.”

That’s where this new study comes in.

This study examined the reading comprehension of 293 ninth graders (Lupo, et al., 2019), who were randomly assigned within classes to easy or challenging versions of the instructional texts.

The students’ reading comprehension on the instructional text was evaluated at the end of each lesson, and general reading comprehension level was tested at the end of the 12-week intervention.

One interesting finding: “Only a small subset of students who read significantly below average, many of whom were identified as English learners, benefited from reading the easier versions.”

In other words, as long as there was instructional support, most of the students were able to make sense of the texts.

The two approaches to instruction support were either Listen-Read-Discuss or KWL; the latter being the most successful of the two in supporting student reading. In other words, neither of these instructional approaches were aimed at providing any kind of targeted support for dealing with the actual variables that were making the challenging texts so difficult (e.g., vocabulary, cohesion, tone).

Nevertheless, except for a small number of particularly struggling second language students, shifting to easier text was not beneficial in terms of increasing student understanding of the instructional texts. Which means there is no good reason, for most students or situations, to shift older students to easier texts to facilitate their reading — as long as you are ready to provide instructional support.

That means not using texts that poorly support content standards.

That means not trying to manage multiple text levels.

That means not stigmatizing or isolating the lower readers.

Why do it if there isn’t an instructional benefit?

Interesting finding 2: These students made some learning gains in general comprehension over the 12-weeks of instruction. They made the same amount of gain whether they worked with the easier or harder texts.

In other words, working with texts that were likely closer to the students’ instructional levels provided no learning advantage. This finding matches with the results found in several elementary grade studies (such comparisons either find no learning benefits due to the use of the easier texts, or that the easier texts actually are a detriment to student learning).  

Gosh. I wish the researchers had asked the kids how they felt about their text placements. Experience tells me the ones with the more challenging text will feel more respected.

Another interesting finding: There was no difference in reading comprehension due to text difficulty between even most of the low readers.

But what about the small number of particularly low students (mainly second-language learners) who actually did do better with the easier texts?

The study doesn’t do much with this finding, so my thoughts are just speculation.

For example, I wish they would have identified that small group of students to see what happened to their general reading comprehension over the 12 weeks. It seems likely that such an analysis would be spoiled by small sample size, but it might be interesting just to see what happened with these students.

Also, remember, there was no specific instructional support aimed at the linguistic or conceptual factors that may have been consequential in making sense of these texts. KWL focuses on prior knowledge and Listen-Read-Discuss focuses on decoding. I wouldn’t necessarily expect either of those interventions to be particularly helpful for second-language learners.

Again, man, I wish they would have had a vocabulary intervention, or one aimed at “juicy sentences” (thank you, Lily Wong-Fillmore), or cohesion, or text structure. Those kinds of interventions may have been more successful, but even without that, classes clearly were not hindered by teaching students with complex text.

We have so many opinions on the importance of instructional texts for student learning (e.g., Betts, Fountas & Pinnell, Calkins, Richardson), and attempts to reason from irrelevant studies by analogy (Allington)… but there just aren’t that many direct tests of those claims.

Lupo and company have made a valuable contribution, and one that is entirely consistent with past direct tests of the proposition that easier texts facilitate comprehension and learning. I know it’s easier and I know its popular, but putting kids in text below grade level is a bad idea in most cases.


Lupo, S. M., Tortorelli, L., Invernizzi, M., Ryoo, J. H. (2019). An exploration of text difficulty and knowledge support on adolescents’ comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(4), 457-479.


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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
November 5, 2019