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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Don’t Confuse Reading Comprehension and Learning to Read — Rereading

Teacher question: You say that we should teach students to read with grade level texts. But my professor (I’m working on a master’s degree in reading) says that would be a big mistake since harder texts have been found to lower students’ fluency and comprehension (Amendum, Conradi, & Hiebert, 2017). Your research says one thing and his says something else. How can I sort this out? I kind of think that he is right since my students don’t read as well when I put them in the grade level books.

Shanahan’s response:

This is an easy question to answer: I’m right and your professor is wrong. Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah!

That didn’t convince you? Well, let’s try again.

The correct answer to your question depends on what your purpose is.

Your professor (and the research study he cited) are focused on how well students can read a text. They are correct – students generally don’t read harder texts as well as simpler ones. That means that if your goal is to ensure students read a particular text well – fluently and with high comprehension – then place the students in those easier texts.

However, ensuring a strong reading performance with a particular text is rarely a teacher’s goal. The point of lessons isn’t to demonstrate how well students can already read a text.

No, lessons are supposed to help kids improve their reading ability. That’s a very different thing.

Your professor is confusing reading comprehension and learning to read. Research shows that students read simpler texts better, but it doesn’t show such reading to be particularly powerful in making students into better readers.

In fact, the research shows just the opposite (Shanahan, 2020).

More complex texts provide students with an opportunity to learn — to learn the unknown words, to learn how to untangle the complex syntax, to learn to track the subtle connections across a text, and so on. If students can already read texts reasonably well (95% fluency, 75% reading comprehension), there isn’t much for them to learn from those texts.

The article that you cited recognizes the difference. “If we give students more complex texts without any support, we are unlikely to see the benefits… Specifically, we draw attention to the importance of scaffolds and instructional supports to assist students as they read more challenging texts” (Amendum, Conradi, & Hiebert, 2017, p. 146).

In other words, they are saying that you can’t just dump hard texts into your classroom and expect to see reading gains.

Don’t avoid complex texts — teach students to read them.

How to do that? There are many scaffolds and instructional routines that have a basis in research (there are several blogs, articles, and PowerPoints about that on this site) but let’s take a quick look at one easy to use support that really helps.

There is a surprising amount of research that explores the impact of rereading and usually with positive results. When understanding doesn’t come automatically from a single read, it makes great sense to devote some time to rereading.

What might you expect with a second reading?

  • Improved reading fluency with lower reading times, fewer regressions, and a greater depth of comprehension (Xue, Jacobs, & Lüdtke, 2020)
  • Comprehension improvement especially for low comprehenders and students with low working memory (Griffin, Wiley, & Thiede, 2008)
  • Incorporation of more information into students’ text memory — particularly causally connected information (Millis & King, 2001)
  • Improved literary appreciation (Kuijpers & Hakemulder, 2018)
  • Improved metacomprehension (Rawson, Dunlosky, & Theide, 2000)
  • Improved integration between text and graphics (Mason, Tornatora, & Pluchino, 2015)
  • Readers perceive the text as being easier to understand (Margolin & Snyder, 2018)
  • Having students reread texts or parts of texts can improve student reading performance. But even rereading benefits from instructional guidance.

The study that found greater attention to causal connections (Millis & King, 2001) found this to be true with both good and poor readers, but the impacts were greatest with the better readers. Good readers had a clearer idea of the kinds of information to seek when they reread. Teaching students to look causal connections, including signal words (e.g., because, so, so that, if … then, consequently), would make sense.

Lack of that kind of instruction may be why some studies report no benefits from rereading (Callender, et al., 2009) or that rereading is less effective than other more intentional study approaches (Weinstein, McDermott, & Roediger, 2010).

One interesting study with elementary students found that reading and rereading had no impact on reading comprehension. But reading-retelling-rereading was effective (Koskinen, Gambrell & Kapinus, 1989). Perhaps the retelling step sensitized the students to what they were missing, which made the rereading more purposeful. Another study successfully guided fourth graders to reread specific parts of the text with positive results (Bossert & Schwantes, 1995).

In any event, rereading has the power to transform a difficult read into an easier one and learning to make sense of texts that one can’t already read easily is at the heart of successful reading instruction.

Tell your professor that!

Selected comments

Comment from Harriett 

Thanks, Tim, for this very useful information which confirms my experiences teaching third graders. I recently came across a video on PALS (opens in a new window) (peer assisted learning strategies), which incorporates rereading and retelling. It’s a program out of Vanderbilt. I’m wondering whether you’ve heard about it and have any specific recommendations related to it. My understanding is that the chosen reading passage for the peers to read together is at the ‘instructional level’ of the academically weaker student, but I can see value in doing this activity with grade-level material. What are your thoughts?

“With PALS (opens in a new window), every student in the class is paired, and each pair consists of one student who is academically stronger than the other. PALS sessions vary from 20 to 45 minutes in duration 2 to 4 times a week. During these sessions, the students in a pair take turns as tutor and tutee while working on structured activities that introduce grade-relevant skills and hones in on the difficulties each pair of students may be experiencing. The pairing creates 10 to 15 instructional experiences in a given classroom.”

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Harriett —

Yeah, PALS is good (as are similar routines). Personally, when I have kids reading to each other as partners, I supervise it – cruising among the pairs. I think that works best and allows the teacher to adjust texts accordingly (if a kid is being overwhelmed by a text, you can make and adjustment). No question that the further the teacher is from the student, the less benefit to a placement in more challenging text. I’d probably go a bit harder at third grade than they recommend — try dropping back to 90% accuracy on a cold read and see how that works. I think you’ll get more learning without more frustration on the part of the kids. You might be able to go harder than that, but probably not very much (85%??). With younger kids (K-1), I definitely would not go that hard because of the need for a decoding focus.


Comment from Tracy

One additional challenge with improving the learner’s reading comprehension is increasing their mental stamina for reading challenging text. Are you able to provide any suggestions for developing their mental stamina when engaging the challenging text?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Tracy —

Indeed, difficulty and length multiply each other … hanging for an especially hard read is not bad for a short period, but may be too much for a long period. How to build stamina? Do the same kinds of things that I’ve recommended above but do in short doses (think in pages or numbers of word to be read). Start out with short texts or short pieces of text — could be as short as a single sentence. When students show they can read the short piece well and maintain stamina, start increasing the length … 1 sentence, 2 sentences, 1 paragraph, 2 paragraphs, 25 words, 40 words, 70 words … keep doing that kind of exercise, stretching kids out for longer reads. Question them closely to make sure they are really reading it well. Don’t make it a straight climb up… do 2-3 harder or longer reads, then drop back to some easier ones, and then ramp it up.


Comment from Wilma

Hello. It was a great experience of learning journey reading your response to thus particular question concerning the grade level texts and improving reader’s fluency and comprehension. Relative to your response, I would like to ask how do teachers determine whether a text is a complex one? Will it be correct to first consider the reading ability of the readers in determining whether a text is complex or not?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Wilma —

Difficulty and complexity are different but related concepts. Difficulty has to do with how hard someone finds a text to be (as measured by how well they comprehended, how long it took them to read, or their own self judgment). Complexity has to do with a series of continua that exist across texts … vocabulary varies in terms of how common the words are, how abstract they are, their numbers of potential meanings, whether the words are in embedded in idiomatic expressions, etc.; syntax varies in terms of how long and complicated the sentences are, the amount of embedding, etc. We can go through that for pretty much every feature of text: cohesion, organization, relationship of text to graphics, including the content — depth, level of detail, explicitness of the content.

More complexity overall tends to increase difficulty — but that is not always the case. Fifth grade books are more complex than 2nd grade books and yet at your reading level, switching from one to the other is not a problem. Similarly, a student might find a book on a familiar topic to be quite readable, even if similarly complex texts on less familiar topics would not be.

I usually depend on readability formulas, like Lexiles, to give me a rough sense of the relative difficulty of a text. That will provide a reasonable approximation — this text may be a little hard for 2nd graders. I’ll give it a read myself looking to see what the potential barriers to understanding (those complexity features). That way I can focus some instruction on those features (or at least some comprehension questions to see which ones are problematic for my students).

In the example in this blog entry, I am really just looking for text difficult — for these students — since the way I’m going to try to get them to deal with the features isn’t through direct feature instruction but through rereading. I only needed a text hard enough that my students wouldn’t do well with it on a first read.


Comment from William

How does this article inform the Balanced Reading Approach (aka Fountas and Pinnell) to learning to read? Balanced Reading is based on a theory of action that students can improve their reading ability and comprehension through an exposure to increasing levels of text complexity. In my view Balanced Reading is based on a failed theory of action that reading ability can be acquired in the same way that oral language is acquired through increased exposure. As you argue, reading must be taught. As Chomsky argues the ability to acquire oral language is hard-wired in the brain and requires minimal exposure to be acquired. Reading is different. It must be explicitly taught. What are your thoughts? Have you read The Fog of Education?

Reply from Tim Shanahan

For 150 years, reading educators have claimed that students had to read texts that they could read easily if they were to learn to read. For the past 70 years, the advice has been much more pointed– with claims that there were particular ways to match kids to books that somehow improved reading achievement … Fountas & Pinnell’s version of Guided Reading is a popular example of that. Over the past couple of decades, however, research has been accumulating that suggests that students (Grades 2-12) make greater learning progress when they work with relatively harder texts. Teaching kids with texts that they can read with 95% word reading accuracy and 75-89% reading comprehension on a cold read with no assistance simply gives them too little opportunity to figure anything out that would help them read better. My point here is that if teachers are going to follow the research — and they should — they should worry less about how well kids read on a first swing, and how they can help kids to improve on a second (figuring out what stumped you the first time contributes more to learning).


See all comments here › (opens in a new window)


Amendum, S.J., Conradi, K., & Hiebert, E. (2017). Does text complexity matter in the elementary grades? A research synthesis of text difficulty and elementary students’ reading fluency and comprehension. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 121-151.

Bossert, T. S., & Schwantes, F. M. (1995). Children’s comprehension monitoring: Training children to use rereading to aid comprehension. Reading Research and Instruction, 35(2), 109-121. doi: (opens in a new window)

Callender, A. A., & McDaniel, M. A. (2009). The limited benefits of rereading educational texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 34(1), 30-41. doi: (opens in a new window)

Griffin, T. D., Wiley, J., & Thiede, K. W. (2008). Individual differences, rereading, and self-explanation: Concurrent processing and cue validity as constraints on metacomprehension accuracy. Memory & Cognition, 36(1), 93-103. doi: (opens in a new window)

Koskinen, P. S., Gambrell, L. B., & Kapinus, B. A. (1989). The effects of rereading and retelling upon young children’s reading comprehension. National Reading Conference Yearbook, 38, 233-239.

Kuijpers, M. M., & Hakemulder, F. (2018). Understanding and appreciating literary texts through rereading. Discourse Processes, 55(7), 619-641. doi: (opens in a new window)

Margolin, S. J., & Snyder, N. (2018). It may not be that difficult the second time around: The effects of rereading on the comprehension and metacomprehension of negated text. Journal of Research in Reading, 41(2), 392-402. doi: (opens in a new window)

Mason, L., Tornatora, M. C., & Pluchino, P. (2015). Integrative processing of verbal and graphical information during re-reading predicts learning from illustrated text: An eye-movement study. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 28(6), 851-872. doi: (opens in a new window)

Millis, K. K., & King, A. (2001). Rereading strategically: The influences of comprehension ability and a prior reading on the memory for expository text. Reading Psychology, 22(1), 41-65. doi: (opens in a new window)

Rawson, K. A., Dunlosky, J., & Theide, K. W. (2000). The rereading effect: Metacomprehension accuracy improves across reading trials. Memory & Cognition, 28(6), 1004–1010. (opens in a new window)

Shanahan, T. (2020). Limiting children to books they can already read. American Educator, 44(2), 13-17, 39.

Weinstein, Y., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2010). A comparison of study strategies for passages: Rereading, answering questions, and generating questions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(3), 308-316. doi: (opens in a new window)

Xue, S., Jacobs, A. M., & Lüdtke, J. (2020). What is the difference? rereading Shakespeare’s sonnets—An eye tracking study. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 14. doi: (opens in a new window)

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
May 7, 2022