Blogs About Reading

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.

How Much Text Complexity Can Teachers Scaffold?

May 14, 2015

How much of a "gap" can be compensated through differentiation? If my readers are at a 400 Lexile level, is there an effective way to use a 820 level chapter book?

This is a great question. (Have you ever noticed that usually means the responder thinks he has an answer).

For years, teachers were told that students had to be taught with books that matched their ability, or learning would be reduced. As a teacher I bought into those notions. I tested every one of my students with informal reading inventories, one-on-one, and then tried to orchestrate multiple groups with multiple book levels. This was prior to the availability of lots of short paperback books that had been computer scored for Fountas & Pinnell levels or Lexiles, so I worked with various basal readers to make this work.

However, a careful look at the research shows me that almost no studies have found any benefits from such matching. In fact, if one sets aside those studies that focused on children who were reading no higher than a Grade 1 level, then the only results supporting specific student–text matches are those arguing for placing students at what we would have traditionally called their frustration level.

Given this research and that so many state standards now require teachers to enable students to read more challenging texts in grades 2-12, teachers are going to need to learn to guide student reading with higher level text than in the past.

Theoretically, there is no limit to how much of a gap can be scaffolded. Many studies have shown that teachers can facilitate student success with texts that students can read with only 80% accuracy and 50% comprehension, and I have no doubt, that with even more scaffolding, students could probably bridge even bigger gaps.

I vividly remember reading a case study of Grace Fernald when I was in graduate school. She wrote about teaching a 13-year-old, a total non-reader, to read with an encyclopedia volume. That sounds crazy, but with a motivated student, and a highly skilled teacher, and a lot of one-on-one instructional time, without too many interruptions … it can work.

But what is theoretically sound or possible under particularly supportive circumstances does not necessarily work in most classrooms.

I have no doubt teachers can scaffold a couple of grade levels without too much difficulty. That is, the fifth-grade teacher working with a fifth-grade book can successfully bring along a student who reads at a third-grade level in most classroom situations. But as you make the distance between student and book bigger than that, then I have to know a lot more about the teacher’s ability and resources to estimate whether it will work this time.

Nevertheless, by preteaching vocabulary, providing fluency practice, offfering guidance in making sense of sentences and cohesion, requiring rereading, and so on, I have no doubt that teachers can successfully scaffold a student across a 300-400 Lexile gap — with solid learning.

But specifically, you ask about scaffolding a 400-Lexile reader to an 820-Lexile text. If you had asked about 500 to 920, I wouldn't hesitate: Yes, a teacher could successfully scaffold that gap. I’m more hesitant with the 400 level as the starting point. My reason for this is because 400 is a first-grade reading level. This would be a student who is still mastering basic decoding skills. I do not believe that shifting to more challenging text under those circumstances is such a good idea.

To address this student’s needs, I would ramp up my phonics instruction, including dictation (I want my students to encode the alphabetic system as well as decode it). I might increase the amount of reading he or she is expected to do with texts that highlight rather than obscure how the spelling system works (e.g., decodable text, linguistic text). I would increase work on high frequency words, and I would increase the amount of oral reading fluency work, too. I’d do all of these things.

But I would not shift him/her to a harder book because of what needs to be mastered at beginning reading levels. We’ll eventually need to do that, but not until the foundations of decoding were more firmly in place.

An important thing to remember: no state standards raises the text demands for students in Kindergarten or Grade 1. They do not do this because they are giving students the opportunity to firmly master their basic decoding skills. It isn't the distance between 400 and 820 that concerns me — that kind of a distance can be bridged; but a 400-Lexile represents a limited degree of decoding proficiency, and so I wouldn't want to shift attention from achieving proficiency in reading those basic words.

Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl