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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.

Snappy Responses on Challenging Text Debate

September 30, 2014

Last week, Valerie Strauss devoted her Washington Post space to an article challenging the idea of teaching with challenging text, including my articles. The posting got lots of response showing fundamental misunderstandings of the issues on this. I am reprinting some of those responses along with my rejoinders to those. I will continue this over the next couple of entries since I think it will help teachers and parents to understand what this issue is about.

Basically, many reading experts have claimed that it is necessary or optimum to teach students using texts that are at the students’ so-called “instructional levels.” A text would be said to be “instructional” if students could — on their own — recognize approximately 95% of the words and answer 75-90% of the questions about the passage. Texts harder than that were considered to be “frustration” level. Accordingly, most elementary teachers report trying to teach students at their instructional level rather than their grade level.

The controversy has been brought about by Common Core, since those standards are specific about the difficulty level of the texts that students need to learn to read. Unlike past standards that ignored what students could read. CCSS specifies particular levels of text difficulty for each grade two through twelve. They did this basically because if students were taught at their instructional levels all the time, how would they ever reach college or career readiness by the time they leave high school.

Below are some of the letters from the Washington Post site, and my rejoinders.


I do both leveled reading and introduce grade level complex text that we all work through together for deep comprehension. I don't see a conflict with the standards at all. The reality is that not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room. A teacher needs to make the adjustments needed to differentiate or at least have times when students are reading at instructional level, i.e. guided reading and one on one reading. I have students reading complex texts now independently because they can. The others participate in close reading exercises in whole group and just because they can't read every single word or read it fluently, that doesn't mean they can't understand the nuances in the text that are on the analysis or inference level. Some of my best critical thinkers were not the best readers and they contributed more to our conversations about text than some of those readers reading above grade level.

I have read the standards thoroughly for my grade level and I don't see that they are saying the students should be reading at a frustration level all the time. I use my own instructional judgment in my classroom and they are in line with the standards."

This writer is correct that CCSS does not explicitly state that teachers need to teach with frustration level texts. However, they do specify text difficulty levels in grades 2-12, and since those are part of the standards, students will be tested using texts of those difficulty levels. Teachers can spend the year teaching fourth graders to read second grade texts — many do because “not all students will be at grade level when they walk into your room”, but that means the teacher is not even attempting to teach the fourth grade standards. Teachers are expected to teach their state’s standards and that means trying to teach students to read grade level texts; if they do this, given the current “reality,” that means many students will be working in frustration level texts.

The confusion evident here is a common one: the point is not to frustrate kids. The point is to teach students to make sense of texts of particular levels of difficulty.

I agree with this writer’s idea of teaching students with multiple levels of text; I’ve called for that repeatedly on this site and in presentations and articles. I would point out that this position contradicts the popular notion that students should be taught at their instructional level all the time). However, this writer’s description of how to do this makes no sense. Students need the greatest scaffolding and support from the teacher when reading the hardest texts. If complex texts are assigned to the whole class and instructional level ones to the small reading groups, then you are doing the opposite: you’re making sure kids get help when they don’t need it, and that they don’t when they do.


It is the instructional shifts, philosophy of proponents who do not like guided level reading and of course the tests. Keep doing what you are doing. You are doing right by your students."

This is an example of someone who has fallen in love with a particular way of doing things — in this case, guided reading — and, therefore, resists the possibility of teaching successfully in any other way. I’m always befuddled when a principal commits to a teaching activity with no research support, especially given the results that we are getting. The only study I’ve found on the effectiveness of guided reading was one in which guided reading was the comparison condition. Kuhn & Stahl (2006) reported that students who had worked with grade level texts did better than those in the guided reading instruction — oops). Teachers should pay attention to evidence — not opinion.


I completely agree that these "few" are attempting to dictate instruction. I don't like it. Every child is different. Educators should gear their teaching to fit their students. Some students may not do well with "frustration level teaching." Like I said, I'm afraid that those are the students that will choose to give up...that may seem like the easier route. Maybe it's the word "frustration" that doesn't sit well with me. I don't know."

This writer makes a good point: much of the commentary on the Washington Post site focused on the idea of “frustration” and how bad it was to frustrate kids. Misunderstanding of educational jargon is the source of this concern, however. Studies show that the text levels labeled as “frustration” by reading experts are inconsistently related to actual measures of physiological or psychological frustration, and that mild levels of frustration are requisite for learning.

The issue isn’t whether kids should be frustrated, but whether the teacher can assign texts at grade level. Students may struggle to read such texts initially, but more than 20 studies show that they can work with such texts without frustration if the teacher provides appropriate support.

More to come...


To learn more about teaching and assessing reading, writing and literacy, visit Dr. Shanahan's blog.

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"I used to walk to school with my nose buried in a book." — Coolio