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Timothy Shanahan
Shanahan on Literacy
Timothy Shanahan

Who’s Right about Text Complexity, You or the Institute of Education Sciences?

Teacher question: I read your recent article on teaching with complex text in Perspectives in Language and Literacy and I agree with you. But I also read the IES Practice Guide that said that we should make sure kids are reading texts at instructional and independent levels (on page 33). Who’s right?

Shanahan’s response:

Uh oh, don’t want to get into a food fight with those guys. Fortunately, I don’t think there is any real disagreement here at all, but I can see why you might think so — the IES guide emphasized one issue and I another, and neither of us coordinated that information in any way that would make it fit neatly together.

Let me try to help.

Here are the four claims that you need to think about:

1. Students should be expected to read connected text daily.

I didn’t make this point often enough, but the IES practice guide did. It’s an important idea, and I agree with it. As the practice guide explains, such reading exposes students to different learning opportunities than word reading does, and there is at least some evidence supporting the idea that it is beneficial.

Once children can read (here I’m talking really about really low levels of text reading — reading the simplest books or language experience charts), I can’t think of any reason why we wouldn’t have them reading text every single day. I think the IES authors made this explicit because they have seen classrooms where kids are either memorizing sight words or learning letter sounds and spelling patterns, with nary a text to be found. I, too, have sat through first grade reading lessons in which no child reads more than one or two words. Yikes!

Unfortunately, that is not unique to beginning reading. Try shadowing a ninth grader through a day of school and you might be surprised at how little connected reading is expected there. Secondary teachers often work around text rather than through it — telling kids what they need to know with little concern for whether students can use the text for learning. Some teachers think they’re addressing this problem by assigning “independent reading” and then weakly monitoring this and doing nothing to help kids to make sense of texts that are currently beyond their reach.  

Have kids read text everyday… no disagreement there.

2. Beginning readers need texts that they can read without too much difficulty.

When it comes to leveled reading, there are two distinct stages. Beginning readers, through about a high first grade or low second grade level is one stage and beyond those reading levels is the other.

Beginning readers and more advanced readers are dealing with different reading challenges.

Beginning readers need to master basic decoding. I’m not looking for advanced levels of decoding — three syllable words and such, since the research on second graders shows clearly that they can do better with harder books than those usually assigned to them by instructional level procedures.          

What makes a beginning text difficult tends not to be the complicated grammar, hard to link cohesive elements, complex organizational plans, subtle tone, or sophisticated vocabulary… basically it’s the words. Odds are if a 6-year-old can read the words, comprehension will follow. That means if you want to make a beginning reading text difficult, you use long, uncommon words, with little repetition and with no consideration of phonic elements or spelling patterns.

I’m definitely for ramping up text difficulty on the older kids, but like the authors of the IES guide, I agree that it makes sense to have kids reading relatively easy text that allows them to practice their decoding in real reading situations when they are getting started. That may be decodable text, but I’d mix that up with less controlled books too, still easy but manageable (perhaps some words they can’t decode yet, but with lots of repetition of these so they can master them anyway).

3. With more advanced readers, text difficulty doesn’t matter much. Students should be expected to read texts across a wide range of levels, including those they’ll struggle with.

Once kids have basic decoding under control, we don’t need to level the books anymore as long as we’re willing to teach.

There are many things that make texts difficult, including decoding (even with these older kids). I agree with the IES practice guide: if decoding is an issue with a text, then fluency practice (oral reading of these difficult texts with feedback and repetition) can enable fluent reading.

The degree of reading difficulty for a student has to be counterbalanced by instructional support from the teacher. Again, like the IES guide, I think it is important that kids read texts that they can be successful with; not because we’ve put them in what for them will be an easy text, but because we scaffold sufficiently to help them succeed with it.

Student reading should not be limited to any particular level at a given time. Kids need to read a range of texts. This idea is even accepted by some proponents of leveled reading, though their notion is that kids should read hard texts when on their own and relatively easy texts when being helped by a teacher.

That seems like knucklehead stuff to me.

Expose kids to a range of text difficulties within instruction and give more support with harder texts and less with easy ones and let kids read what they want when reading on their own; they’ll figure out what is too hard.

4. Readers at any age should not be allowed to persist in disfluency and low comprehension.

The IES guide wants kids to read every day, and they say that this reading should be fluent and understood. I recommend placing kids in harder books, at least with kids beyond those beginning levels, but I too strive for fluency and comprehension. Students might not be at an “instructional level” with a book at the beginning of a series of lessons, but they should be able to read that text as if it were at their instructional level by the time they are done. 

The reason why the IES guide and I seem to disagree is that with beginning reading texts difficulty is largely entailed in decoding issues: do the words use phonic elements and spelling patterns the kids have already learned, is there a lot of repetition, is attention somehow drawn to the spelling patterns. Harder text for those kids means reducing the textual support for decoding success. Given that, they stress relatively easy books — easy in terms of supporting kids’ decoding development. However, once kids get over this hump, text complexity becomes less a decoding issue and more and language and literacy issue. Go easy initially (both IES and Tim Shanahan), but shift this strategy once kids can read as well as a typical beginning second grader.

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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
January 13, 2020