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Teacher question: I know you advocate the idea of teaching reading with more complex text. But what about motivation? Won’t this approach discourage students?

Shanahan’s response:

I do support the idea of teaching reading with grade level texts. The theory that there is a magical way to match kids to books that will increase learning simply hasn’t panned out. Studies of the instructional level find that it at best makes no difference — that is, kids learn as much from grade level text as they do from instructional level ones. And, in the worst cases, the studies show that those easier text placements actually hold kids back and severely limit their learning.

Within-class grouping in reading is usually driven by the idea of trying to match kids to instructional level books. Studies show that those most likely to end up in the below grade level groups are racial or linguistic minorities, kids with disabilities, and high poverty kids (Hallinan & Sorenson, 1983). Groups who certainly don’t need to have their learning depressed by a flawed and out-of-date theory.

I recognize that when kids are starting out in kindergarten or first-grade, it is helpful to limit text difficulty since those kids need to master basic decoding. Having texts that repeat words and spelling patterns frequently is beneficial. Instructional level is fine in kindergarten and grade one, but by the time kids can read at a second-grade level, research champions more complex text.

The instructional level scheme was first articulated in the 1940s, and part of the idea behind it was that it would limit students’ frustration. That’s why texts more challenging than instructional level are labeled “frustration level.” But that was the 1940s, when Freud was all the rage. Frustration then was something to be avoided at almost any cost.

The claim was that if students struggled with a text, that would cause frustration which would not only interrupt learning but would upset the child. As a result, he/she would be more likely to act out in class and have other psychological maladies.

Interesting theory… but it is consistent with data from real kids. Several years ago, Linda Gambrell and colleagues did a cool study. They determined which kids were placed in frustration level texts and observed their behavior in class. Sure enough, as expected, it was the kids in frustration level books who misbehaved.

So far so good.

Then they intervened. They changed the book placements so these students wouldn’t be psychologically frustrated anymore. The changes in book placements did nothing to improve these kids’ behavior.

The lowest kids almost always will be placed in relatively harder books than the better readers. Those are also the kids most likely to act out in your class. The mistake is to think that those two facts are connected. We imagine a causal link when none exists.

Roberts found that kids motivation for reading wasn’t related to the degree to which the books matched their abilities; in other words, kids at “frustration level” were as interested in reading as their supposedly more aptly placed peers. Even studies that measure changes in motivation during reading tasks finds no connection between the two (Fulmer & Tullis, 2013).

I suspect this whole theory is buggy. Theories of motivation usually tout the motivating power of challenge, not comfort and ease. It is only the reading educator who dedicates himself/ herself to making sure there are no challenges to promote motivation.

Recent studies of the relationship of text difficulty on motivation suggest either no relationship or a markedly more complicated one than we have been operating under (e.g., Rosenzweig & Wigfield, 2017).

I suggest telling your students how demanding the instructional texts are going to be. Explain to them that you’ll be teaching them to books harder than anything they’ve ever tried in the past. Tell them that you will teach them with harder texts than anything you would have attempted with their older brothers and sisters.

Don’t get me wrong. No one wants to fail. It is not enough to tell kids how hard the books will be. You then have to make them successful with those books.

That’s where the teaching comes in. These days my goal is to start with a text that kids can’t read well already. But by the end of a series of lessons they should be able to. They should have command of the content and the vocabulary. They should be able to read it with fluency. Instead of placing kids at their instructional level, move on when they get reach that level of proficiency.

When kids are challenged and their learning is obvious, you won’t need to worry about discouragement or a lack of motivation.


Fulmer, S. M., & Tulis, M. (2013). Changes in interest and affect during a difficult reading task: Relationships with perceived difficulty and reading fluency. Learning and Instruction, 27, 11-20.

Gambrell, L. B., Wilson, R. M., & Gantt, W. N. (1981). Classroom observations of task-attending behaviors of good and poor readers. Journal of Educational Research, 74, 400-404.

Hallinan, M. T., and A. B. Sorensen. (1983). “The Formation and Stability of Instructional Groups.” American Sociological Review 48, 838–851.

Hunt, L.C. (1970/1997). The effect of self-selection, interest, and motivation upon independent, instructional, and frustration levels. Reading Teacher, 50(4), 278-282.

Killeen, P.R. (1994). Frustration: Theory and practice. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 1, 323-326.

Roberts, T. (1976). ‘Frustration level’ reading in the infant school. Educational Research, 9, 41-44.

Rosenzweig, E.Q., & Wigfield, A. (2017). What if reading is easy but unimportant? How students’ patterns of affirming and undermining motivation for reading information texts predict different reading outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 48, 133-148.

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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
July 28, 2020