Skip to main content

Teacher question: I understand your claims that teaching students with grade-level texts instead of instructional level texts increases children’s opportunities to learn. However, what about children’s emotional needs, self-esteem, motivation, and self-starting skills when text is challenging. Children who struggle with sight words or sounding out words who are given a hard piece of text will shut down and refuse to try or will act out in the classroom. I always thought that the purpose of avoiding frustration-level texts was to avoid frustrating children who were trying to learn to read. What am I missing?

Shanahan’s response:

You’re not alone in your concerns for the motivational or affective aspects of teaching children to read with complex text. I’ll provide an explanation of what they have figured out about these relationships in a moment. First, let me address a misconception that you appear to have.

The idea of having students reading grade-level text or difficult text or even frustration level text has not been proposed for beginning readers. The state standards that require students to learn to read grade-level texts do so for grades 2 and up — not kindergarten or first grade. Likewise, all the research that has been done revealing the benefits of teaching students at grade level rather than instructional level were done in grades 2 and up. There is no evidence that such an approach would be beneficial with younger readers, and there are some serious concerns about its potential value (Hiebert, 1999).

A major factor in text difficulty for young children is the decodability of the text. Students at that point are learning to recognize and use letters and spelling patterns to connect printed words to oral language. Teaching with more difficult texts from the start would mean working with texts that will have less accessible spelling patterns and less repetition of words that helps fix those patterns in memory. Teaching beginners with complex text would be counterproductive.

However, the research suggests that by grade 2, most students are likely to have those most basic decoding skills under their belts and that more challenging texts can be beneficial for learning. Perhaps young children would “shut down” if asked to read more difficult texts, but let’s not find out. There appears to be no potential learning benefit to such an approach, so let’s not go that way.

Given that from grade 2 on, it is sensible to confront children with texts supposedly at their “frustration levels,” we should be concerned about the motivational implications of that approach.

Researchers have long hypothesized that more difficult text placements would increase reading avoidance and reduce the amount of student reading. The claim has been that overly demanding instruction leads to misbehavior and inattention, and, consequently, to lowered learning and reading avoidance.

Students placed in more challenging texts do exhibit more behavior problems (Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981; Gickling & Armstrong, 1978; Jorgenson, Klein, & Kumar, 1977; Treptow, Burns, & McComas, 2007). However, only one of these studies considered alternative explanations for this correlation. Gambrell and company observed that lower achieving students were more likely to be placed in what for them were challenging texts and to misbehave. However, these behavior problems were evident whether these students were taught from frustration or instructional level texts. The correlation was more due to who is placed in challenging text rather than the text placement itself. 

Other evidence on this issue is somewhat mixed, but my overall take is that the research has not found clearly found text challenge to be a motivational problem. If it is, it has not yet been proven.

Studies on these issues have varied much in rigor and applicability. In one study, there were only three students and there were only eight in another. Also, their findings were not based on reading alone, but on other tasks too (like workbook activities). Most importantly, I think, how they operationalized the instructional level differed. For example, in one of these studies, the frustration level students had to perform at lower than 80% accuracy in fluency — far below more traditional criteria and not especially convincing.

In a study of the impact of text placement on attitude towards reading (Roberts, 1976), 125 second- and third-graders from six schools were examined. Fifty-seven percent of these students had been placed in frustration level texts for instruction. Despite this, student attitudes towards reading were as positive for these students as for those who were “appropriately placed.”

Perhaps this should not be surprising given the levels of books that students evidently prefer reading independently. Studies have repeatedly report that students, even the best readers, tend to prefer texts at their frustration levels — presumably because of the appeal of the content and sophistication of the harder texts (Donovan, Smorkin, & Lomax, 2000; Fresch, 1995; Halladay, 2009).

Most of the research on this issue has been conducted with older students. How applicable these data are to the elementary grades is unknown, however I think at least some of the insights this research has generated should be considered.

Researchers have examined how interest and affect may be influenced by text placement during student reading (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013; Tullis & Fullmer, 2013). In these studies, it was theorized that, “demanding tasks can hinder students’ motivation resulting in higher negative affect … and lower interest and enjoyment” (Fulmer & Tulis, 2013, p. 13). To test this hypothesis sixth- and seventh-graders read texts at and above their reading levels, and interest and affect were measured immediately before and after each reading. There were variations with the different passages but generally it was found that the better readers started out with greater interest in reading, but as they read the at-level text their interest declined. The opposite was true when they were asked to read more challenging texts. Student persistence more than text difficulty impacted engagement.  

Yet, from these data, it seems unlikely student affect or motivation would vary consistently due to text levels which is consistent with modern motivation theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Ninth graders in Germany were less motivated when required to read more difficult books in their literature classes (Locher, Becker, & Pfost, 2019). But the picture is more complicated than that. According to the students, at least part of this negative affect was due to grading procedures, competition for grades, and whether the texts were classical literature or contemporary literature. Likewise, there was no relationship between text difficulty and motivation when students were selecting texts for their own recreational reading, implicating student self-determination as well. In other words, the relationship between text level and affect was very complicated — and it is difficult to determine what is causing what.

Several studies with older students have found a greater amount of mind wandering during the reading of complex texts (Feng, D’Mello, & Graesser, 2013; Forrin, Risko, & Smilek, 2019; Mills, Graesser, Risko, & D’Mello, 2017; Mills, D’Mello, & Kopp, 2015), though there are also studies that have not been able to find that. In the ones that have, students appear to better able to control their attention when reading easier texts. This relationship disappears when students find the texts to be interesting (Fulmer, D’Mello, Strauss, & Graesser, 2015; Soemer, Idsardi, Minnaert, & Schiefele, 2019). One question this raises for me, is whether we should avoid asking students to read texts they find challenging so their minds won’t wander, or if our instruction should focus on helping them to develop attentional control?

Other approaches to text difficulty and reader engagement have resulted in contradictory findings. Some studies report lower engagement in reading tasks (Guthrie, Klauda, & Ho, 2013), more reports of anxiety, anger, and boredom on the part of the students (Acee, et al., 2010); Efklides, 2002; Efklides & Petkaki, 2005; Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002), and less interest (Durik & Matarazzo). While others have found more reading engagement, deeper cognitive processing, and greater learning (Bjork & Bjork, 2011; Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, & Vaughan, 2011; Linn, Chang, Chiu, Zhang, & McElhaney, 2011; McNamara & Kintsch, 1996).

Whatever the relationship may be between being asked to read difficult text and affect, motivation, attitude, or behavior, it is not straightforward. There are many student, text, and task variables that play a role in all of this, and none of them consistently impacts motivation or engagement.

However, that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the possibility that in each situation, with a given text, and a given child, text difficulty may exert some small impact upon motivation. That suggests the need for instructional adjustments.

  1. Explain to students what you’re up to when you intentionally place them in texts they cannot already easily read. They need to know what the goals are and how they can recognize if they are improving in their ability to handle these texts. Give the students some sense of self determination.
  2. Students may balk at working with difficult texts in fear of failing. They need to develop trust and confidence in you that you won’t let that happen. I very much like the idea of using the instructional level as an outcome rather than a starting point. What I mean by that is that if on Monday you begin working with a text that students read at a frustration level, that by Friday they should be able to read it with the levels of fluency and comprehension fit instructional level criteria.
  3. Remember that the teacher’s job is to teach students how to read these texts successfully. Teaching with difficult text requires more than just having kids practice reading with some follow up questions. They need guidance in recognizing and making use of explicit vocabulary definitions that may exist in text, how to use context and morphology to determine the meanings of undefined words, how to break down sentences to enable comprehension, how to track cohesive ties through a text, and how to make sense of text structure, data presentation devices, and literary devices.
  4. Studies have shown that self-determination and interest can offset any anxiety raised by challenging text demands. Consider allowing for some student role in selecting text; perhaps present two or three challenging text alternatives that the group can choose among or consider topical interests when deciding what complex texts to present.
  5. Vary your routine. Not every instructional text must be equally hard. You might labor through one or two demanding shorter texts, followed by the reading of a relatively easier and longer one that will require less student persistence and teacher scaffolding.
  6. Divide a text up and take on parts of it rather than trying to digest it all in one bite.
  7. Smile, be encouraging. It couldn’t hurt.  

Selected comments

Comment from Andy

I think there are more students who have not mastered decoding by the end of grade two — especially in boards that continue to deemphasize decoding in grades one and two. There are even more students whose vocabularies are not adequate to “grade-level” texts (really texts readable by “median” children). There are a lot with below-median vocabularies — or worse, below the 4th decile. What is challenging (or easy) for above-median students, can be excessively “challenging” for lower-vocabulary students.

Reply from Tim Shanahan

Andy —

Adults imagine that such texts are excessively challenging for those students, when we look at actual data we find that they make greater reading progress when working with more difficult texts. There is no question that harder texts mean lower reading comprehension with the texts being used for instruction — but it also means greater progress in learning.


Comment from Khari

Absolutely love the recommendations. I would encourge educators to unleash the power of whole class and/or small group discourse. Giving children the opportunity to talk to each other about what they read, can motivate and inspire them to overcome difficulty.

See all comments (opens in a new window)


Acee, T. W., Kim, H., Kim, H., Kim, J., Chu, H.-N. R., Kim, M., et al. (2010). Academic boredom in under- and over-challenging situations. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 35, 17–27

Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56–64). New York: Worth Publishers.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper-Perennial.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (2011). Fortune favors the bold (and italicised): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118, 111–115.

Donovan, C. A., Smolkin, L. B., & Lomax, R. G. (2000). Beyond the independent-level text: Considering the reader-text match in first graders’ self-selections during recreational reading. Reading Psychology, 21, 309-333.

Durik, A. M., & Matarazzo, K. L. (2009). Revved up or turned off? How domain knowledge changes the relationship between perceived task complexity and task interest. Learning & Individual Differences, 19, 155–159.

Efklides, A. (2002). Feelings and judgments as subjective evaluations of cognitive processing: How reliable are they? Psychology: The Journal of the Hellenic Psychological Society, 9, 163–184.

Efklides, A., & Petkaki, C. (2005). Effects of mood on students’ metacognitive experiences. Learning and Instruction, 15, 415–431.

Feng, S., D’Mello, S., & Graesser, A. C. (2013). Mind wandering while reading easy and difficult texts. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 20, 586–592.

Forrin, N. D., Risko, E. F., & Smilek, D. (2019). On the relation between reading difficulty and mind-wandering: a section-length account. Psychological Research, 83, 485–497

Fresch, M.J. (1995). Self-selection of early literacy learning. Reading Teacher, 49, 220-227.

Fulmer, S.M., D’Mello, S.K., Strain, A., & Graesser, A.C. Interest-based text preference moderates the effect of text difficulty on engagement and learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 41, 98-110.

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.

Gickling, E. E., & Armstrong, D. L. (1978). Levels of instructional difficulty as related to on-task behavior, task completion, and comprehension. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 11, 559-566.

Guthrie, J. T., Klauda, S. L., & Ho, A. N. (2013). Modeling the relationships among reading instruction, motivation, engagement, and achievement for adolescents. Reading Research Quarterly, 48, 9–26

Halladay, J. L. (2009). Difficult texts and the students who chose them: The role of text difficulty in second graders’ text choices and independent reading experiences. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University.

Hiebert, E.H. (1999). Text matters in learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 52, 552-566.

Jorgenson, G. W., Klein, N., & Kumar, V. K. (1977). Achievement and behavioral correlates of matched levels of student ability and materials difficulty. Journal of Educational Research, 71, 100-103.

Linn, M. C., Chang, H., Chiu, J., Zhang, Z., & McElhaney, K. (2011). Can desirable difficulties overcome deceptive clarity in scientific visualizations? In A. Benjamin (Ed.), Successful remembering and successful forgetting: a Festschrift in honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 235–258). New York: Psychology Press.

Locher, F.M., Becker, S., & Pfost, M. (2019). The relation between students’ intrinsic reading motivation and book reading in recreational and school contexts. AERA Open, 5(2), 1-14. doi: 10.1177/ 2332858419852041

McNamara, D. S., & Kintsch,W. (1996). Learning from texts: Effects of prior knowledge and text coherence. Discourse Processes, 22, 247–288.

Mills, C., D’Mello, S. K., & Kopp, K. (2015). The influence of consequence value and text difficulty on affect, attention, and learning while reading instructional texts. Learning and Instruction, 40, 9-20.

Mills, C., Graesser, A., Risko, E., D’Mello, S. K. (2017). Cognitive coupling during reading. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146, 872-833.

Pekrun, R., & Schutz, P. A. (2007). Where do we go from here? Implications and future directions for inquiry on emotions in education. In P. A. Schutz & R. Pekrun (Eds.), Emotion in education (pp. 313–331). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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

Soemer, A., Idsardi, H. M., Minnaert, A., & Schiefele, Ul. (2019). Mind wandering and reading comprehension in secondary school children. Learning and Individual Differences, 75.

Treptow, M. A., Burns, M. K., & McComas, J. J. (2007). Reading at the frustration, instructional, and independent levels: The effects on students’ reading comprehension and time on task. School Psychology Review, 36, 159-166.

Tullis, M., & Fulmer, S. M. (2013). Students’ motivational and emotional experiences and their relationship to persistence during academic challenge in mathematics and reading. Learning and Individual Differences, 27, 35-46.

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
October 12, 2022