Six Pieces of Advice on Teaching with Complex Text

  • amount of reading within instruction author awareness instructional level
  • 20 March, 2016
  • 15 Comments

Question:

I’m confused. Our standards say that we have to teach kids to read at 820 Lexiles, but my third-graders aren’t even close to that. They are instructional at Level N on the Fountas & Pinnell gradient that my school uses. This makes no sense. How can I get my kids to such a high level in the time that we have?

Shanahan response:

            I receive few letters on this, but when visiting schools this confusion is often apparent. Teachers either ignore the level specifications of the standards or assume that teaching kids at "level N", as they have been doing, must be the best way to reach the standards levels. As one young teacher said to me, “The standards can’t mean that we are supposed to teach with harder books. These are hard enough.”
            But the standards actually do mean that teachers need to teach students to read harder texts than in the past. Just teaching level N books well won’t be sufficient. Kids’ reading is now being tested on texts at those higher levels--that’s part of the reason why reading scores dropped so much this year. If kids spend all their time reading easy texts, don’t be surprised if they struggle when immersed in more complicated language and ideas. 
            Reading harder texts is a boon for kids who in the past would have been limited to Level N. Most 8-year-olds who are not permitted to venture beyond Level N are missing out on age-appropriate content and intellectual demands. However, it is not enough to just throw kids in harder text. The theory of instructional level teaching is that kids will largely figure out how to read better on their own, simply by practicing reading with texts that are pretty easy for them (think about it: instructional level means kids could read such a text once--without any teacher assistance--and comprehend it with 75-89% comprehension). The theory of teaching with harder texts, on the other hand, depends more on teaching; kids will need support to learn from more complex texts.
1.     Have kids read a lot within instruction. Students should be reading and writing during reading lessons—and during social studies, science, math, and health lessons, too. Too often the reading lesson time is just talked away, but kids need to read when there is a teacher there to monitor and support their reading. Perhaps set an arbitrary target: kids will read 50% of the time during reading lessons; or they will read at least 4 pages of mathematics or 8 pages of science per week. Lots of reading of lots of texts; every day; every week; every year.
2.     There is no instructional level. Despite claims by authorities in reading and special education, no procedure for matching texts to kids has been found to reliably provide any learning advantage. Kids can learn from harder books than we have taught with in the past—but that means more scaffolding. Don’t limit kids’ reading to texts at their “instructional levels” (~95-98% accuracy in fluency; 75-89% comprehension), or to any of the new levels now being advanced (90-95% accuracy). 
3.     Vary the difficulty levels. Past claims about the instructional level made it sound like you would harm kids if you taught them in books that were “too easy” or “too hard” and so the notion was that all the productive reading work would be done at the instructional level. I suspect that learning to negotiate the complexities of text is probably more like learning to run faster or to swim farther. Athletes don’t do all of their training at one level of difficulty or intensity. They vary routines to build strength and stamina, and I think we should do the same with reading. The texts we use to teach reading should vary in difficulty and length—with kids reading some hard texts, followed by easier ones, followed by even more difficult ones. Text difficulty levels should go up and down, but the average difficulty over time should climb. And don’t be afraid to go beyond the level that your grade level is supposed to reach: if third-graders are supposed to learn to read 820 Lexiles, 820 is not the highest level text we should introduce.
4.     Be prepared to give more help when more help is needed. I’ve criticized our programs before for providing the greatest help when kids are asked to read easy texts and the least support when they take on the hardest ones. If I’m weightlifting with light weights, I don’t worry much about having a spotter. But if I ‘m trying to push myself to the limit with heavier weights or a greater number of reps than I’m used to, I want assistance. So why do kids work in small groups with a teacher when reading relatively easy texts and we save our harder texts (like the science book) for whole class instruction?
5.     Try to anticipate why a text will trip kids up and then question them watchfully. What do I mean by watchfully? Question them in ways that will reveal whether they figured out what you thought was complex. I know you already ask questions about the overall meaning of the story or article, but I’m suggesting even closer questioning than that. For instance, if you think a sentence is complicated, ask a question that depends on making sense of that sentence. If you are concerned that kids will miss a confusing cohesive link or an implied causal connection or a subtle sarcastic tone, then probe those things. If they are tripped up, then take them back to the text to figure out how it works.
6.     Require rereading. The more challenging a text is, the more it has to be reread. Reading it once (or twice) to figure it out, and then reading it again without so much support can really improve one’s reading ability. Yes, it takes extra time, but time that pays learning dividends. Such rereading does not need to be done immediately. It is okay to go back to a selection that one read last week or last month (though the longer the interval, the greater amount of teacher support that will likely be required on a reread).
You are, indeed, supposed to teach kids in harder texts than you have been teaching them. Keep these six guidelines in mind and you'll do a better job of that.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Jo-Anne Gross
Apr 07, 2017 11:00 PM

Love this!

3/20/16

Jessica Huizenga, Ed.D.
Apr 07, 2017 11:01 PM

"Brilliant! And unfortunately practices that are absent in many classrooms! Thanks once again Dr. Timothy Shanahan" Six Pieces of Advice on Teaching with Complex Text

3/20/16

Neale Pitches
Apr 07, 2017 11:01 PM

CSI Literacy implements these 6 principles

3/21/16

Debbie Hepplewhite
Apr 07, 2017 11:02 PM

Thank you, I've flagged up your piece via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction which may be of interest to you: http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=566

3/21/16

Hello Literacy
Apr 07, 2017 11:02 PM

Thank you. I look to you and Rasinski as the experts on reading and rereading. I did a Periscope on this exact topic, Standard 10, last Friday. Sounds like I'm right on track with everything you said here. I would love your feedback. https://ktch.tv/8x63
Jen Jones (www.helloliteracy.com

3/21/16

Lit Research in Practice
Apr 07, 2017 11:03 PM

To be clear, Dr. Shanahan, all of this important teaching with increased text complexity comes AFTER learning how to decode in K-2, where students should be receiving systematic, explicit phonics instruction and reading highly decodable texts that align to the skills being taught. Of course, K-2 should also be using rich read-alouds, etc., to build vocabulary and oral language skills. Right???

3/26/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 07, 2017 11:03 PM

Lit Research in Practice--

Right... partly right, that is. Most of the studies that have been done with this seem to have focused on second-graders and they found that kids could learn as much or more with the more complex texts than the reading level ones. So, we are in agreement that PreK, K, and Grade 1 readers are not appropriate targets for more complex text... and we agree on the reason for this.. they need to develop decoding skills. However, by the time kids reach what we have called a second-grade reading level, there is no excuse for ducking more complex text. (One more disagreement: K-2 students do not learn much vocabulary from reading instruction, mainly because the books are usually designed to stay well within their range of vocabulary development. In fact, most experts (e.g., Beck, Biemiller) who focus on early vocabulary development turn not to the reading books, but to books that will be read to the children).

thanks.

3/26/16

Lit Research in Practice
Apr 07, 2017 11:04 PM

We do agree on the 2nd grade point, given that students have had adequate instructional opportunity in the code prior to 2nd grade. In schools, I find that although the research indicates 2nd grade as the time we can bump up text complexity, schools are not always so efficient in getting that decoding work done by the first day 2nd grade, so there is some blur into that year.

We also agree on the last point of your reply. You'll notice that I said "rich read-alouds" in my original comment, referring to teachers reading to children higher-quality literature than the "reading books," which offers more opportunities to build vocabulary.

3/26/16

Lequone Banks
Apr 07, 2017 11:04 PM

You have presented a lot of factors to consider when selecting and instructing texts for students to read. I have a colleague who is teaching letter sounds and blends to 8th grade students. Her rationale is that this is what they need. However, what they really need is to be able to read and comprehend the level of text that are presented in the textbook as well district and state level assessments. Her intentions are great, but the students in her remedial reading class aren't advancing.
I like the concept of rereading the text. So often teachers read a text or a passage for a lesson,and not refer back to the text. Students who initially grasped all elements are good, but students who struggle with comprehension are now going to operate from a deficit. The student is unable to discuss the text or complete the assignment.
Thank you for bluntly stating, "there isn't a formula to match texts". As a novice reading teacher learning how to perform in the role, that statement alone is a great guide for lesson planning and instruction.

3/28/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 07, 2017 11:05 PM

Lequone--
The percentage of kids likely to require letter sounds and blends at Grade 8 is pretty small. There are some such students, but not many. I think the guidance I'm suggesting is likely more in line with what you actually face as a teacher. Thanks.

tim

3/28/16

Katy
Apr 07, 2017 11:05 PM

This post gives me so many new ideas to ponder about reading instruction. Within the six tips are a few ideas that conflict with what I have read before and used as part of my practice. First, the idea that matching students to instructional level is not necessary brings a brand new approach to delivering reading content. I have spent many years assessing students and leveling text in attempt to deliver the most individualized instruction and materials. Of course, I understand that this does not apply to K-2 (as identified in discussions on this blog), but I have always thought matching texts was a key element of a balanced literacy program. I am excited at the idea that we don’t have to limit our older readers to specific texts, but instead we can provide flexibility and support, depending on the demand of the reading task. This is exciting new information!
Another mind opening statement in this blog is about the idea of giving more help when the task has become more challenging. It makes compete sense to ask teachers why we focus most of our support when the text is simple and easily decoded. Our efforts should be focused on when the reading material becomes harder for the reader. I appreciate these statements to challenge what I already know about effective reading instruction.
Finally, I applaud the reminder to have reading happen in a variety of disciplines. Reading across the curriculum is an excellent and meaningful practices. Integrating reading into all subject areas and having students practice reading regularly throughout the day is a logical way to improve students’ skills.
I value the new ideas this blog post gave me about approaches to effective reading instruction. Thank you for sharing your current research and theory.

3/28/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 07, 2017 11:05 PM

This post gives me so many new ideas to ponder about reading instruction. Within the six tips are a few ideas that conflict with what I have read before and used as part of my practice. First, the idea that matching students to instructional level is not necessary brings a brand new approach to delivering reading content. I have spent many years assessing students and leveling text in attempt to deliver the most individualized instruction and materials. Of course, I understand that this does not apply to K-2 (as identified in discussions on this blog), but I have always thought matching texts was a key element of a balanced literacy program. I am excited at the idea that we don’t have to limit our older readers to specific texts, but instead we can provide flexibility and support, depending on the demand of the reading task. This is exciting new information!
Another mind opening statement in this blog is about the idea of giving more help when the task has become more challenging. It makes compete sense to ask teachers why we focus most of our support when the text is simple and easily decoded. Our efforts should be focused on when the reading material becomes harder for the reader. I appreciate these statements to challenge what I already know about effective reading instruction.
Finally, I applaud the reminder to have reading happen in a variety of disciplines. Reading across the curriculum is an excellent and meaningful practices. Integrating reading into all subject areas and having students practice reading regularly throughout the day is a logical way to improve students’ skills.
I value the new ideas this blog post gave me about approaches to effective reading instruction. Thank you for sharing your current research and theory.

3/28/16

Katy
Apr 07, 2017 11:06 PM

This post gives me so many new ideas to ponder about reading instruction. Within the six tips are a few ideas that conflict with what I have read before and used as part of my practice. First, the idea that matching students to instructional level is not necessary brings a brand new approach to delivering reading content. I have spent many years assessing students and leveling text in attempt to deliver the most individualized instruction and materials. Of course, I understand that this does not apply to K-2 (as identified in discussions on this blog), but I have always thought matching texts was a key element of a balanced literacy program. I am excited at the idea that we don’t have to limit our older readers to specific texts, but instead we can provide flexibility and support, depending on the demand of the reading task. This is exciting new information!
Another mind opening statement in this blog is about the idea of giving more help when the task has become more challenging. It makes compete sense to ask teachers why we focus most of our support when the text is simple and easily decoded. Our efforts should be focused on when the reading material becomes harder for the reader. I appreciate these statements to challenge what I already know about effective reading instruction.
Finally, I applaud the reminder to have reading happen in a variety of disciplines. Reading across the curriculum is an excellent and meaningful practices. Integrating reading into all subject areas and having students practice reading regularly throughout the day is a logical way to improve students’ skills.
I value the new ideas this blog post gave me about approaches to effective reading instruction. Thank you for sharing your current research and theory.

3/28/16

Debbie Hepplewhite
Apr 07, 2017 11:08 PM

Katy, I agree whole-heartedly with highlighting this: "First, the idea that matching students to instructional level is not necessary brings a brand new approach to delivering reading content".

It is truly liberating to stop trying to 'match' the texts to the 'reading ability' of each child - but to match your teaching technique according to the circumstances of use of the texts.

If, for example, the teacher, rightly, ensures that reading takes place across the curriculum, it is not always possible to find a subject-specific text which can 'match' the reading capacity of all the children - but the children can access the book at their own level and the teacher can support accordingly.

The only proviso is when teachers are providing books for younger readers, beginners or strugglers who have yet to master the alphabetic code well enough to read their individual 'reading books' independently. In that case, the teacher can provide independent reading books on the basis of cumulative and decodable to 'match' the alphabetic code taught to date. This is an entirely different set of circumstances and generally refers to the 'beginner's' reading material - not class material.

Even such beginners can access texts beyond their actual decoding ability with support from the teacher - for example, the teacher reads to the children, or shares the reading with support as necessary.

3/29/16

Kaitlyn Horlock
Apr 07, 2017 11:09 PM

I really appreciate this article. I have been thinking about this a lot with my students with disabilities. Recently by our school administrators we have been told that we should be reading, reading, and reading in class with our students. Until this statement about a month ago, we have been guilty of not doing that or cutting that out. If we do read with the class it may be just the teacher reading something aloud. Like I said earlier, with this happening in my co-teaching classroom I have been very worried about my students with disabilities when it comes to testing. I can see the thought process of a general education teacher that it may take too much time for students with disabilities to read harder text and I should just read it to them, but I do not agree with that. I think that it is very important that we set aside time everyday just for our students to read. Like you stated I also think it is important for students to read material that is on their level, above their level, and even below their level. Even though this is not easy for students and it may be time consuming for teachers it is important that all students get that experience reading that difficulty of text. Thank you for the tips! They are really helpful for my students that are reading below grade level.

4/9/16

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Six Pieces of Advice on Teaching with Complex Text

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