Many reading teachers argue that students should only read material that is at their independent or instructional reading level. For years, many of us have been fearful of pushing students to read challenging texts that might be too difficult to allow for learning. However, in his article “Common Core Standards: Are We Going to Lower the Fences or Teach Kids to Climb?,” Tim Shanahan explains that the Common Core Standards have a much different premise on reading levels.
The writers of the Common Core Standards believe that students learn more from harder material rather than material matched to their independent reading levels. According to the research from Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe (1996) on the reading levels of elementary, middle, and high school books published between1919-1991, current reading levels of textbooks have never been lower in American history and that reducing sentence length and the amount of “uncommon and rare English words” in order to make schoolbooks more accessible to students, “may not have been cost-free after all” (p. 505). This long-term exposure to simplified texts “may induce a cumulating deficit in the breadth and depth of domain-specific knowledge, lowering reading comprehension and verbal achievement (1996, p. 489).” According to the research of Morgan, Wilcox, & Eldredge (2000), students progress more quickly when they work with reading material that is two grade-levels above their instructional level. By working with only easy material, students will not encounter unknown words, unfamiliar text-structures, or complex knowledge; however, students need and deserve to have these experiences if they are to excel in reading. As Moore, Moore, Cunningham, and Cunningham (2011) explain, students can improve their literacy when they are placed in situations that offer challenges that allow students the “pleasure of exerting themselves and experiencing success” (p. 31).
If we do not increase the rigor of our texts and teach our students to grapple with the challenges of complex material, then we will not prepare students for the college and on-the-job reading they will encounter later in life (Shanahan, 2012). As shift three of the Common Core Standards compels teachers to use more complex texts, we need to give students the skills and strategies to comprehend them. We need to make texts more accessible not because we have simplified them but because we have given our students the strategies they need to consume them.
According to Shanahan, increasing the complexity of texts needs to be accompanied by an increase in the amount of quality teacher scaffolding, support, and encouragement. So when we think about choosing texts and creating lesson plans, we should ask ourselves, “How much support will this student need in order to understand this text?” When we simply provide a lower-level text or read difficult texts aloud to students, we aren’t helping kids become better readers or learners. Instead, let’s identify what makes the texts hard and then determine the scaffolding and motivation needed to help students navigate through the demands of that text.
Keep in mind that challenging texts should not be the only texts students read. Throughout the school year, students should experience a variety texts for a variety of reading purposes. Sometimes they will read for pleasure from a book of their choosing, while other times they will read a more complicated info text with embedded tier 3 vocabulary words. As with all instruction, teachers will differentiate their level of support based on the level of the text, the individual needs of students, and the task at hand.
See your literacy coach for ideas on how to help students tackle the demands of a rigorous text. We would love to help.