Reading & Literacy What the Research Says

3 Big Mistakes to Avoid When Helping Readers Grapple With Challenging Texts

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 17, 2022 3 min read
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Students progress faster when they are challenged to read difficult texts—but doing so may be a daunting task for teachers working with students who are struggling to read.

In a recent online discussion with the nonprofit Read Washington, Tim Shanahan, the founding director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Center for Literacy, and a distinguished professor emeritus, highlighted tactics to avoid and offered better alternatives for teachers to support students as they tackle difficult texts.

1. Don’t focus on meeting a students ‘at their level’

Beginning readers in the earliest grades benefit from repetition and easy to sound-out words—think of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham or Eric Carle’s, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?—but research suggests students who have mastered basic decoding make faster progress if they grapple with more complex texts.

Research suggests students learn more with more difficult texts, as long as they have instructional support. For example, one 2017 study found 3rd graders who started as weak readers outscored even proficient readers when they used texts written two to four grade levels above their initial reading level as part of paired-reading exercises.

More-difficult texts may have more academic vocabulary and syntax, or require more understanding of literary devices and practices in different genres. Shanahan noted that it is more helpful in the long run—even for struggling readers—to learn tools to break down difficult texts rather than using more simplified reading passages. These might include asking students to paraphrase each sentence in a difficult text to check meaning; or to rewrite a passage that includes sentences with multiple clauses, phrases, or parentheticals.

2. ‘Don’t get ahead of the author’

The better a student understands the subject of a text, the easier it is to read it—even when the text itself is difficult. In fact, studies suggest a poor reader who is well-versed in a particular subject often can make up for low comprehension simply by relying on their own background knowledge.

Supporting information can exacerbate students’ tendency to use their background knowledge to replace their comprehension, especially if it ends up repeating the text instead of simply providing context. For example, Shanahan recalled working with a high school teacher in Illinois who was preparing her class to read works by William Shakespeare. Shanahan agreed that students may need context about cultural differences in the plays written 400 years ago, but “she said, ‘We’re reading, ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ So to prepare them, I explained to them that there are these two families, and the two families are feuding, and the boy and the girl fall in love’ ... And I said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not the prior knowledge. That’s the story that they’re about to read,’” Shanahan said.

Explaining words or concepts that can be gleaned through the text itself provides less opportunity for students to practice “reading to learn,” he said.

Instead, he suggested brainstorming with a class about what they know about a subject before reading the text, or asking students to write down how what they are reading relates to what they previously knew about the subject. Doing this with a partner can also help build students’ comprehension, according to a study of 9th graders.

3. Don’t overload on vocabulary

Low academic vocabulary is one of the most common problems for struggling readers, but Shanahan cautioned that teachers should be careful in choosing which words to define for students.

“We want to build a lexicon or a dictionary in everybody’s head, and we want that list to get longer and deeper and richer as they go through school,” he said. “but we also teach vocabulary to enable their understanding of the text we’re about to read, and those are two really different goals.”

Rather than preteaching extensive vocabulary lists for each text, Shanahan said it is more important for students to learn how to recognize when they don’t know the meaning of a word and it is interfering with their ability to comprehend a text. Students should also learn how to figure out word meanings on their own, either through clues and close reading of the text itself or through outside tools, such as dictionaries.

For example, he suggested teachers use more passive vocabulary scaffolding, such as a glossary or a vocabulary wall, and give exercises in which readers explain clues in a text that shows the meaning of a particular word.

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