by LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. and Katherine S. McKnight, Ph.D.
Reading is a complex, unnatural process, and it stands to reason that the most effective way to teach it would be equally complex. As literacy educators and authors, we look forward to reading the latest research and exploring new ideas. Likewise, we see many blog posts, tweets, and other social media postings which claim to identify THE best way to teach reading: in small groups or whole groups, by focusing on phonics or whole language, by providing students with instructional level texts or complex texts? For example, research has made it very clear that explicit phonics instruction is a must.1 That doesn’t mean we abandon exposing children to books and decodables while teaching them phonics skills. Students need to see these phonics rules in texts for transfer to occur. They need both. Rather than make war over the best method by attacking other experts and educators, let’s consider some of the research, pay attention to what we see in our own classrooms, and agree to make peace.
Most of us who work with real, live K-12 learners recognize that the answer is: Surprise! There is no one best way to teach reading. Our experience indicates that a combination – or balance – of strategies and methods produces the best results. As Myracle, Kingsley, and McClellan summarized in their inspired opinion piece for EdWeek, the 2000 National Reading Panel Report was right all along: literacy work is a both/and, not an either/or.2
Regardless of their preferred literacy strategy or method, we’ve never met an educator that didn’t think this discussion was important. The following statistics are alarming and demand our full attention:
- Reading scores have been flat lined since 1998 in our country with just a third or so of students performing at a level the NAEP defines as proficient. Reading progress from this NAEP test shows no growth in 30 years. Two out of three children did not meet the standards for reading proficiency set by the NAEP. Only 35% of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2019, down from 37% in 2017. 34% of eighth graders were proficient in reading, down from 36%.3
- 78% of 4th graders living in low-income homes scored below the proficient level in reading compared to the 48% of children in moderate and high-income homes.4
- The great majority of students who fail to master reading by 3rd grade either drop out or finish high school with dismal lifetime earning potentials.5
- ELA Common Core architects found that 1/3 of our 8th graders are on track for the literacy demands of college literacy skills.6
- The ELA proficiency is even lower for minority and poverty-stricken students.7
Teachers see evidence of this crisis every day in their classrooms. That, coupled with the enormous pressure exerted on student performance and related high-stakes testing, means there is a panicked desperation to find the best course of action to develop students’ reading skills. And in this desperation, it’s only natural that all stakeholders, parents, teachers, and communities want to simplify. We all care about our students. We want one right answer, one simple solution, one best way – and we want to move quickly. Unfortunately, as is true in so many aspects of American life right now, in our haste and panic we sometimes find ourselves vilifying researchers and theorists that disagree with our chosen ‘quick fix.’ That is not our intention. As we address this topic, let us emphasize: the authors of this piece have no hidden agenda and no axe to grind. High student literacy is the focus and will remain as the main concern for what we share.
The Rigor vs. Comfort Debate: Text Choices
While we can’t speak for every single teacher, curriculum director, and reading coach out there, the educators that we’ve worked with recognize this truth: every student, every day, needs several hours of authentic reading in order to grow into strategic learners. Anderson, Wilson and Fielding (1998) found the relationships between time spent reading and reading scores to be directly correlated. In other words, in order to develop proficiency, children need a high volume of reading practice combined with feedback and goal setting.8 This research corresponds to what we’ve all seen with our own students in our own schools.
The argument isn’t about the amount of time students should spend reading. Rather, the current debate seems to center around whether it’s more beneficial for students to improve reading and comprehension skills by engaging with challenging text that is well above their comfort level, or whether they should be encouraged to build stamina and fluency by reading texts that are at or only slightly above their reading level.
We have been given reason to believe that increasing the rigor by exposing students to challenging texts is “a” way to go. Let’s take a look at some of the research.
There is ample evidence to demonstrate that there has been a steady decline in the difficulty of the texts students have been asked to read in school. This includes research results from Hayes, Wolfer, and Wolfe, whose study compared contemporary reading textbooks to those used from 1946 to 1962. They documented a steep decline both in average sentence length and vocabulary.9 This isn’t a recent problem. Jeanne Chall and her colleagues documented a thirteen-year decrease in the difficulty of grade 1, grade 6, and grade 11 texts between 1963 and 1977.10 The decline in student reading ability parallels a decline in their exposure to challenging texts. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that there might be a connection.
The ACT Inc. released a report in 2006, Reading Between the Lines, that showed which skills produced the highest ACT score. They were surprised to find that students who earned the benchmark score (21 or more) compared to those who did not, could answer questions associated with complex texts (the research held true no matter the gender, socio-economic level, race, ethnicity, etc.). Reading complex texts was and is a top tool to prepare students to read at the college level. Comprehending complex texts, defined by literacy researcher Elfrieda Hiebert as texts with “complex ideas conveyed with rare and infrequent vocabulary,” is one of the best ways to help students: to develop mature language skills, to think deeply about vocabulary in context, to critically think about what an author has written, to create meaning with challenging concepts, and to learn conceptual knowledge they need for success in school and beyond.11 Furthermore, recent research had results that indicated “that weaker readers, using texts at two, three and four grade levels above their instructional levels with the assistance of leader readers (other better reading third graders), outscored both proficient and less proficient students in the control group across multiple measures of reading achievement.”12 After all, when students overcome appropriate challenging tasks, they can experience a strong self-efficacy, sense of accomplishment, and addictive, intrinsic motivation that makes them want to do it again.
Reading complex texts was and is a top tool to prepare students to read at the college level.
Cognitive science has determined that challenge is good for the brain: both the slight struggle and the frustration level struggle. Dr. Marian Diamond’s seminal research showed that when a brain is challenged and in an enriched environment, the brain cells thrive and branch out to produce more connections. Other research suggests that when students put forth great effort to understand information and learn it, they actually can recall it much better. Psychologists performed this research by having one group of students read difficult material in unfamiliar fonts and another group read the same article with conventional, familiar fonts. They found that the students who read the difficult material in unfamiliar fonts actually learned the content from the article more deeply than the latter group. This phenomenon is called cognitive disfluency. They also created passages with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking the font size, and making the page blurry to challenge the reader. Same results. The researchers showed that “making material harder to learn can improve long-term learning and retention. More cognitive engagement leads to deeper processing, which facilitates encoding and subsequently better retrieval.”13
Challenge changes the brain.
And yet, research documents that the best predictors of reading achievement (among 13 countries) are enjoyment and interest.14
What about the advantages of allowing students to read texts of their own choosing, texts that they’re comfortable with – that they understand and that reflect their own experiences and interests? Won’t these experiences encourage them to develop stamina and a life-long love of reading? There’s plenty of evidence that indicates that is a more valuable strategy.
Indeed, when Richard Allington and Rachael Gabriel narrowed down the Six Common Factors That Lead to School Success and Student Growth, their first three factors referenced exactly this type of reading:
- Every child reads something he or she chooses.
- Every child reads accurately.
- Every child reads something he or she understands.15
Research by O’Connor, Bel, Harty, Larkin, Sackor, and Zigmond (2002) determined that greater fluency growth was found with struggling sixth-grade readers when they were provided with texts they could read accurately versus when they were provided tutoring in the texts used in the classroom. “Across groups,” they found, “fluency was the strongest contributor to reading comprehension.” They concluded, “Our results suggest that students with very low fluency will not improve their reading ability if they are taught with grade-level materials.”16
Overly-challenging texts can have a negative impact on reading fluency.
It’s not surprising that educators find themselves caught in the middle. With reliable research on both sides of the debate, how do we decide what to do in our own schools? Good question. Allow us to follow up by asking a question of our own: is there a reason we can’t do both?
Let’s combine approaches by:
- giving students an opportunity to engage with difficult texts (grade level or above; complex text) during shared reading time,
- encouraging them to build reading accuracy, fluency, and comprehension (not to mention any reading struggles that they need support with) during guided reading (small group time),
- and building stamina and a love of reading with texts of their own choosing during partner-read and independent reading time.
Our experience shows that, if done thoughtfully, this “balanced way” produces the best results.
Increase the Rigor – But Do It Thoughtfully
Repeatedly subjecting student readers to frustration-level texts, without proper scaffolding and guidance, results in nothing but frustration. To get the most out of instructional reading, educators have to offer guidance in specific comprehension strategies, consider students’ background knowledge, and be able to offer a variety of challenging texts to address a range of needs.
“No one, however, is claiming that just placing kids in harder books leads to greater learning – clearly harder books require instructional adjustments by teachers that are an important part of the equation. Exposing kids to grade level text will not automatically raise student learning. It just provides an opportunity for greater learning. Instructional techniques – like the dyadic reading in this study – are an example of that kind of instructional adjustment. Additional guidance with vocabulary, grammar, cohesion, structure and other aspects of text complexity should have their place too.” (Shanahan, 2017)17
To complicate things just a bit more, it turns out that the most effective reading doesn’t simply focus on obvious literacy components. Comprehension is also highly connected to students’ background knowledge or schema. A student’s background knowledge strongly impacts their ability to comprehend a specific text. In fact, this is true of even the most fluent adult readers. All text presents gaps that the reader needs to fill in, and they do so based on their prior experience. For example, the more a reader knows about “soccer” the better they can comprehend what a book or article about soccer is truly saying.
Dr. Willingham found in one of his experiments that third graders (some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor) “were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.” This research suggests that students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge and usually know something about the topic in the passages on the test.18
Finally, it’s important to remember that instructional level text for one child may be extreme frustration level text for another. According to most state standards, we’re required to expose all students to grade level texts or above. But what do we do about students who read at significantly above- or below-grade level? We differentiate texts. This means we must have a systematic approach to planning curriculum and instruction for diverse learners. Teachers and curriculum directors use this approach to maximize students’ learning capacity while being cognizant of their individual needs. Differentiation (meeting the needs of students) is best accomplished in small groups or one-on-one (which can happen in guided reading time during conferencing).
The demands of effective, instructional classroom reading exposes the great weakness of most “purchased” literacy programs. Literacy programs that promise great results and high student achievement are not able to replace actual instruction, can’t adequately address gaps in background knowledge and, aren’t usually designed to reach students of varying abilities. Consequently, they must be viewed for what they actually are: resources – no more and no less. While it’s tempting to succumb to their false promises, pre-packaged programs are not a substitute for thoughtful curricula and targeted teaching strategies.
At-Level Texts and Student Choice
In much the same way, giving students a chance to independently read texts that they are able to fully understand and read fluently, requires thought and preparation on the part of the district, the school, and the individual teacher.
Studies have noted the correlation between reading fluency and comprehension. That is why gathering information on students’ ability to read with fluency is a critical part of most state reading assessments. Let’s think about how fluency is fully defined. In general, a fluent reader is able to gauge the meaning, rate, intonation, expression, appropriate stress and pausing, as guided by the author’s word choice, sentence structure, and punctuation. Reading a text at the frustration level does not improve fluency. Instead, fluency is developed when a student reads texts that match their readiness levels – practicing reading by using their skills over and over. And the more time they spend reading these “just right” books, the more fluent they become.
What is the best way to motivate reluctant readers and encourage all readers to spend time reading? Give them a choice in their reading material. As Allington and Gabriel’s findings assert, students need practice and choice in order to develop greater skill proficiency.19 Jeffery Wilhelm, Michael Smith, and Sharon Fransen arrived at similar conclusions about the importance of choice and practice.20
Giving students a choice in reading material often makes teachers unnecessarily nervous. As with choosing texts for guided reading, the practice of selecting text options for independent reading requires thoughtfulness and preparation, but it’s nothing to be feared. That’s because student choice does not mean it’s a free-for-all. In fact, experienced teachers often refer to this practice as a “democratic dictatorship.” They offer students choices, but let them select from options that the teacher has vetted. In short, in order to improve student fluency, effective teachers give them a choice of texts that are at or very slightly above their comfort level. In this way, students grow their independence by becoming partners in a differentiated learning environment. There are tested classroom models like the Literacy & Learning Center instructional model that help teachers save time and effort by incorporating student choice while simultaneously covering content and skill development.21
Make no mistake, the practice of student choice and differentiated reading also requires some thought, commitment, and preparation on the part of school leaders. So that teachers can offer their students a choice, districts must ensure that schools have access to a range of texts on various topics (considering students’ cultures, background knowledge, and interests). The good news is that it doesn’t require a huge investment in expensive textbooks. Reading options can be found online, in periodicals, in paperback “trade” publications, and in the books and texts that are already in each school’s classrooms and libraries.
As highly as we value the research and insight offered by conflicting studies, it’s important to remember that there is nothing simple about the act of reading. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that there should be one simple way to teach students how to excel at it. Data analysis and research done in laboratory schools have incredible value and we educators have an obligation to both pay attention to the findings, and adjust our practices accordingly. On the other hand, we have an obligation to do what’s best for our students. Often that means incorporating practices from both sides of the reading wars. That means increasing rigor by exposing student readers to complex, challenging, and grade-level texts, and teaching them strategies they’ll need in order to eventually read these texts independently. It also means encouraging every student to increase their fluency by reading lots of “just right” text. Figuring out effective ways to combine the two approaches is a better use of our time than continuing to engage in exasperating and useless reading wars.
1 Castles, A., Rastle, K., and Nation, K. (2018). Ending the reading wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 19, 5-51
2 Myracle, J., Kingsley, B., & McClellan, R. (2019, November 18). We have a national reading crisis. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/03/07/we-have-a-national-reading-crisis.html
3 U.S. Department of Education. (2019). Results from the 2019 mathematics and reading assessments. Retrieved from https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/supportive_files/2019_infographic.pdf
The Nation’s Report Card: trends in academic progress in reading and mathematics 2008. (2008) Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pubs/main2008/2009479.asp
4 Annie E Casey Foundation. (2019). Kids count data book. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-2019kidscountdatabook-2019.pdf
5 Annie E Casey Foundation. (2010). Early warning! Why reading by the end of third grade matters: a kids count special report on the importance of reading by 3rd grade. Retrieved from https://www.aecf.org/resources/early-warning-why-reading-by-the-end-of-third-grade-matters/
6 Coleman, D., & Pimentel, S. (2012). Revised publishers’ criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and literacy, grades 3-12. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Publishers_Criteria_for_3-12.pdf
7 Duncan, G. J. & Murnane, R. J. (Eds.) (2011). Wither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools and children’s life chances. Russell Sage Foundation.
8 Anderson, R., Wilson, P., & Fielding, L. (1988). Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside of school. Reading Research Quarterly, 23(3), 285-303. Retrieved February 7, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/748043
9 Hayes, D. P., Wolfer, L. T., & Wolfe, M. F. (1996). Sourcebook simplification and its relation to the decline in SAT-Verbal scores. American Educational Research Journal, 33, 489–508.
10 Chall, J. S., Conard, S., & Harris, S. (1977). An analysis of textbooks in relation to declining SAT scores. Princeton, NJ: College Entrance Examination Board.
11 Hiebert, E.H. (2012). “The Common Core State Standards and Text Complexity.” In M. Hougen & S. Smartt (eds.), Fundamentals of Literacy Instruction and Assessment, Pre-K–6. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing.
12 Lisa Trottier Brown, Kathleen A. J. Mohr, Bradley R. Wilcox & Tyson S. Barrett (2018) The effects of dyad reading and text difficulty on third-graders’ reading achievement, The Journal of Educational Research, 111:5, 541-553, DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2017.1310711)
13 Diemand-Yauman C; Oppenheimer DM; Vaughan EB, 2010) Diemand-Yauman C, Oppenheimer DM, Vaughan EB. Cognition. 2011 Jan; 118(1):111-5. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012. Epub 2010 Oct 30
14 (Jihyun, 2014). Jihyun, Lee. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 106(2), May 2014, 364-374. Doi: 10.1037/a0035609. Again, literacy work is a both/and, not an either/or.
15 Allington, R. L., & Gabriel, R. E. (2012). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 10-15.
16 Oconnor, R. E., Bell, K. M., Harty, K. R., Larkin, L. K., Sackor, S. M., & Zigmond, N. (2002). Teaching reading to poor readers in the intermediate grades: A comparison of text difficulty. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(3), 474–485. doi: 10.1037/0022-06220.127.116.114
17 Shanahan, T. (2017, May 14). Retrieved from https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/new-evidence-on-teaching-reading-at-frustration-levels
18 Willingham, D. T. (2017, November 25). How to Get Your Mind to Read. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/25/opinion/sunday/how-to-get-your-mind-to-read.html
19 Allington, R. L., & Gabriel, R. E. (2012). Every child, every day. Educational Leadership, 69(6), 10-15.
20 Wilhelm, J. D., Smith, M. W., & Fransen, S. (2014). Reading unbound: Why kids need to read what they want—and why we should let them. New York, NY: Scholastic.
21 McKnight, K. S. (2017). Literacy and Learning Centers for the Big Kids, Grades 4-12 (1st ed.). Antioch, IL: Engaging Learners.