Closing the Gap: One Challenging Book at a Time

by Guest Blogger
November 18th, 2013

Here’s a far too common sight in middle schools with lots of students from low-income families: adolescents bored with and discouraged by books for elementary students. Bored because the content is simplistic; discouraged because even these kids’ books contain vocabulary they don’t know.

Some school systems assume that students this far behind are “slow” and that this is the best they can do; but very often, the only thing these students lack is the opportunity—not the capacity—to be on grade level.

To understand this, you need to know about two things: the vocabulary demands of written texts and the limitations inherent in typical elementary-grades reading instruction.

As for the vocabulary in texts, it is far more sophisticated than the vocabulary in spoken language. One study comparing spoken and written language found that, “Regardless of the source or situation and without exception, the richness and complexity of the words used in the oral language samples paled in comparison with the written texts. Indeed, of all the oral language samples evaluated, the only one that exceeded even preschool books in lexical range was expert witness testimony.”

This has obvious implications for instruction: To build vocabulary, students must be immersed in texts. Studying vocabulary lists can help a little, but as E. D. Hirsch has explained, the tens of thousands of words that need to be learned must be absorbed bit by bit, through multiple exposures in multiple texts.

I don’t think you’ll find many teachers arguing against a print-rich environment. You will, sadly, find many who have been trained—through teacher preparation programs and mandated professional development—in instructional methods that prevent children from developing large vocabularies.

The culprit is the notion of the “just-right” book. A book that is not too easy and not too hard, a book that a child can read independently. Sounds good. But what happens when a child who is not learning much vocabulary at home is in a classroom where all of his texts are matched to his current level? Growth, but at a glacial pace. Blink and these kids are in eighth grade reading “just-right” third grade books.

The path to college is paved with challenging texts. (Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)

One of the most important instructional shifts embedded in the Common Core standards is to accelerate growth by immersing students in grade-level books. I’ve seen many descriptions and misunderstandings of this. Finally, a clear, concise explanation is provided in a terrific report that Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett published with the Fordham Institute last month:

The CCSS seek to challenge students with texts that are grade-appropriate (on a K-12 trajectory to college- and career-readiness), rather than those that are only as challenging as students can read on their own.

American schools have long attempted to differentiate instruction to meet individual students’ learning needs. In reading, this has often meant selecting texts not according to whether they are appropriately rigorous for the grade, in terms of both content and complexity, but rather according to how well a student could read the text by himself at that point in time. In many classrooms and for many students, this has meant assigning texts to struggling readers, the content and complexity of which are more appropriate to lower grade levels. Done this way, the goal is to assign books that students will be able to read with high degrees of both accuracy (recognizing 95 percent of the words) and comprehension (answering 75-90 percent of the questions). Materials that students can read this well are said to be at their “instructional level,” and materials that are harder are deemed to be at a “frustration level.”

But the Common Core discourages teachers from doing this out-of-level teaching. Instead, the standards demand regular practice with grade-appropriate texts, regardless of the independent or instructional reading level of the student. The idea is that teacher support and explanation, not text difficulty, is what should be differentiated to meet the needs of struggling readers.

Some may question the wisdom of teaching students with texts that they’re unlikely to understand without help. But research suggests teachers can’t pinpoint students’ reading levels with great precision.18 Even if they could, students can learn effectively from a broad range of text levels and giving them a steady diet of relatively easy texts doesn’t support learning effectively.19 In fact, some studies have reported greater learning gains when students were taught with markedly more challenging texts.20 Still, there is a long history of encouraging instructional-level teaching in U.S. schools.21

Shifting from assigning books that students can read independently to works that require more deliberate teacher guidance and support changes the instructional focus of reading class. The time that teachers once spent trying to pinpoint individual student reading levels and match books to them should instead now be focused on providing greater support for students who are struggling to read these texts, including more explanations and rereading.

According to Fordham’s report, nearly two-thirds of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers select texts based on students’ reading level—not their grade level. Even if this one instructional shift is the only thing accomplished by the Common Core, then all the effort will be richly rewarded.



  1. You make an important point. Clearly, though, the need for “more deliberate teacher guidance and support” is obviously key with this approach. Are most teachers ready to provide this support?

    Comment by Chuck Granger — November 18, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  2. To my thinking–and in my practice–the “just right book” was the book for independent reading. It was the book that students read to accumulate reading practice hours and increase fluency. The major goal was to put students in the behaviors of lifelong readers. For whole class instruction, I chose material the students could not mediate without an teacher’s intervention. Here’s where we met new and challenging vocabulary, text structure, backgrounds, etc. head on. I would not value an educational philosophy that doesn’t include both approaches for literacy.

    Comment by Ramona Lowe — November 18, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  3. This is so true – a tragedy in the UK where thousands of well-meaning, dumbed-down books are published for struggling students. Some of the material for teenagers has vocabulary,syntax,simple plotlines that are not even appropriate for 5-6 year olds.

    Do you mind if I quote extensively from your article?

    Comment by Geraldine Carter — November 18, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

  4. As a mother of a second grader whose reading level was determined solely by one test, I am frustrated that his teacher will not allow him to read outside of this range of texts. He finds the books he has to choose from to be boring and simplistic in plot; we read a lot of things together and he loves the descriptions of different worlds.
    He is able to successfully read books that are listed in the 4-5 grade range when we are reading at home. I am taking this post with me when I meet with his teacher; perhaps your words will have a greater impact than my concerns that have been brushed off in the past. Thanks.

    Comment by April — November 18, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  5. My 7 year old son and I are reading the Hobbitt together. I had a lot of reservations that it would even hold his attention. But I realized last night as I was explaining the words ire, plunder and conspirator that he is engaged and that the book will be a conversation between us for a while. It was a wonderful experience. I know my father said that one of his greatest memories was his 7th grade teacher reading Les Misrable by Victor Hugo. Part of the reason kids may find reading boring is that we are withholding some of our greatest literary treasures until they are ready, but ready never comes.

    Comment by DC Parent — November 18, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  6. Hi Geraldine,

    I am sorry that you have the same problems in the UK, but glad to help–please feel free to quote anything on Core Knowledge’s website. You may also find Civitas’s work to develop a Core Knowledge Sequence for the UK helpful:

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — November 18, 2013 @ 10:26 pm

  7. [...] Lisa Hansel on rigor in reading. [...]

    Pingback by Rigor in Reading | Five Twelve Thirteen — November 18, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

  8. [...] up on my thoughts on Lisa Hansel’s post from Core Knowledge–from the Marshall Memo, quoting Michael Petrilli, on whether the Common [...]

    Pingback by Rigor in Reading: Follow Up | Five Twelve Thirteen — November 19, 2013 @ 9:53 pm

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