Stair-Step Instruction vs. Challenging Texts: The Great Debate

A colleague and I recently had a mini “debate” on the best way to prepare kids to read difficult texts.  We each took a side- for the sake of debate, I argued that we should do “stair step” reading that moves kids up a text difficulty “ladder” over time, while my colleague argued that we should expose kids to and scaffold the reading of challenging texts.

A lot of paraphrasing here, but the debate went something like this:

“I don’t want kids to get frustrated reading books that are too hard,” I said- “and I’ve seen what they do when books are too tough- they shut down and, at best, fake read.  I also want to be sure that kids are reading books in their ZPD.  I just worry what will happen if I start giving kids books that are really too hard for them.  And where’s the fun in reading if we do that?”

My colleague took the other side, saying, “There isn’t a lot of evidence that kids need to read a magic level of books that’s just right for them.  Instead, we should support them with lots of scaffolding as they read challenging books.  That way they don’t panic when they’re faced with challenging texts in their lives.  In addition, if we’re truly trying to integrate voice and choice into kids’ reading, we need to let them pick books that are ostensibly too hard, then support them in accessing those texts.”

At some point, our debate became less of a debate and more of a conversation, and I mentioned the fact that the research around giving kids hard texts is inconclusive (there isn’t clear evidence that it helps kids improve their reading levels), which leads to the question- what do we do? And my colleague added that it was really important to allow kids to have that voice and choice, and if we constrain them to a particular lexile band, say, we might be preventing them from reading something they really liked.  And if they liked a text, they could be amazingly persistent, coming in for lunch and asking for help.

When I’ve talked about this before, I’ve argued that we should have kids read different levels of texts at different times, depending on our purpose.  And I still believe that.  But I think this “debate” reinforced a couple of things for me:

  • It’s important not to simply hand out difficult texts just to say we’re reading hard texts, because that can confuse and frustrate kids
  • On the other hand, if we adhere rigidly to a stair-step system, moving kids up a ladder of lexile bands, we risk tracking them and requiring them to read books they don’t like
  • It’s all about scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding- let’s support our kids with difficult texts when they need it
  • Because there isn’t clear research to support one tactic or another, we get to make the best decision we can based on our kids and goals

How do you help kids read hard texts?  What’s your opinion on our debate?


Literacy Coach for New Tech Network

Posted in Teaching Challenging Texts

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