How Complex a Text Can I Scaffold?

  • Oral Reading Fluency Text complexity scaffolding challenging text
  • 09 April, 2017

Teacher Question:

            Is there a point at which it does not make sense to use a particular challenging text with a particular student? For instance, take an 8th grader who reads at about a 3rd grade level. The student can decode reasonably well but is dysfluent and, due to learning English, has poor comprehension resulting from low vocabulary knowledge and lots of confusion caused by complex syntax. Would you still say scaffold grade-level text to provide access for this student-- or at a certain point, the scaffolding would need to be so extensive and it would take the whole year to read a grade-level novel-- use easier text?

            As a follow-up question, have you written or spoken about the most effective scaffolding approaches? This is something I need to learn more about.

Shanahan response:

            I’ve said a lot about the benefits of having kids read complex text. You are just asking,  “Can there be too much of a good thing?” (You probably already know the answer for chocolate cake.)

            Let me give you two answers.

            The first one is theoretical. It suggests that there is no bridge too far, no challenge too great, and no text too complex.

            Theoretically speaking, you could take whatever the hardest text in the world is (The Meaning of Relativity? Finnegan’s Wake?), translate it into Greek, and scaffold it sufficiently for a third-grader.

            Okay, maybe I’m overdoing it a bit… but there are case studies that we can go by.

            For instance, Grace Fernald (1943, Remedial Techniques in Basic School Subjects) describes her work with a 13-year-old who was a total non-reader. She took him to the library and asked him which book he would like to learn to read.

            He looked around and lit on the fattest encyclopedia volume he could find, what to him must have looked to be the hardest book in the world.

            Dr. Fernald’s response? Sure, I’ll teach you to read that.

            The good doctor was the one who came up with kinesthetic approaches to teaching reading (with all the tracing of words and such). She literally took the first word in the book and wrote it down and had him tracing it.

            I can’t remember how many years she worked with this guy, but at the end of some length of time he could read the whole doggone book. Now that’s scaffolding!

            Theory tells us what is possible, and in this case it is telling us that there is no amount of scaffolding that could not be effective. Thus, scaffolding your eighth grader across 5-grade levels is very workable.

            But I said that I had two answers. What’s the other one?

            The other answer is the practical one. It’s the answer that admits the theoretical possibility, but is troubled by the quotidian… How much time do I have? How will that work if I have 25 other kids in the class? How will I keep Junior’s motivation up? How will I keep my motivation up?

            Scaffolding someone to read a text that is hard for them takes time and in real classrooms, with real kids, there definitely can be challenges that are simply too great to bridge.

            Frankly, in grades 4 and up, I think scaffolding a youngster (or a group of youngsters or a classroom of students) across two years of difficulty is par for the course. Thus, if your group reads at a second-grade level or higher, teaching that fourth-grade science textbook shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for either teacher or students.

            What scaffolding might be needed in such a normal case? The teacher should provide essential background information… that is, the teacher can tell relevant information about the content that might help readers to make sense of the text—while not revealing what the author is going to say.

            Right now, I’m trying to read an abridged French novel. Normally, I can handle this kind of thing, but in this case, the book is so abridged that I can’t follow it. The abridger cut out too much of the story. Each chapter seems almost entirely disconnected from what came before. If I had a teacher who could scaffold for me, she could, perhaps, tell me about what’s missing, so that when I take on a chapter, I’d know how it is connected to the one’s that I’ve already read. (Unfortunately, I don’t have such a teacher… and this reading is a failure for me.)

            What else? Make vocabulary accessible. The most obvious thing that readers confront in complex text is unknown words. Provide preteaching or simple glosses that allow the students to access those words immediately.

            Third, provide the students with some kind of reading strategy that will help them make sense of the text. One that I find particularly helpful when the text is out of reach is summarizing. I literally write a brief summary (usually just a few words, occasionally as much as a sentence) for each paragraph.  Here are some examples: “conversation about Jews & Arabs becoming French,” “He feels bad like the mouse in his apartment,” “he’s still sick,” “he isn’t like the people there.”

            This kind of summarizing can be important because when you put a lot of work into making sense of a paragraph, it is easy to lose the thread of what came before. So, if I struggle with a paragraph, when I finish, I can refer back quickly to remember where I am.

            Finally, you need to stress that you are available to answer student questions when they get stuck (be frank with them about how hard the text is and that they can rely on you to help figure out whatever may be confusing or impenetrable).

            However, there are MANY times when I want or need to scaffold students over greater spans than that. The greater the distance the more scaffolding that is needed. And, as your question points out, the harder the text, the more likely the student will have problems decoding the text (e.g., translating the print into language).

            In such cases, some kind of oral reading fluency work is usually best. That is, get the students to read the text aloud once or twice prior to trying to comprehend it. This can be done with a parent, teacher, other student, or even a tape recorder. The idea is to resolve the words first and then to shift attention to figuring out the meaning.

            Studies suggest that such oral reading and rereading can raise a reader’s ability to handle a text by 2-3 grade levels, which in many cases—along with the scaffolds noted above—can be sufficient for supporting that eighth grader for handling that eighth grade book.

            Of course, there are many other scaffolds that can be effective. There are powerpoints, videos, and other blog entries on this website that provide additional information.

    Now about that chocolate cake...


See what others have to say about this topic.

Apr 10, 2017 01:37 AM

I teach 8th grade and teach an extra class of struggling readers, so this is very helpful. Thanks for taking on this question.

Allison Bobbitt
Apr 11, 2017 12:42 PM

My fifth grade daughter is a struggling reader, and when her teacher said they were going to read The Diary of Anne Frank, I almost had a heart attack. So, we got busy watching some YouTube videos, looking at artifacts online, and basically doing a crash course appropriate for her age about the Holocaust using media to give her context. Then I summarized the chapters and we discussed them as they read at school. I'm a former English teacher and have trained lots of teachers in my career, but this made the challenge of the classroom personal and real. Thanks for providing practical advice for parents and teachers!

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 11, 2017 09:12 PM


What you (and your daughter) did was showed that this really is possible. Some parents would have complained to the school and tried to get the challenging book replaced with something easier. I suspect she not only learned more, but you and she will have a lifetime memory.


Elise Wright
Apr 20, 2017 10:37 PM

I did several lessons with my 5th graders on navigating difficult text on the topic of the Columbian exchange using an article taken from a collaboration between a Harvard and Yale professor. This was ambitious, but also a fun challenge! The article as a whole, was a huge challenge, so I broke sections of it down into short paragraphs and triple spaced them so there was a lot of room. We worked on analyzing voacabulary words that " students in our room might struggle with as they read" The individuals looked at the article and skimmed it to find the troublesome words. This made it a safe place to offer up those words because the ownership for understanding was not focused on a particular student, but on a collective group.

We then went through the article and as a small team of four, and we tried to insert a word we thought would make sense, and we penciled in that word. Next, we met as a larger group and shared the words each group picked and wrote a list of the words on the board in a certain color for each group. When we found words that were included on nearly every group's list , we knew we needed to really clarify what that word meant. Other groups offered up what they thought the meaning was from unknown words if only one group had a particular word listed.

Through discussion, we were able to use our substitute model of writing words with the same meaning above the word or word phrase in the text, and determine if our ideas made sense. In the end we decided what word or words should be placed above the unknown meaning of a word or word phrase. Using this model allowed the students to expand their vocabulary and also find synonyms for words they were less familiar with.

Ultimately, we moved into digesting the text and argumentation on its contents. For instance, one article stated slavery, as a result of the Columbian exchange, was one of the greatest negative aspects. of the exchange. Another article focused on depopulation and explained about the estimations of the number of people who died as a result of disease. When students were able to combine both of these topics into a discussion, they were able to analyze the information and offer counter arguments to statements I made to them. An example I might say is, "Slavery and depopulation were two factors that affected the settling of the New World. Which of these seems the most important factor in the settlement?" To see them progress from not knowing the content to understanding the concepts was truly incredible for not only them as learners, but also me as their teacher.

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Aug 09, 2017 01:33 PM

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How Complex a Text Can I Scaffold?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.