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TextProject answers frequently asked reading research questions.

Core Vocabulary

What is the core vocabulary?

What texts support students' proficiency with the core vocabulary?

Should students be taught the core vocabulary as sight words?

Can the words in the core vocabulary be taught?

Beginning Reading

What should kindergartners be able to read?

What kinds of books should teachers read aloud to beginning readers?

What are good books to use with beginning readers?

What texts should children be able to read at the end of kindergarten in the Common Core era? First-grade?

Text Complexity

What role does motivation play when reading complex text, even for students who may not have all the vocabulary to tackle the text?

What Makes a Text Complex?

What is the difference between accessible and dumbed-down text?

With the enormous emphasis on complex text within the Common Core State Standards, what roadblocks should teacher be prepared for? And how can they prepare for these roadblocks?

Core Vocabulary

What is the core vocabulary?

A rich vocabulary is essential to success with complex texts. English has an enormous number of words—approximately 300,000 active words. But all of these words don’t carry the same weight.

One analysis of K–12 texts from all subject areas showed that about 5,600 words accounted for 80% of the words in texts. An additional 150,000 words accounted for the other 20% of the words.

When the 5,600 words are organized as word families—such as help, helps, helped, helping, helper—the number becomes smaller—4,000 simple word families. And when family members that don’t occur often are included, these 4,000 simple word families account for 90% of the words in texts—including the texts of high school and college.

This group of 4,000 simple word families forms the core vocabulary.

The core vocabulary includes words for many concepts (e.g., length) as well as highly frequent words (e.g., the) and general academic words (compare). Facility with the core vocabulary is fundamental to reading success.

What texts support students' proficiency with the core vocabulary?

Providing engaging texts with an abundance of the core vocabulary is the raison d'être of TextProject. Suggestions for texts follow but educators need to remember that students need an enormous number of texts to become proficient readers (especially when the goal is reading complex texts). Educators often forget the number of book experiences of preschoolers in their acquaintance. Expecting children whose reading experiences happen mostly in school to become adept readers with one or two books per week is unreasonable. No one knows for certain but a reasonable hypothesis is that reading at least one million words by fourth grade underlies proficient reading.

TextProject has provided free, prototype programs of engaging texts with high percentages of core vocabulary. These programs have been created to serve as templates for selecting programs. Even with 120 BeginningReads, educators will need many more texts to teach children to read well. There are likely at 50,000-10,000 titles within the reading instructional market just for beginning reading in the American instructional market. At the present time, TextProject, as a small nonprofit, does not have the financial resources to independently analyze the many books and programs in the marketplace. But what TextProject does do is to provide exemplar texts which educators can use with students and, when their students experience success, to use these exemplar texts to locate additional texts among the thousands of texts available in the educational marketplace.

The staircase of core vocabulary (below) is the basis for the three prototype programs: BeginningReads, SummerReads, and Talking Points for Kids

Staircase of Core Vocabulary

staircase 4000 with steps


TextProject Programs & the Staircase of Core Vocabulary

Program Support for Core Vocabulary
BeginningReads Across entire program, BeginningReads move students from Step 1 through Step 5 of the Staircase of Core Vocabulary.
SummerReads Intended for middle-graders, the three levels focus on Step 5 of the Staircase (Grade 3), Step 6 (Grade 4), and Step 7 (Grade 5).
Talking Points for Kids Intended for middle graders, the program emphasizes Step 7


Should students be taught the core vocabulary as sight words?

Recognizing words in the core vocabulary automatically is clearly a foundation of proficient reading. Because these words are so important, there can be a temptation to think that the core vocabulary should be taught through rote activities such as word lists or flashcards.

These activities are misdirected. The core vocabulary is learned through many, varied reading and writing experiences. Just because words are highly frequent does not mean that they are simple. Varied and numerous experiences are needed because most of the words in the core vocabulary take on many roles and meanings in written English.

“Many Uses: The 100 Most-Frequent Words in Written English” (available for download here) illustrates the complexity of even the most-frequent words. Many of these words can be confused with other words because they are homophones (words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings). Even a word with a single spelling can have different forms with unique origins and meanings (e.g., down, just) and many words with a single origin are used as different parts of speech (call, may). Many common words also are used in idioms (phrases that don’t have a literal meaning) and in compound words where the root words help with the meaning but where the parts don’t automatically equal the whole (e.g., two-faced does not mean that someone literally has two faces).

Becoming flexible with the meanings and uses of the core vocabulary requires numerous opportunities to read, write, and discuss texts. TextProject.org has a feature called TextProject Word Lists. These word lists are intended for educators to identify vocabulary to teach, not for students to memorize in or out of school.

Can the words in the core vocabulary be taught?

The answer to the question is an unequivocal yes. But instruction does not take the form of rote activities. Students need many experiences in using the words in reading, writing, and discussion. These experiences include vocabulary lessons on different types of words within the core vocabulary.

The core vocabulary provides substantial grist for vocabulary lessons, due to the considerable variety among these words. Students benefit from instruction that brings the features of particular groups of words to their attention. The chart below illustrates the variety within the core vocabulary.

Question 4 pie chart

There are basically three types of words within the core vocabulary: (a) words that are often both familiar and concrete (sections in shades of blue); (b) abstract words (sections in shades of yellow); and (c) complex morphological relatives of root words (the green section).

Each type of word (familiar and concrete, abstract, and complex morphological relatives) has different features which should be the focus of lessons.

Familiar and Concrete Words

The list of animal words is available in Word Lists in Teacher Resources on TextProject. As the words on this list illustrate—goat, pony, hen, chicken, duck, pig—most are highly concrete and can be taught in lessons which make heavy use of pictures (see, e.g., sets of word pictures for vocabulary clusters at TextProject: Word Pictures

Complex Morphological Relatives

By applying a handful of guidelines, the 4,000 simple word families can be condensed even more—by about a third. Here are the guidelines:

  • compound words with the “head” (first) word (example: night—midnight, overnight, tonight)
  • words with the prefixes “a” and “un” with the root word (example: sleep—asleep; happy—unhappy)
  • words with the suffixes “ment,” “ion”, and “ance” with the root word (example: arrange—arrangement; appear—appearance).
Abstract Words

The abstract words within the core vocabulary are of three types:

  • Dolch Plus: Function words (prepositions, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, particles)
  • Academic Word List (AWL): Based on frequency of use in college texts, this list contains 570 words used to communicate processes and ideas in complex texts (Coxhead, 20001). Sixty percent of the AWL words (343 words) are in the 4,000 simple word families. These 343 words that appear on both Coxhead's list and on the 4,000 simple word families are listed here.
  • Core Academic Word List (CAWL): The CAWL is based on frequency in elementary and high school texts and is limited to words within the 4,000 simple word families (but excluding the Dolch Plus and the AWL).

1Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-238.

Beginning Reading

What should kindergartners be able to read?

Many educators and parents are asking this question in response to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In many states, the CCSS represent the first standards where kindergartners are expected to be reading conventionally.

The foundational standard states that kindergartners should be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” (p. 16). The kindergarten texts given to illustrate Standard 10 (p. 32) include ones with readability levels of second grade. The expectation of the CCSS is that children should be able to read conventionally by the end of kindergarten.

The CCSS’s rationale for increased text levels is the claim that K-12 texts have been “dumbed down” over the past 50 years. If high school students are to be college and career ready, CCSS writers believed that text levels needed to be accelerated at all grade levels, beginning with kindergarten.

There are two problems with this assumption. First, kindergarten texts cannot have been dumbed down over a 50-year period because, until No Child Left Behind, kindergarten texts were not part of the core reading programs, which form the mainstay of American reading instruction. Second, research shows that an earlier start does not increase average levels of fourth graders, much less ensure college and career readiness for high school students. Indeed, an earlier start widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

What research does show is that kindergartners need exposure to many, many texts—texts that are read to them, texts with which they can follow along, and texts that they can hold in their hands and examine. For the kindergartners whose first book experiences occur primarily in school, these “on-my-own” texts should be ones that represent familiar concepts and have regular letter-sound matches. That is why, in BeginningReads—the program that TextProject offers for free download—texts begin with familiar, concrete words that have regular letter-sound matches. Steadily, students are introduced to more and more letter-sound patterns in words representing familiar, concrete concepts. In BeginningReads, students learn to read with cats and dogs, seeds and trees, beaks and feet, and snow and coats.

What kinds of books should teachers read aloud to beginning readers?

The read-alouds within CCSS-oriented early primary-level classrooms aren’t just “any” book. The read-alouds of kindergarten and first-grade classrooms should be carefully chosen for their content and the quality of language.

There are literally thousands of outstanding books from which teachers can choose and the recommendations on the Internet for outstanding books are many—and can be confusing. The question of what should be read becomes especially critical when considering the precious hours of classroom time for students whose primary literacy experiences occur in school. Time is precious and knowledge is extensive.

What follow are several principles for choosing read-alouds which ensure that both the world knowledge and the literary knowledge of kindergartners and first graders are enhanced.

 literary knowledge 500

  • Ensure that read-alouds have a subject area emphasis: Students’ background knowledge can be extended substantially through read-alouds. Figure 1 illustrates just a few of the many outstanding texts that deal with topics in history, math, science, geography, and music/visual arts. As Figure 2 illustrates, read-alouds should also involve young children with a variety of genres. As they hear contemporary and classic stories, children are being introduced to a host of characters. Some of these have stood the test of time (e.g., Gingerbread Man, Ferdinand), while others are endearing from the point of introduction (e.g., Olivia).
  • Ensure that read-alouds have compelling language: As teachers read aloud texts with memorable language, phrases and expressions become part of classroom talk (e.g., “Millions and billions and trillions of cats” from Millions of Cats). And, yes, there are informational texts that meet this criterion (e.g., “Seasons melt into seasons on her parents’ farm” from Through Georgia’s Eyes).
  • Develop content by reading aloud books that have interrelated content: Rather than reading a single book on the orchestra (e.g., Zin, Zin, Violin), additional books such as The Philharmonic Gets Dressed and Ah, Music can create a strong foundation of knowledge about orchestral music.

world knowledge 500 

As these examples show, narratives continue to have a critical place in CCSS early childhood classrooms. But at the same time, there are many informational texts with compelling language, which lay a foundation for students’ life-long engagement with texts as a source of knowledge and enjoyment.

What are good books to use with beginning readers?

Books for beginning readers should have a set of repeated, concrete words. Children, like adults, learn concrete words more readily than abstract words.

At the same time, English is an alphabetic language so phonetic regularity is essential. Words such as frog, bus, and cat illustrate the kinds of words which should be prominent in books for beginning readers—words which represent familiar, concrete objects and are phonetically regular. The BeginningReads program provides texts with phonetically regular, highly concrete words.

A second feature of good books for beginning readers is the repetition of highly concrete, phonetically regular words. When concrete words appear a single time in a text, children often use the picture to guess the word, which means they are not attending to the word’s letters and associated sounds. Multiple repetitions of words in and across texts encourage beginning readers to attend to word features.

BeginningReads show how to support both alphabetic knowledge and meaningfulness in texts for beginning readers.

What texts should children be able to read at the end of kindergarten in the Common Core era? First-grade?

The answer to this question differs for kindergartners and 1st graders, as is evident in the Common Core State standards. Neither K nor grade one is included in the staircase of text complexity but the exemplar texts for K-1 which appear in the Standards and Appendix A give an indication of expectations for these levels.

For kindergarten, texts for independent reading are wordless picture books such as Pancakes for Breakfast or picture books with words in signs or on objects (e.g., trucks). Text complexity expectations, beginning at grades two-three, have been increased with no justifiable empirical foundation. But at kindergarten entry, an artificial standard has not been set which all young children must scale. Young children learn at different rates and also come into school with vastly different prior literacy experiences. Some kindergartners have had many prior school-like literacy experiences at home and are ready to move along the staircase of core vocabulary (see below). But, for the children whose primary literacy experiences occur in school, the Common Core has not placed an arbitrary level for them to achieve.

staircase 4000 with steps

For first-grade, the prototypical texts for independent reading in the Common Core exemplars are Hi! Fly Guy (a story) and Starfish (an informational text). On the staircase of core vocabulary which appears in the figure above, Hi! Fly Guy and Starfish are on the fifth step of the staircase—facility with the 1,000 most frequent words and decoding skills with words of five or fewer letters. This level is a reasonable expectation for first graders and mirrors the expectation for end-of-first-grade reading in an assessment such as DIBELS.

There is reason to be concerned, however, for the students whose literacy occurs primarily in school and who have not reached the end-of-grade one benchmark. In light of the upping of the ante in text levels in the grade two-three span, many first graders may be pushed to reach the Hi! Fly Guy level. For those students who don’t reach this expectation (but could if given a little leeway in second grade), negative evaluations about their reading capacity may be prematurely made—with dire consequences.

Text Complexity

What role does motivation play when reading complex text, even for students who may not have all the vocabulary to tackle the text?

The idea that students’ motivation will make up for a lack of knowledge of critical words in a text is suggested by Common Core writers in Appendix A where they state: “Students deeply interested in a given topic, for example, may engage with texts on that subject across a range of complexity” (p. 9). The few studies that support the idea of interest compensating for difficulty involved students reading short texts for short periods of time. And, yes, there are anecdotal reports of interested readers persisting with hard texts, often coming from our own experiences or those of children in our acquaintance. But there are numerous questions about what challenging text means in day-to-day school settings:

First: What is the discrepancy between readers’ proficiency and text complexity? If readers are proficient with the core vocabulary—that is, 90% of the words in most texts—they will be able to navigate many texts. For these students, reading a text where 10% of the vocabulary is unknown may be tedious but, with sufficient interest and background knowledge, they have a greater likelihood of comprehending at least some of the text than students who don’t have a solid foundation in the core vocabulary.

Second: What is the duration of the challenge? It may be entirely possible for students to persist in reading a short text which is challenging but their engagement may wane with longer texts, especially ones that are book-length.

Third: What is the frequency of the challenge? If almost all of students’ school time is spent with text that they can’t read facilely, they are less likely to respond with interest to challenging text than when such text consumes only part of their reading experiences. The frequency of the challenge brings up the issue of students’ history with reading in school. If students have a long history of being given only challenging texts in schools—and there is evidence that that has been the case for many children of poverty—the engagement that they showed as primary-level students will likely wane by middle school. As John Guthrie has shown, consistent diets of particular school tasks, including the degree of challenge in texts, can sustain engagement or lead to disinterest. The challenge for educators in Common Core classrooms is to create a diet of varied texts that support students’ development as readers, all the while involving them with compelling content that fosters an interest in learning.

A recorded version of this response, entitled “Challenging Text and Motivation,” is available at TextProject's YouTube channel.

What Makes A Text Complex?  

Many features--including topic and author’s style. But the variable that consistently predicts reading comprehension is vocabulary. Remember that the core vocabulary accounts for at least 90% of the words in most texts.

The other words in texts come from a group of around 300,000 words—words that are rare in written English. An additional one or two rare words per 100 words can add challenge. The kinds of words, of course, make a difference, especially when most of the rare words are multisyllabic rather than mono-syllablic.

Further, students are rarely asked to read texts that are only 100 words long. The number of rare words needs to be viewed relative to the entire task. 

The rate of rare vocabulary matters in text complexity and rare vocabulary can be taught as illustrated in numerous resources at www.textproject.org.

What is the difference between accessible and dumbed-down text?

When I suggest in presentations that challenged readers require large amounts of accessible text, I’m often asked: But what’s accessible? And are accessible texts complex enough for Common Core classrooms?

A first point of clarification is that accessible text is not dumbed-down text. These three examples (in Table 1) illustrate dumbed-down texts:

  • texts with short sentences to ensure low readability levels,  
  • texts on bizarre topics that are thought to interest challenged readers, and
  • texts with phonetically regular words. 

Dumbed-down texts should not be equated with accessible texts. Accessible texts have complex content and language. These 100-word samples from narrative texts identified by Common Core writers as grade 4-5 exemplars show that the number of rare words per 100 words differs substantially—even across complex texts.

In teaching challenged readers, I’d begin with complex texts that have the most manageable percentages of rare vocabulary—that is, accessible texts. In the sample in Table 2, the most accessible texts are: Alice’s adventures in wonderland, Where the mountain meets the moon,The little prince, and Bud, not Buddy. Accessible texts are complex texts with moderate numbers of rare words.


Table 1

Examples of Dumbed-Down Texts

Type of Dumbed-Down Text  

Short sentences to ensure low readability levels

These plants are the biggest of all.They are trees. Their stems are called trunks. Trunks are covered with bark. Bark protects the trunk. Bark helps animals, too. They can grab onto the bark. It helps them run up to their homes in holes and nests.

Trunks can get very tall and thick. 

Bizarre topics thought to interest challenged readers

Monster trucks have been around for more than 30 years. At first, some people called them chrome crushers because the drivers drove them over cars and crushed the cars flat. Later, some drivers decided they would like to have flat races over a straight track. So, in 1987, they formed the Monster Truck Racing Association.

Phonetically regular words

So the con man went into the bank. The con man didn’t see well. His nose was a mass of cotton lint. So the con man didn’t see a striped pike in front of bank.

Slip! There went the con man when he stepped on the pike. Plop! That was the con man hitting the street with his seat.

Table 2

Excerpts from Narrative Common Core Exemplars (Grades 4-5)

Text Excerpt*

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, and what is the use of a book, thought Alice without pictures or conversation?

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies,

When the Mountain Meets the Moon

The villagers had to tramp in the mud, bending and stooping and planting day after day. Working in the mud so much made it spread everywhere and the hot sun dried it onto their clothes and hair and homes. Over time, everything in the village had become the dull color of dried mud. One of the houses in this village was so small that its wood boards, held together by the roof, made one think of a bunch of matches tied with a piece of twine. Inside, there was barely enough room for three people to sit around the table which was lucky. One of them was a young girl called Minli. Minli was not brown and dull like the rest of the village.

The Little Prince

Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories From Nature, about the primeval forest.  It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing an animal.  Here is a copy of the drawing.

In the book, it said, Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole, without chewing it. After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months that they need for digestion.

I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle. And after some work with a colored pencil, I succeeded in making my first drawing. My Drawing Number One. 

Bud, Not Buddy

I’ll be doggoned if that tooth isn’t the littlest bit wiggly. At first you think it’s kind of funny, but the tooth keeps getting looser and looser and one day, in the middle of pushing the tooth back and forth and squinching your eyes shut, you pull it clean out. It’s the scariest thing you can think of ‘cause you lose control of your tongue at the same time and no matter how hard you try to stop it, it won’t leave the new hole in your mouth alone, it keeps digging around in the spot where that tooth used to be.

The Black Stallion

It had been fun, those two months in India. He would miss Uncle Ralph, miss the days they had spent together in the jungle, even the screams of the panthers and the many eerie sounds of the jungle night. Never again would he think of a missionary’s work as easy work. No, sir, you had to be big and strong, able to ride horseback for long hours through the tangled jungle paths. Alec glanced down proudly at the hard muscles in his arms. Uncle Ralph had taught him how to ride, the one thing in the world he had always wanted to do.

The Secret Garden

“Well enow. Th’ carriage is waitin’ outside for thee.” A brougham stood on the road before the little outside platform. Mary saw that it was a smart carriage and that it was a smart footman who helped her in. His long waterproof coat and the waterproof covering of his hat were shining and dripping with rain as everything was, the burly station-master included.

When he shut the door, mounted the box with the coachman, and they drove off, the little girl found herself seated in a comfortably cushioned corner, but she was not inclined to go to sleep again

The Birchbark House

She…put her leathery pawlike hands on the smooth bark, feeling for flaws. Yes, she decided her eyes sparkling at her granddaughter. A good one?

“It is ready? Geget,” said Nokomis. Surely. Nokomis's tobacco pouch was decorated with blue and white beads in the shape of a pipe. She had owned this tobacco bag ever since Omakayas could remember. When she talked to the Manitous, Nokomis dipped out a pinch of tobacco.

“Old Sister,” she said to the birchbark tree, “we need your skin for our shelter.”  At the base of the tree, Nokomis left her offering, sweet and fragrant. Suddenly, she pressed her razor-sharp knife

*Bolded words are rare words; un-bolded words come from the core vocabulary (i.e., 4,000 simple word families)

With the enormous emphasis on complex text within the Common Core State Standards, what roadblocks should teacher be prepared for? And how can they prepare for these roadblocks?

I’ve written extensively about potential consequences of (mis)interpretations of text complexity. Here are my three biggest fears and potential responses of teachers to the current push for complex texts.

Problem: Teachers will be browbeaten to give students texts which have been identified by third parties to be complex but which students either can’t read facilely or which they don’t understand. An example of inappropriateness is children asked to read Sarah, Plain and Tall in the middle of second grade. Yes, some children may be able to pronounce most of the words words but the ideas of this book were aimed at older children (as evidenced by its receipt of the Newbery award as the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in 1986).

Solution: Teachers in districts and schools need to identify texts that illustrate the progression of growth expected at particular grade levels.

Problem: Teachers will think that they don’t have the expertise to identify which texts are appropriately complex to grow the capacity of their students. They will look for third parties to tell them which books are complex and which aren’t.

Solution: Knowing that a text has a guided reading level of N or a Lexile of 810 does not provide teachers with information on how to increase students’ reading capacity with a text. Teachers need to examine texts themselves, attending to features such as prior knowledge, text structure, vocabulary, and purpose in relation to their own students. Publishers can give useful guidelines (e.g., the number of words that are challenging, the demands of prior knowledge) but teachers need to develop skills at identifying the features that require attention for their students.

Problem: In scrambling to give students complex texts, teachers will forget that proficiency at any complex task reflects involvement and practice over time.

Solution: Teachers need to attend to the amount that their students are reading across a school day. Many American students simply aren’t reading enough across a school day to achieve the foundation needed to grapple with complex text.

To learn more about my cautions related to text complexity and an alternative that I’ve proposed—the Text Complexity Multi-Index—see:

Hiebert, E.H. (2012). Readability and the Common Core’s Staircase of Text Complexity (Text Matters 1.3) and The Text Complexity Multi-Index (Text Matters 1.2). Retrieved from http://textproject.org/professional-development/text-matters/