Scaffolding Complex Text: Volume of Text Matters

    by Elfrieda H. Hiebert | July 30, 2012

    It’s not new information but, often in the busyness of classroom life, this truism can be forgotten. It can especially be forgotten when teachers are faced with 30 young children whose reading expertise differs greatly. The students who haven’t read much in previous grades, during vacations, or after school are usually slower readers. The students who have had more previous reading time are faster. If the slower and fast readers are asked to read the same text in the same period of time, the fast readers typically finish first (and teachers need to find something to keep them busy).

    One solution in current core reading programs to this dilemma is to provide texts for different levels of reading. The advanced or fast readers get one text and the below-level readers get another, “easier” text. A third text is provided for on-level students but, for comparative purposes, let’s look at the texts for the advanced and below-level readers.

    The vocabulary difficulty is the same across the two levels of texts. Based on the quantitative measurement1 described in Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS Initiative, 2010)2 , the average frequency of words is almost exactly the same for the advanced and below-level texts for America’s current premiere core reading program3 (first unit of third grade): 3.61 for the advanced texts and 3.63 for the below-level texts.

    What gets the advanced texts classified as “harder” and the below-level texts as “easier” is sentence length: an average of 9.9 words in a sentence for the advanced texts and 6.7 words for the below-level texts. A difference of 3 words, on average, in sentence length is not great which means that the advanced texts do not have many of the embedded clauses which can make text more complicated. However, very short sentences, like those in the below-level texts can challenge readers because the connectives between ideas have been eliminated.4

    The other big difference between the texts for advanced and below-level students is the number of words per text:  approximately 1,000 words per advanced text and 540 for a below-level text. Over the 30 weeks of a school year (one book per week), advanced students will have been exposed to approximately 48% more words. Both groups are asked to reread texts so a response cannot be that the number of words for the below-level readers is greater in practice. In practice, the below-level readers will simply be reading substantially less over the school year.

    The issue is not getting the below-level readers to “catch up” to the advanced readers. The advanced readers will likely always have an edge unless below-level readers read voraciously during the summer, after-school, and on weekends. The goal that is attainable is to get below-level readers to a proficient level of reading by third grade. A clear benchmark has been established for end-of-third-grade reading that is linked to high-school retention (Hernandez, 2011). This level is challenging (at least a third of an age cohort does not get to this level) but it is approximately 200 Lexiles lower than the expected level for end of third grade according to the Common Core’s guidelines. I am not advocating for lower standards. But the assumption that complex texts can be read before students have climbed an earlier staircase—the staircase of core vocabulary—is simply inaccurate. A core vocabulary underlies success in reading complex texts. The third-grade level linked to high-school retention represents successful scaling of this first staircase, which involves automaticity with the 3,500 word families that account for 90% of the total words in most texts.5

    Exposure to approximately 16,500 words over the third-grade year (the total words in all of the books for below-level readers) is simply not enough to develop the automaticity that is required with the core vocabulary—especially when the “hard word” rate is high, as it is in the below-level readers of this target core program. The best indicator of amount of exposure to become facile with a word is 10 exposures.6 Below-level readers are likely to encounter the core vocabulary that needs to be mastered from 2 or fewer times in the 16,500 words of text. Their advanced-level peers will see the same vocabulary approximately 3 to 4 times in the somewhat larger number of words in their texts.

    The result of providing less text for below-level readers means that the poor continue to get poorer and the rich get richer. It is highly unlikely that reading less will develop the core vocabulary proficiency that permits students to read complex texts in the middle and high schools. 

    1 The Lexile Framework is used to establish the staircase of text complexity in the Common Core State Standards.

    2 Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: CCSSO & National Governors Association.

    3 Beck, I.L, Farr, R.C., & Strickland, D.S. (2009). Storytown (Grade 3). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.

    4 Davison, A., & Kantor, R.N. (1982). On the failure of readability formulas to define readable texts: A case study from adaptations. Reading Research Quarterly, 17(2), 187–209.

    5 For more on the “core vocabulary,” see E.H. Hiebert (2012). Core Vocabulary: The foundation for successful reading of complex text. Text Matters. Retrieved from:

    6 McKeown, M., Beck, I.L., Omanson, R.C., & Pople, M.T. (1985). Some effects of the nature and frequency of vocabulary instruction on the knowledge and use of words. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(5), 522–535.