Text Difficulty and Comprehension

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In this recently published research, Lupo et al. (2019) examined whether easy or challenging versions of texts, when accompanied by different types of instructional support, improved adolescents’ reading comprehension.

Two hundred and ninety-three ninth-grade students were provided with 12 weeks of intervention in which teachers were randomly assigned to teach one of two instructional strategies prior to the students reading texts. Within each class, students were randomly assigned to read either easy or challenging versions of the same text and then their comprehension of the text was assessed.

The easier texts had more familiar vocabulary, greater lexical cohesion, fewer academic vocabulary words and a more ‘conversational tone’.

The students’ general comprehension was also assessed before and after the intervention.

The two instructional strategies were L-D-R or K-W-L. In the K-W-L classes teachers began the lesson by asking questions about the topic to activate the students’ knowledge (K). The teacher then engaged students in a discussion about what they wanted to learn (W).  Following reading the text, students reflected on their learning (L).

In the L-D-R classes the lesson began with a listening activity (L) which combined a lecture and activities (e.g., videos, small group discussion, PowerPoint presentations, etc.) designed to build background knowledge. Students read (R) the text and completed a graphic organiser to show examples or contradictions to the knowledge presented prior to reading. The teacher then engaged the students in a discussion (D) about the text.

In each strategy, the pre-reading activities and discussions took 20 minutes, students were given 10 minutes to read the text independently and 15 minutes was allocated to the post-reading discussion.

The researchers found that students’ comprehension of the easier and more challenging versions of the text was similar. However, students in the K-W-L classes outperformed students in the L-D-R classes.

The only students who benefitted from the easier text, were a small group of students identified reading significantly below the average and the large majority of these students were English additional language learners. It was argued that for these readers the increased cognitive load of reading longer passages containing more unfamiliar words, less word repetitions and more sophisticated sentence structures made the challenging texts more difficult to comprehend.

Based on these results, the researchers concluded that most students, even if struggling with comprehension, may benefit more from reading challenging versions of texts if this is accompanied by appropriate instructional support. It was suggested that readers with less familiarity of a topic may need more details (as occurs in more difficult text), not fewer, to understand abstract language and to make inferences.


Lupo, S. M., Tortorelli, L., Invernizzi, M., Ryoo, J. H., & Strong, J. Z. (2019). An Exploration of Text Difficulty and Knowledge Support on Adolescents’ Comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 54( 4), 457– 479. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.247