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Home > Reading Comprehension > Do Hi-Low Texts Support Comprehension?

Looking More Closely at High-Interest, Low-Level Texts: Do They Support Comprehension?

by Stephanie A. Spadorcia, Ph. D

Reprinted with permission from the International Dyslexia Association quarterly newsletter, Perspectives, Spring 2001, vol. 27, no. 2, pages 32-33, Stephanie Spadorcia,, Ph.D. (It's worth joining IDA just to get Perspectives, and there are many other benefits. Their website is

Adolescents with reading disabilities can lack skill in any of several areas (e.g., decoding and language usage, knowledge of text and story patterns, making predictions, recognition of textual elements, and monitoring of their own comprehension). However, over the years, attention to the reading materials available for adolescents with reading problems has been sporadic. Up until recently, the only empirical research with a focus on materials for older struggling students was conducted 20 years ago (see Mason, 1981). As a result, educators often find themselves choosing from a selection of books that may or may not be supportive of their instruction.

Texts can be viewed in terms of three different levels that support and pose challenges to readers: word-level, sentence-level, and passage-level (Kintsch, 1998). The word-level consists of the words on the page as individual units that have to be recognized. The sentence-level combines these words using rules of syntax and semantic structure to form idea units. The passage-level contains the network of connections among the ideas, or the extent to which the ideas "hang together" in a cohesive manner. All three levels proved context and structure to the reader while reading for comprehension. And all three levels provide a framework for looking more closely at high-low books in terms of the support they offer to struggling readers.

For instance, some high-low books are written to achieve a targeted level on a readability formula. The assumption is that if the word-level and/or sentence length is controlled, then a reader will be able to comprehend the text. But areas of difficulty for a student can lie beyond those characteristics. At the sentence level, a less proficient reader may use language skills in order to access the meaning of words (Hiebert, 1999). High-low books written around readability formulas might give less support to this process -- since the linguistic complexity of these books at the sentence level is lower -- therefore hindering comprehension.

Coherence is also often ignored in the creation of these books (Davison & Kantor, 1982). Many consistently exclude linguistic markers of highly coherent text (Spadorcia, 2001). Low coherence does not support less proficient readers' deep comprehension of a book (McNamara, et al. 1996).

Analyzing High-Low Text

Recently I analyzed 60 high-low books written for adolescents using a three-tiered framework of textual demands (Spadorcia, 2001). Word level demands were looked at with the percentage of high frequency words and the percentage of decodable words (from an onset-rime perspective). Sentence-level demands were measured by sentence length and t-unit length. Passage-level demands were evaluated with the use of a holistic scale of coherence.

I found four categories of high-low books based on their commonalities across the levels of textual demand: 1) decodable texts; 2) literature-based texts; 3) readability-formula texts, and 4) balanced texts.

Decodable Texts. Books within this group consistently had a low level of high frequency words, a moderate number of highly decodable words, low sentence-level sophistication, and a moderate to low overall passage cohesion.

Books typical of this cluster included: France, M. (1998). Deadly double. Novato, CA: High Noon Books.

This type of text would hinder comprehension for many less proficient readers who rely on high sentence-level complexity to identify unknown words and chain together idea units. But only 8 % of the books I analyzed fell within this grouping, indicating that few high-low texts control textual demands in this way.

Literature-based text. This category of texts contained high sentence-level complexity and overall coherence. But this type of text did not seem to place parameters around the word-level demands posed to readers. That is, equally low numbers of high frequency and decodable words were found. Therefore, a less proficient reader would have more word-level demands to deal with, but the sentence- and passage-levels would presumably provide more support for comprehension.

Books typical of this category included:
Brin, S. (1998). Trapped in the sixties. Costa Mesa, CA: Saddleback Publishing, Inc.
Griffey, H. (1998). Secrets of the mummies. New York: DK Publishing, Inc.
Gutelle, A. (1990). Baseball's best five true stories. New York: Random House.

Books within this cluster also tended to contain high numbers of "high-content" words. For example, Knucklehead (Capstone PRess, 1993) tells the story of a young teenage boy who just moved to town. He attempts to get involved with the school community by playing on the high school baseball team. To comprehend this book, the reader not only needs background knowledge about baseball, but must be able to recognize less frequent, content-related words like "clubhouse," "knuckleball," and "pitch."

Twenty-seven percent of the high-low books I analyzed fell into this category.

Readability-formula text. Books in this category contained shorter sentences and lacked syntactic complexity. Overall coherence was also low, probably because words were chosen and sentences were written without regard to their impact on overall cohesion.

Typical books included:

Pageler, E. (1997). The rich cake mystery. Novato, CA: High Noon books.
Schultz, I. (1996). The great dinosaur hunt. Bothell, WA: The Wright Group.
Wright, B. (1995). The haunted house mystery. Novato, CA: High Noon books.

Since syntactic and semantic systems provide the connection between oral and written communication (Hiebert, 1999), books written in this manner can make it difficult for students to make that connection and draw upon those systems when reading. For example, consider the following excerpt from The Haunted House Mystery (Wright, 1995):

"I'm not going," Tom said. "This is day time, Tom. It will be OK," Eddie said.
"Anyway, we aren't going in it," Ricky said.
"We aren't? Why not? It looks okay to me," Tom said.
"You can't get in it. There's a big fence around it. That's how they keep people out," Ricky said. (pg. 11-12)

Sections in these books were often not clearly introduced or summarized with a closing statement. For instance, in the same book, a chapter ended with the following sentence: "I think those men are printing funny money there at night, he said" (pg. 39). On the following page the chapter stared with "Sergeant Collins didn't say anything. Everyone just looked at Ricky" (pg. 40). There was no change in the setting or action between these two chapters. The break was blunt and not presented in a seamless manner, thereby contributing to a text with low overall passage coherence.

Thirty-five percent of the books I analyzed fell into this category.

Balanced Text. Books in this category contained equal amounts of high frequency words and regularly decodable words, as well as engaging content and language, providing students with a balance of opportunities for increasing reading comprehension. As compared to the other categories, books from this category were second in sentence-level sophistication only to the literature-based category, and first overall in passage-level coherence.

Typical books included:
Bricker, S.D. (11993). Challenger. Costa Mesa, CA: Saddleback Publishing, Inc.
Schraff, A. (1992). Swamp Furies. Costa Mesa, CA: Saddleback Publishing, Inc.
Schraff, A. (1993). The phantom falcon. Costa Mesa, CA: Saddleback Publishing, Inc.
Thirty percent of the books I analyzed fell into the Balanced text category.

Book Selection

Each day teachers make on the spot decisions about reading materials, whether for group reading instruction, or for students who need independent reading materials. Often these decisions are made while looking only at one factor, such as length of book, type of words included, or interest connection for the student (Hiebert, 1999). Customarily, issues such as linguistic complexity and overall coherence are not taken into account (Davison & Kantor, 1982).

To assist students in comprehension development, multiple factors should be considered before a selection is made. Using readability indices or word counts alone is not sufficient. Instead, books should be examined through a multiple set of lenses, recognizing the particular skills that less proficient students need to learn to become better readers.

Hiebert (1999> speaks of "multiple-criteria texts" for reading instruction at the primary grades. Within this framework different book types are utilized in a cycle to allow for practice in different areas of reading skills, including increasing sight-word recognition and decoding skills, using context to figure out unknown words, improving response to text, and discussion. Older struggling readers would benefit from the same approach.

Teachers of struggling readers face a unique situation and have unique needs in locating materials for instruction and reading. But there is a wealth of information that could be shared between literacy and special educators in order for headway to be made with this problem. Much information is known about creating and utilizing effective reading for younger beginning readers. The problems facing older struggling readers, regardless of disability, are not different from this wealth of knowledge, just foreign to the application of it. Under the umbrella of collaboration between literacy and special educators, as well as book publishers and authors, much progress can be made in order to create materials that complement effetive teaching for this group of students and their teachers.


Davison, A. & Kantor, R.N. (1982). On the failure of readability to define readable texts: A case study from adaptations. Reading Research Quarterly, 17, 187-209.
Hiebert, E.H. (1999). Text matters in learning to read. The Reading Teacher, 52, 552-566.
Kintsch, W. (1998). Paradigms of comprehension. England: Oxford Press.
Mason, G.E. (1981). High interest-low vocabulary books: Their past and future. Journal of Reading, 24, 603-607.
McNamara, D.S., Kintsch, E., Songer, N.B., & Kintsch, W. (1996). Are good texts always better? Interactions of text coherence, background knowledge, and levels of understanding in learning from text. Cognition and Instruction, 14, 1-43.
Spadorcia, S. A. (2001). Analyzing the word-level, sentenc-level, and passage-level of high-interest, low-level books. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Stephanie A. Spadorcia, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the School of Education and a learning disabilities specialist at the Center for Academic Achievement, at Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. She is part of the faculty of the Center for Literacy and Disability Studies. Her research interests include the compatibility of reading materials and instruction, high-interest, low-level texts for struggling readers, and assessment and instruction of literacy skills for children with disabilities.



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