One of the big buzz ideas surrounding the Common Core (CCSS) is challenging reading material. This is a concept that I have intuitive issues with. My gifted daughter has not been presented with a challenging reading in her 10 years of public schooling. Some students I have worked with have found every piece of print ever presented to them a challenging read. Some interpret the CCSS challenging reading to be related to revised Lexile levels that include a stretch. For 8th grade this means starting where the old bands ended. Challenge is completely independent of ability and solely based on age/grade. For other people such as Kevin Baird of Follet Reading webinars and the authors of Fluency: Differentiated Interventions and Progress Monitoring Assessments, Jerry L. Johns and Roberta L. Berglund, challenge is defined by the individual student's ability rather than how old he is or what grade he happens to be in.
From my years in the classroom and my perspective as a parent, challenge can only be defined on the individual basis. You would not ask a NFL quarterback if it was challenging to throw a ball 10 yards to a receiver on an empty field on a calm day with no defenders, but this could be very challenging to a pee wee QB just learning the game. My gifted child is not developing her ability to read when she is presented with tasks that are 4-8 years below her reading level even if it is challenging to the average student in the classroom. Conversely, when a student who encounters frustration when reading a text at the 5th grade level is presented an 8th grade level text, he is beyond challenged and may not even attempt the reading.
When we have students who are struggling readers, especially at the high school level, we need to have a two pronged approach. One, we need to provide remediation at their instructional level. They need their holes in learning filled and their skill set expanded- be it decoding, vocabulary, comprehension, phonemic awareness or fluency. This needs to be intense and in addition to their regular classroom instruction. Two, they need to develop strategies for dealing with material that is simply too difficult to read. This could be audio recordings, vocabulary companion lists, paraphrased material, low reading level versions of the same material, illustrations, or extra time to work on the material among other things. With the expansion of e-readers and apps that will read the texts to students such as natural readers, vbookz PDF reader, or voice aloud reader, audio versions are an increasing viable option.
When we simply say to students, "This is what we are reading and I know that it is challenging but you can do it." we do empower many students to struggle through it. Some students, however, are defeated before they begin. They need support in motivation and perseverance in hard things. They need both remediation and alternative ways to access the reading.
For our gifted and high ability students we need to empower them as well. This means hunting down material with higher reading levels. College textbooks may need to be recruited. Scientific journals may need to be utilized. This may mean more work for already stretched too thin staff, but enrichment coordinators, library media specialists, literacy coaches and teachers of the gifted can be called in to help. Some parent volunteers might also be able to pitch in to provide access to resources or time to go through material and locate appropriate sources.
While not every piece of writing presented to students needs to be challenging, providing material that is appropriately, individually challenging is an important part of educating our children. Fluency in reading, however, is not developed on the challenging or stretch texts, but on material that is at students instructional reading level. This means that accessible readings need to be a part of all literacy approaches. Rereading favorite material is essential. If we want students who can read fluently, then we need to balance both challenge and accessibility on an individual basis.