You'll notice that text complexity is an important part of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). (You can read more about this in this my previous post.) The "staircase of text complexity" will give students more opportunities to learn from complex texts, and the hope is that by setting a benchmark for students to read grade level complex texts "independently and proficiently" by high school graduation, students will be ready to read college and career level texts.
However, I know from my own time in the classroom that many students struggle with grade level complex texts. Teachers ask me every day about how to help such readers. "I give them complex texts like the standards say, and they can't do it!" is a common refrain. I always begin by asking them about their approach to planning, because thoughtful planning holds the key to student success with complex texts.
Planning the Right Level of Support
There is a misconception among some educators that putting complex texts in front of kids will make them better readers. This is not the case. Literacy expert Tim Shanahan states, "The more challenging text placements presume that teachers will provide extensive scaffolding, explanation, support and teaching to enable success." In fact, instruction with complex texts will initially require MORE modeling, scaffolding, and support from teachers. Here are four steps teachers can take when planning to help all readers experience success with complex texts.
1. Choose Texts that Build Knowledge
Thoughtfully selecting texts is the first way to help students read complex texts. Many teachers find a text that falls within the CCSS Lexile bands and stop there. However, there are other factors to consider. Choosing a text that is part of a larger set of texts arranged around a particular content area is essential. As literacy expert Richard Allington points out, we have known for many years that the most important factor in what we will understand, and how well writers will write about a given topic, is their knowledge of that topic. Reading a series of texts that provide different takes or perspectives on the same topic can help students build the deep knowledge they need to engage in higher levels of analysis and interpretation. Interestingly, this approach can result in improved comprehension of unrelated content as well.
The Writing for Understanding approach from the Vermont Writing Collaborative exemplifies these principles by applying backwards design to writing. In this approach, teachers "backwards plan" by first determining the final piece they want students to be able to write at the end of a sequence of instruction. The teacher determines the central idea about content they want students to understand, and writes a focusing question to help guide student thinking. They determine the understanding of structure and writing craft students will show in their work.
Teachers then plan to build the content knowledge students will need through a series of texts they will read. Teachers plan the text-dependent questions they will ask, and the strategies students will use to access them. They plan to build writing structure and craft through models of writing and direct instruction, with lots of opportunities for kids to talk about the texts and their ideas prior to writing. According to Joey Hawkins from Vermont Writing Collaborative, the teacher's guiding principal is not "Lets see if you can write this," it is "Lets make sure you can write this." Teachers we coach are surprised by the dramatic improvements in student writing that can occur with this approach.
2. Qualitative Analysis of Complex Texts
I am a strong advocate for teachers doing a close reading of the text themselves, along with a qualitative analysis of text complexity. Coaches at the Achievement Network and I have been asking teachers to determine the purpose of a text they will teach, then examine the respective rubric of qualitative text complexity for nonfiction or fiction texts to cue them to the elements that make texts complex. We've asked teachers to make separate passes through the text, annotating areas with challenging text structures, language features, and knowledge demands. This process has helped teachers uncover important areas in the text that may cause students to struggle, so they know what to target with text-dependent questions.
3. Planning for Close Reading
At times, teachers do too much of the pre-reading work for students, telling students what a text means before they have a chance to read it. This takes the joy of discovery from kids, and limits opportunities for authentic interpretation and analysis. Students need to have regular opportunities to struggle productively with complex texts. However, this does not mean withholding support. Teachers can and should scaffold reading, without shortchanging student thinking.
Take close reading as an example. In a typical close reading sequence, the first read allows students to read a text independently (or hear it read aloud) to get a basic understanding of what the text says, including what they think is important and what is confusing. Students share their thinking with peers. The scaffolded text-dependent questions that teachers ask in the second read are designed to address what students are finding challenging, to build knowledge, and to pinpoint the areas of complexity teachers uncovered in their qualitative analysis. The idea is to provide enough support to cue students to focus on key words, phrases, or structural elements to determine how the text works, while allowing students to interpret the authors' choices themselves. For the third read, the students go deeper to figure out what it all means, and how this text helps them answer the focusing question and relates to their own life and the world.
4. Support Beyond Close Reading
The CCSS say what students should be able to do by the end of the year, not how to get them there. While planning carefully by choosing and analyzing texts, don't forget that this is not the only kind of literacy instruction students need. In their book Rigorous Reading, Fisher and Frey explain how instructional practices such as purpose setting, modeling, and scaffolding can work in combination with close reading.
Common Core author David Liben shares a "Both and" approach to literacy instruction for elementary students. It includes foundational literacy practices, along with building academic language and knowledge through a volume of reading, while supporting comprehension and encouraging close reading. The overarching idea remains that teachers must plan intentionally to give students the support they need to regularly engage with complex text.
Let us know in the comments section below how you plan to support readers as they read complex texts. Share your successes and challenges with these and other approaches.
For More on Complex Texts Watch These Videos
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Ryan McCarty is a coach with Achievement Network, a nonprofit organization that helps school leaders support teaching that is grounded in standards, data, and the best practices of schools across the country. He partners with schools in Massachusetts. Prior to that, he was a literacy coordinator, instructional coach, and teacher in Chicago, IL. All views are his own. Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanP_McCarty.