Making Time for Complex Text in Literacy Instruction

The Common Core Standards call for teachers to use more complex texts more often. One of my previous blogs shared ways to help all readers access complex text. Even when teachers are committed to using more complex texts, though, they often struggle to fit them within their school day.

Here, then, are practical suggestions of how to incorporate more complex text in existing structures — namely guided reading and independent reading — when redesigning them is not an option.

Elementary schools often have a set-aside time for literacy instruction — a “literacy block” — that ranges from 90-120 minutes in length. These blocks are often designed to foster a balanced approach to literacy instruction, with time allotted for different literacy instructional formats and practices.

For example, Fountas and Pinnell’s Language and Literacy Framework “three blocks” approach calls for a language/word study component, followed by a reading workshop or writing workshop. Within the reading workshop block, teachers traditionally use instructional practices such as mini-lessons, shared reading (where student and teacher read together from the same text, often including teacher questions and time for discussion and rereading), guided reading (where the teacher works with a small group of students grouped by reading level who are reading the same text), and independent reading, where students read a book of their choosing.

Though teachers occasionally incorporate routines for close reading in their instruction, the approach I see most often used by teachers trying to teach to the Common Core standards within a traditional literacy block is to use complex/on- grade-level text during the mini-lesson and shared reading portion of the block, since this is the learning segment that is most teacher scaffolded. During this time, the teacher explicitly connects a reading skill or strategy to previous knowledge, reading a complex text aloud while modeling how to use the strategy, then leading guided practice with that text.

This gives all students “exposure” to complex text. This approach has been influenced by the popular strategy of categorizing texts as being at a “frustration level,” “instructional level,” or “independent level,” based on the percentage of words a student can read accurately with comprehension. The idea behind identifying these levels is that we don’t want to “frustrate” students with a text that’s too hard, so let’s buffer them from that experience by letting them apply the strategies they’ve been exposed to in texts more appropriate for their reading levels. We’ll give them time with the teacher during guided reading with a short “instructional level” text, and let them choose an “independent level” text to read during independent reading.

Rethinking Guided Reading

However, literacy experts have begun to challenge traditional notions of how we categorize texts as frustration level, instructional, or independent, since there is little research supporting these hard and fast “levels” of texts (Shanahan, 2011). Research, in fact, indicates that achievement may be accelerated by working with texts previously thought to be at a student’s “frustration level.”

Traditional approaches to guided reading advocate the use of an “instructional level” text that will be “supportive but with a few problems to solve” (Fountas and Pinnell, 1996). However, limiting guided reading to only instructional texts limits a student’s opportunity to engage with complex text with teacher support. Rather, teachers should use guided reading time flexibly, incorporating complex text that poses similar challenges to the text in the mini-lesson or shared reading, or giving students additional time to reread or struggle productively with that same text.

The structure can be similar to a traditional guided reading lesson, but with minimal pre-reading/purpose setting, and more focus on questions that target the levels of meaning, text structure, language features, or knowledge demands that make that text complex. For instance, a complex literary text may have an intricate structure with multiple points of view and unpredictable time shifts. This article by literacy guru Tim Shanahan shares many suggestions for getting started with scaffolding complex texts.

Rethinking Independent Reading

Complex texts require strategies that are not just generic. Always turning kids loose with “independent level” books of their choosing during independent reading time means they won’t have the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the mini-lesson or shared reading to a text posing similar challenges, and text complexity is the secret sauce of the Common Core standards.

Frey and Fisher (2013) recommend a “constrained choice” approach that guides students toward texts that align with the content being taught and increases in complexity over the course of the year. This approach also calls for students to be held accountable for applying the approaches or strategies they learned during the mini-lesson through writing reflections, discussions about the reading, or conferences with the teacher. This maximizes the learning potential of independent reading, and gives students the practice they need with more complex texts so they will be able to transfer these skills to their own reading outside the classroom.

A Caveat

While incorporating more complex text into guided and independent reading will help teachers boost the amount of complex text in their instruction and help prepare students to meet the Common Core standards, that does not mean students should never have the opportunity to read books of their choosing or books that are easy for them. Creating opportunities for wide reading from a wide range of choices is essential for developing vocabulary and word knowledge, especially when students read a number of books on the same topic (Liben, 2013).

I’m not arguing that guided reading and independent reading should only occur with complex text. However, we are missing out on opportunities to boost student learning if we think of guided and independent reading rigidly as times for “instructional” and “independent” level texts. Instead, teachers should seek out opportunities to incorporate more complex text into these times during their literacy block.

What are you thoughts? How will you incorporate more complex texts within your existing literacy block? Let us know in the comments below!

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.


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