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. Read more

Setting Effective Instructional Priorities for Next Year

The end of the year is always an exciting time in schools. Along with the promise of summer, the cyclical nature of the school year means it’s time to take stock of the year just completed and look forward to the next.

Schools often set Performance Goals at the end of the year. Performance goals are set for student performance on some type of measure, whether it be a state summative exam or local assessment.

They’re often written in the form of SMART goals to ensure they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-based, and Timebound. While performance goals are important, they’re merely the “what,” or in other words, the target. Schools also need to determine the “how,” or the means they’ll use to reach the goal. Coming up with an Instructional Priority is a way to help ensure you meet your performance goals.
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Harness the Power of Writing in Math

I’ve always been an English-Language Arts kinda guy. Math was never my forte. When I learned that my new job would involve helping schools make the transition to the Common Core Standards for Math as well as English, I was nervous. How would I get up to speed on the math standards?

As I learned about the math standards, I saw connections to what I loved about the ELA standards and my anxiety diminished. The CCSS for math contain both grade level content standards that explain “the what” – what students should know and be able to do – and Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMPs) that explain “the how” – how students should learn and engage with one another in math class.

The SMPs apply to every grade level and are grounded in “important ‘processes and proficiencies’ that are highly valued in the field of math.” Many of the things that I love about the ELA standards, such as the priority placed on evidence-based reasoning and the importance of explaining one’s thinking, are present in the SMPs as well.

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Teaching Novels in the Common Core Era

The teaching of literature, and novels in particular, has been a subject of some controversy and confusion since the advent of the Common Core.

The standards’ call for a greater percentage of informational text (increasing from an equal percentage of informational and literary in fourth grade, to 70% informational and 30% literary by grade 12) was seen as a sign the standards were trying to phase out literature. However, these percentages were cumulative across the whole school day and reflect reading that should be happening in content area classes, like science and social studies.

While the amount of informational text read in most ELA classrooms will increase, the introduction to the standards clearly states, “The ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction.”

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Three Ways to Help Students Master the Vocabulary Demands of Complex Texts

With the Common Core’s emphasis on text complexity (including a standard devoted exclusively to it), there’s been a renewed interest in what actually makes a text complex. Alongside teachers in Massachusetts, I’ve been doing some work on this. We’ve been determining the big idea of a text, and then using rubrics and reading closely to analyze the qualitative elements of text complexity. This includes levels of meaning, structure, language, and knowledge demands. Knowing what makes a text complex helps us decide what to target for our instruction.

Of these qualitative elements, vocabulary likely contributes the most to text complexity. Teachers often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of unknown words students encounter. This is even more the case for students from low income backgrounds who come to school knowing fewer words (Hart and Risley 1995). Though we now know that a set “frustration level” is a myth, the fact remains that if kids don’t know enough of the words, they’re going to have a hard time understanding the text.

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Help All Readers Access Complex Texts

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.

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Four Things I Learned This Year

As the year winds down, I’m continuing a Teaching Channel tradition and taking a moment to reflect on four things I learned this year.

1. Change as an opportunity for growth

This year was split in half for me. On June 1st, my family and I moved from Chicago to a tiny western Massachusetts hill-town of 1,800 people. We moved away from the friends and family we’d surrounded ourselves with for years, to an environment where, at least for a time, it felt like it was us against the world. The transition was tough at first, but we eventually found our stride. Though the field of education hardly ever feels like it’s slowing down, the idea that change can be an opportunity for growth is a powerful one, as we start the new year.

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Four Reasons Teachers are Thankful

When I begin professional development work with teachers, I often ask what inspires or enables them to do the hard work they do. Their responses almost always fall within one of the same four categories: commitment to their students, connections with their colleagues, coaching from leaders that encourage their growth, and caring support from their own families. In my experience, those four things are what we as teachers are most thankful for.


The number one thing that teachers are thankful for is their students. The old adage is that the only other job, besides teaching, where one has to make so many complex and important decisions each day, is that of an air traffic controller. People outside of the field of education may be surprised at how often teachers go above and beyond to give their students every opportunity to be successful, from paying for books and supplies out of their own pockets, to spending long hours on nights and weekends grading papers and getting plans just right. The great teachers I know don’t do this extra work because there is someone external who is holding them accountable; they do it because they feel accountable to their students. They love working with young people and helping them achieve their goals. Teachers get to witness their extra effort pay off in life-changing ways, as students learn new things and grow before their eyes. In return, teachers draw an endless source of energy and enthusiasm from interacting with their students.

[Download your “I Am Thankful For…” sign here.]

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Tackling the Misconceptions of Text-Dependent Questions

I’ve worked with many school leaders over the past year who list text-dependent questions (TDQs) as their major strategy for improving literacy achievement. (Reading Anchor Standard 1 of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasizes reading text closely, drawing inferences from it, and supporting conclusions from text.) Any time an idea becomes a “buzzword,” I fear that we will lose sight of what that word or idea really means. I started asking leaders to define text dependent questions, and asking them to show me examples of effective TDQs. I found their responses often fell into one of the following two misconceptions.

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