At a time where our academic expectations of students have never been higher, literacy experts everywhere are talking at length about text complexity. We’ve spent years and years teaching students how to find “just right,” books – but when is it appropriate to push them out of what’s just right and into what’s just out of reach, while offering the necessary support to help them be successful?
Truth be told, I believe there’s a time for both. And, although there are varied opinions on how much time of each are best for our developing readers (and it’s worth pointing out that no two students’ needs are the same anyway), this post is not about that. Instead, I’m going to focus on the top three ways I support my students as they are reading complex instructional-level text:
- Build Background
There is so much to be said about subject/topic immersion prior to exposure of complex, specifically non-fiction, text. One of the biggest factors in students successfully accessing the information in a complex text is the background knowledge that they are equipped with. We know that learning proceeds from the known to the new. If students’ “known” about any given topic is spotty, they have less on which to build with their “new.”
Recently, I was at a close reading conference facilitated by Mary Ehrenworth, where she discussed the importance of immersing students in topic-related texts of all levels before beginning a themed unit. I did just this with a 5th grade class who was about to begin a rainforest unit that includes a variety of complex non-fiction texts. We spent the class period reading as much as we could about the rainforest from books that were slightly to well-below their instructional level. I added in a couple of short 3-minute video clips and an engaging activity to help students discuss their prior and new knowledge. This is something that ideally should be done over 2-3 class periods, but even with this one experience, that class is bringing that much more “known” to the table as they move forward in their unit.
- Chunk It
Intentionally selecting portions of a complex text for students to read closely and with a specific purpose could make all the difference in their ability to persevere with it. When thinking through which portion I want some of my students to interact with, I hone in on the purpose of the activity. Am I wanting them to identify and analyze figurative language? Practice using context clues to determine the meaning of unknown words? Identify a specific point in the plot where a character responds to a struggle and is subsequently changed? Whatever the purpose is, I’m going to be looking for the most meaningful, explicit, and accessible example of it within the text.
- Scaffold on the Back End
Finally, on occasion, it’s helpful to encourage students to just jump right in to a complex text. A curricular resource I work with refers to this as the “release-catch-release” model. With minimal scaffolding up-front, it can be incredibly beneficial to closely monitor how students interact with a text. This allows you to more accurately design your scaffolds/differentiation moves or how you might address misconceptions based on what you observe once you “catch” them back before releasing them again.
This could also be an effective way to build stamina and perseverance in students when in combination with a classroom culture that values and fosters both productive struggle and growth mindset. I will say, be very aware of the mindset piece when encouraging students to grapple. Productive struggle is one thing, but unproductive frustration can lead to negative interactions, and therefore negative views of difficult text.
As I mentioned, the stances and views on this topic vary widely. What works in your classroom? How do you encourage and equip students to successfully tackle high-quality, difficult text?