How do we know? Question from a Reader

Question from a reader:  Tim Shanahan has made some really smart comments about close reading, and developing stamina for reading more complex texts in general. I’ve been particularly interested in his idea that teachers should provide less support when students are reading less complex texts, and more support as the complexity increases. A terrific idea! However, how should teachers determine which texts need more or less levels of support, and what these different levels of support look like?

I don’t have an easy answer for this.

Here are a few (not easy) ideas-

  • Know how your readers tackle informational texts–do they read just for the gist? Or do they read to understand specific details? Do they browse the text features? Or they learn from the text features and connect what they learned to the ideas in the main text?

My book Close Reading of Informational Texts is loaded with resources for assessing how your students tackle info and then teaching based on your assessment.

  • Read the text multiple times on your own–what makes this text more complex for your students than other texts? I tend to think through these dimensions of a text as a way to consider complexity-
    • Does the author have a clear purpose?
    • Is the text structured in a way that supports the author’s purpose?
    • What types of details does the author use to develop an idea?
    • How does connective language like also, however, in spite of help the reader develop an understanding of the ideas in the text?
    • How are the main ideas constructed across the text?

My book Unpacking Complexity of Informational Texts examines each of these dimensions in detail and makes suggestions for teaching.

  • Determine and pose a very clear purpose for reading. If students do not have an extensive repertoire of experiences with tackling complex informational texts and identifying main ideas, I’m not a fan of reading for general purposes. I pose a very clear question like “How were the activists perseverant in pursuing the right to vote?” With some students, if I just pose the question, “What is important?” then they underline everything as important. I do ask them to do a first read to make sense of the text, but I do not ask them to annotate on that first read because they really don’t have a clear focus for annotating. Also-close reading is about reading the text multiple times, right? Most of the students I work with need to read the text multiple times to think deeply about ONE question. For some students it would be too much of a cognitive load to read the text three times for three different purposes. For other students or if the text is less complex, then maybe I could pose additional questions for close reading in the same lesson.
  • During instruction, host a space for “productive struggle.” In my own practice, I’ve found myself modeling less (depending on the students and the text) and then providing more time for students to engage in productive struggle with me there to coach as needed. I really think in the past I’ve done too much for them during the “I do” and “We do” part of teaching and then the reading and thinking was pretty easy for them. I’ve been providing more wait time and reading/thinking/annotating time. It’s actually been liberating for me and the students and nurtures a sense of agency on their part.

I wrote a blog entry recently on teaching with a complex text and engaging students in “productive struggle” that might be helpful to consider.

Okay…hope this helps…and please know that I realize this only begins to touch the surface of what a response to the reader’s question entails. In an ideal world, I’d get to know your students and then also read the texts you are considering teaching with before even trying to respond to this question!


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