Autumn brings tidings of celebration, unless you’re a Red Sox or Trump fan. Classrooms are reveling in seasonal themes such as democracy, suffrage, harvest bounty, family, and giving to those in need. All the while, exhausted educators are searching Pinterest for candy corn martini recipes (yes, it is a thing) and strategies for ramping up complex text use during fall units. If you read last month’s blog, hopefully you are thinking about how to deliver your important fall themes through topic-based unit studies that build knowledge. In this month’s investigation, we’ll explore this critical common core shift of text complexity to significantly elevate your balanced literacy instruction.
Why is this Shift Important?
Common core standards assume educators are helping students construct knowledge and deepen cognition from text. The common core shift to complex text includes a number of game-changing paradigms:
- Text is the great leveler. No student is privileged if required content knowledge is mined from novel classroom texts.
- Interactions with text must go way beyond our personal connections. Deep thinking through the three common core gates of cognition entail readers and writers first determining what the text says, not what they think it means, making strong inferences (schema + text evidence), not predictions or educated guesses, and synthesizing (growing a theory, rewriting the ending, retelling the story from a supporting character’s point of view, etc.), not summarizing. Most importantly, it’s not about our favorite parts or our connections to the text. It’s not about us. It’s about why the author wrote this for us and what message the writer wants us to translate for others.
- All students will regularly access grade level complex texts, even if they are reading below grade level. While students will need text scaffolding to build prerequisite skills and strategies to proficiently access these texts, they still need frequent exposure to grade level text, as well as stretch texts (2-3 grade levels above).
- Students will read multiple texts to build topic knowledge and deepen thinking. Reading one text at a time no longer replicates the cognitive demands facing 21st century learners. They will be simultaneously flooded with information and perspectives from a multitude of sources in their college and career experiences and need regular practice integrating and evaluating stimuli from many sources.
- Text selection will be based on three criteria to ensure deep purpose and complexity. The three criteria include quantitative readability measures (e.g., Lexile level), qualitative evaluation (e.g., meaning, syntax, structure, schema demands), and task or reader conditions (e.g., specialized learning needs, questions posed, knowledge demands).
- Students must do the heavy lifting. You are already proficient and employed. While a 40-minute whole-class discussion of Hamlet or Charlotte’s Web may be interesting, if you are leading it, then you are doing all of the hard work. Your students should be exhausted from grappling with text independently, not you. Release the cognitive heavy lifting to students through text-dependent questions and high-leverage tasks to drive thinking, talking, and writing for individuals, pairs, and small groups. Use whole group structures for setting the stage or wrapping up after text explorations.
Tips for Shifters: Making the Move to Text Complexity in Balanced Literacy 2.0
Tip #1: Plan With a Ladder in Mind
Imagine the anchor standards are a ladder and the side rails are standards RL/RI 1 (thinking based on textual evidence) and RL/RI 10 (increasing exposure to complex grade level text). These siderails should be integral in every lesson in order to ensure thinking is grounded in complex text each day. The rungs of the ladder become the remaining anchor standards supported by these essential textual siderails.
Tip #2: Build a Toolkit
While your candy corn martini may be an artisan creation, your lesson planning does not have to be. Use these online tools to support the planning process and mine for ready-made text meals on these open source sites:
- Use this smart lesson-builder to plan analysis lessons with complex texts and tasks
- Mine these vetted complex text sets and adapt their use within your units of study
- Investigate these units for complex task ideas and ways in which educators construct text-dependent questions (TDQs) to ground knowledge-building in text
- Explore this treasure trove of passages by topic and integrate complex grade level selections with meaningful tasks in your units/lessons
- Examine these high-interest informational texts organized by topic and instantly adapt quantitative measures of complexity (Lexile) or change the language for each to scaffold for specific readers
Tip #3: Use Independent Reading and Writing Time for Grappling with Text Sets
If you’re implementing a balanced literacy approach, you’re already building in time for independent reading, following your explicit mini lesson. Keep this structure in place! Instead of having students read one “just-right” text during independent reading, transition to use of complex text sets during this time. When you send students off to do their independent reading (or writing), ask them to apply their strategies across multiple texts in a set, including their just-right book. For example, if you’ve taught a lesson on finding the central idea of a passage, ask them to demonstrate this strategy using their choice of texts in the set. Alternatively, you might ask them to try this strategy along the staircase of complexity in their text set, starting with the most accessible and ending with the most complex.
Tip #4: Build a Staircase in their Book Bags or Bins
If your students have book bags or bins to house their just-right texts, convert these to house a text set that includes a staircase of increasing complexity. Students can have the following in their book bags:
- Anchor text (highly complex stretch text 2-3 levels above grade level)
- Mentor text(s) (moderately complex grade level texts)
- Independent text(s) (just-right – highly accessible)
The anchor text is selected by the teacher and could be a whole class text used primarily for interactive read aloud and mini lesson think alouds. Mentor texts are also chosen by the teacher and might be photocopied excerpts of texts or full-length texts. Independent texts are selected by the students. These independent texts can come from the classroom library, school library, digital resources, or from a small collection pre-vetted by the teacher. It may take several lessons to expand the text set but all of these texts should be readily available to students in the book bag as the unit climbs toward culmination.
As you teach skill and strategy mini lessons, invite students to apply these approaches across the text set in order to ensure maximum complexity. Use text-dependent questions to drive students deeper into specific texts. Design tasks that demand synthesis across multiple texts during independent reading (e.g., a Socratic Seminar, merging characters from two different stories in a sequel, persuading voters on a ballot question using argument and counterargument from multiple sources).
Tip #5: Use the Staircase Strategically
Start at the top of the staircase by introducing the anchor text first to set the stage, create purpose, offer intrigue, and establish a lofty goal for reading. Model your fluency, prosody, and self-correction with some of this text using interactive read aloud, but don’t take all of the challenge from your students. Let them grapple with this difficult text before you reveal all of the meaning, nuance, and strategy needed.
Pause the investigation of the anchor text and build a staircase that leads students to success with this “top stair” after a journey through the set. Drop down to a low stair (independent or mentor text) and work back up the staircase to the anchor, methodically supporting in-context vocabulary work, background knowledge building, and fluency support with strategic text choices. Use text-dependent questions, frequent accountable talk, and writing to navigate these texts. Use your mini lessons to advance skills and strategies for success with these increasingly complex texts. Model and support use of a “rolling knowledge journal” that helps students hold onto knowledge revealed and questions raised across readings of multiple texts in the set.
Return to the anchor to apply new knowledge, demonstrate increased vocabulary and fluency, and incorporate all texts in the set into a synthesis.
Tip #6: Expand Your Set Beyond Traditional Print Texts
As you build or adapt your topic-based text sets, consider using diverse formats that include a mix of print, visual, audio including photographs, videos, charts, tables, maps, graphs, diagrams, graphic narrative, political cartoons, articles, poems, short stories, captions, social media posts, blogs, and more. Cross over literary and informational genres in your text set if possible. For example, integrate articles about shark sightings, a poem about deep sea predators, a video of shark conservation efforts, and a map of shark food sources, among others.
Differentiate by strategically scaffolding text sets to support individual learner needs. Rather than replace complex texts in the set with modified or more accessible versions, add them in addition to the regular set. Encourage work across the entire staircase, with emphasis on accessible texts to initiate meaning-making, word level strategies, and vocabulary building, while still ensuring opportunity to grapple with higher level texts. Keep in mind, these are the texts students will confront on standardized tests. Don’t let the testing environment be the place where they meet these texts for the first time independently.
Tip #7: Design a Task Worth Reading For
A text set with no purposeful synthesis is an exercise in frustration. Remember, complexity has three criteria: quantitative measures, qualitative aspects, and task variables. Texts become most meaningful when we think deeply about them and share our thinking with others through talking, writing, drawing, and creating. In the real world of readers, we don’t agonize over a challenging text just so that we can summarize it to a friend. We don’t write a five-paragraph essay about a book we cherish. Real readers use text to grow a theory, make an argument, design an innovation, bake a better pie, learn a skill, emulate a beloved author, laugh, find an inspirational quote, plan a trip, develop a metaphor for life, and so much more. Use task complexity and richness to teach your readers to do this joyous and relevant work with complex text sets just as they’ll need to in the real life of readers outside of school. Here are some tasks worth doing and reading for during independent reading or writing time:
- Reconstruct a full text from puzzle pieces (deconstructed words, sentences, or passages cut out of a full text on slips of paper that must be pieced back together to form what the reader believes to be the original text)
- Rewrite an alternate version (e.g., from the perspective of an article’s subject, from a supporting character’s viewpoint, a sequel, an alternate ending, a version for a different audience)
- Craft a movie trailer for a topic docu-drama using multiple sources
- Write a piece of microfiction summarizing the central ideas of a text set in 140 characters or less
- Sequence a series of visual images (e.g., photos) and craft a story to match
- As a group, write a six word summary of a textual analysis across a series of pieces
- Develop a visual essay combining characters from one story and a setting from another
- Craft an advertising campaign for a candidate describing his/her stance on a social justice topic using multiple sources of information and mentors for ad craft
Tip #8: Divide and Conquer with Baby Steps
This work isn’t easy. Don’t do it alone. Enlist colleagues to help you think through ways to build complex text sets. Divide text set construction roles among colleagues. For example, ask one colleague to gather informational texts on a topic while another gathers literary texts on the same topic. Ask colleagues to merge their existing text favorites on a topic with yours. Then make some careful choices together.
Start small. Begin by creating a text set with just three pieces. Choose just one unit this year to wrap within a juicy text set and leave the others as-is for this year. Borrow a text set you find online and adapt it to your unit this year. Next year, you can build your own. Use excerpts rather than whole texts. Choose a stanza here and a paragraph there to save you time and energy. You can reflect later and think about whether you want to expand some of these pieces in the set next time around.
Finally, remember, you can’t hurt the children by building them a text set. It’s okay if it’s rocky. It’s okay if the anchor text was too hard. It’s okay if you ran out of time for candy corn martini-hunting on Pinterest and you had to bring a six-pack and store-bought brownies to the staff Halloween party. Use the student outcomes as formative data to drive future planning. Adjust the set as you go, adding differentiated material, small-group support, and individual intervention. Common core shifts represent new learning for all of us, and that is something to celebrate.