Blast from the Past: This blog first posted April 3, 2016 and was re-posted on June 9, 2023. It contains an important reminder that the ultimate purpose of a reading lesson is NOT to ensure that kids accomplish high comprehension of the texts that we are using to teach reading comprehension. So many teachers -- and supposed authorities on reading -- have lost sight of this. That's why they have developed so many ways that make high comprehension (of that day's text) certain, but that do little to make students stronger and more independent as readers. This blog entry highlights and warns against some of those widely used techniques for avoiding the teaching and learning demands of working with complex text. If you want kids to become better readers, they need to take on texts that they cannot already read well without teacher support. The widely held belief that teaching with books at the students' "instructional level" will offer students sufficient struggle to enable learning is incorrect. Teaching with challenging text -- text that students cannot already read well -- is important because it provides opportunity to learn. But when you teach with such text, you need to avoid these 4 common actions that will undermine such opportunity and will undermine student learning.
We’ve been talking a lot about complex text since the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) burst on the scene.
But most of that talk has focused on how to find texts that meet the complexity requirements.
Today, I suggest that we consider some of the ways that teachers may make it look like they are dealing with complex text when they really aren't.
Anyone who has taught reading — or any course that requires a textbook — knows of kids who struggle to understand the text. If the text looks hard, they might even refuse to give it a try. For that reason, many teachers may try to make it easier or more encouraging for students. I like the notion of supporting students so that they will buy into a lesson and get engaged. But if your approach both gets the kids to participate and makes participation a waste of learning time, we've created a no win situation.
The text looks hard, so they may want to try to avoid it altogether.
The kids’ anxiety, of course, complements the way many teachers think about this problem.
Teachers don’t want the fluidity of their lessons disrupted, they want students to gain the required information from the text, and they have to worry about their daily schedule. The students don't want to work too hard or to be embarrassed. So, a kind of tacit agreement may be arrived at -- with the teacher adopting instructional approaches that reduce both the amount of teaching and the amount of learning. These methods make it look like teaching is happening, but nobody has to do too much.
What are these avoidance routines that teachers must learn to avoid?
1. If a text is challenging, I’ll find an easier one or go without.
Beyond the beginning reading levels, there is no evidence that kids must be taught with a particular level of text. But many teachers have been told that if a book is difficult for students it is to be avoided.
Imagine that we're supposed to get students up a mountain, and a teacher decides, “No, that looks hard. Let’s climb this little hill over here instead.”
That wouldn't be very satisfying and certainly wouldn't accomplish the intended goal. If a fourth grader is supposed to work with fourth grade texts and you try teaching him with second or third grade texts, you are avoiding the mountain, not getting him up it.
The same can be said for the teacher who decides not to use a text all -- since kids might struggle with it.
That kind of text shifting (or text omitting) means those kids will rarely get the opportunity to take on texts at their intellectual or developmental levels.
What if we changed that up?
If a mountain is high, we should help students to climb that mountain -- not some other easier one. And we never should skip climbing altogether.
With appropriate supports and scaffolds, it can be done.
The next time you think about moving kids to an easier text or skipping the use of text, think about what you could do to get them up the real mountain rather than the instead one.
2. If a text is challenging, read it to them.
I’m a big fan of reading to kids.
However, there are books for teacher sharing, and there are books that students should take on themselves.
If there is a social studies textbook, the kids are supposed to read it. If there is a core reading series, that’s on the kids, too. If your class has been assigned a grade level novel, yep, that is for student reading, not teacher reading.
Many English/Language Arts teachers get emotionally committed to particular texts -- they want their students to know Catcher in the Rye or Beloved. Nothing wrong with that -- as long as their dedication is to building the ability for students to read such texts independently, rather than just making sure the kids experience that book.
Reading such texts to your students (or having others read it to them through round robin or popcorn) are just ways to get around the mountain, rather than up it.
I have no doubt that students will be able gain information about the mountain when you read the books to them.
But they still will not be able to climb it themselves – the real purpose of the reading part of such lessons. Yeah, I want kids to know what happens in Romeo and Juliet, but I want them to know that because they read the play -- not because you read it to them or had them listen to a recording of it.
If your desire is to share information with students, then reading it to them is fine. But, if, like me, you want to teach students to gain such information independently, you must teach them to read it. Teach them to climb the mountain, rather than having them watch you climb it.
3. If a text is challenging, tell students what it says.
This avoidance approach is very popular in upper grade content classes. Teachers tell me that they can explain concepts more clearly than the textbook can. Man oh man, some of those teachers are darn good at ‘splainin’ and ‘Powerpointin’. But this approach suffers the same problem as reading the texts to the kids. It just tells them what’s on the mountain without enabling them to summit for themselves.
Telling someone what a text says is just a good way to make the text not matter. Why should I read a text if I already know what it says?
Teachers who use this approach often tell me that the kids are “allowed” to read the texts on their own if they want to in addition to the class lectures and videos.
My response: “Good luck.” That isn't very likely to happen.
Kids are supposed to gain knowledge in their social studies, science, and literature classes -- but some of that knowledge is supposed to come from the students' own reading. If that isn't the case, you're avoiding climbing the mountain.
4. If a text is challenging, ignore the problem.
I see this approach, too, though not as much as I used to (thak goodness).
Yes, some teachers still assign texts without any consideration of whether the students can handle them. They do check up on the reading afterwords, asking questions of the hand-raisers, and then moving on to other challenging texts that many students will simply ignore.
These teachers don’t usually get many kids to the top of the mountain (or at least, they don't get many kids there who can't already climb that mountain on their own). They leave a lot of kids stranded at base camp — with neither an idea of how to rise or any sense that anyone cares if they do.
If you want kids to learn to read complex texts, you are going to have to let them try to read complex texts -- even if that means they don't get everything the first time through or that the lesson is a bit bumpier than usual.
No, if we want them to develop the ability and the stamina to read difficult texts, we're going to have to help them make sense of such texts without reading them for the students.
Without telling them what the texts say.
But if students are to succeed in meeting the challenge successfully, teachers need to provide guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and the teaching that will allow them to ascend those mountains under their own steam.
Let’s swear off these avoidance techniques.
Let’s break the co-dependency.
And let’s teach kids to read demanding text.
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