On Climbing the Mountain: Four Ways Not to Deal with Complex Text

  • author awareness
  • 03 April, 2016
  • 15 Comments

    Anyone who has taught reading—or really any course that requires a textbook—knows about kids who struggle to make sense of the text. Often they don’t even try. The text just looks hard and they’re ready to run.

    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 of CCSS. Or how to ask questions that probe that complexity.
      I’d suggest thinking about complex text the same way that your students do. “It is just a big formidable SOB of a mountain and I might not be able to get to the top—so it isn’t even worth giving it a try. I didn’t want to learn about science anyway, or this darn story about talking animals. All that I know is that it makes no sense and I’m going to just look stupid if I try.”
      Of course, our own feelings as teachers complement the kids’ anxiety darn well. “I want this lesson to move along. I want to make sure that everyone understands what the Louisiana Purchase was, how Nick felt about Daisy, or how even Templeton contributed to what the animals were trying to do.”
    Accordingly, teachers, both good and bad, have come up with a set of routines for dealing with those challenging text situations. Routines well honed for disguising the fact that the kids can’t climb that mountain. It’s a vicious co-dependency. We don’t want the fluidity of the lesson to be interrupted, we want our kids to walk away with the required info, and we want to do it on a tight timeline. And no one should have to work too hard or be embarrassed by the failure; a tacit agreement not to teach as long as the kids don’t make us look bad. (And from their view: we agree not to make them look bad, by bothering them with our darn teaching).
      Not good for anyone.
      What routines have we developed that we need to avoid?
1.    If a text is challenging, find an easier one. 
  I’ve written about this before, but it’s probably enough to say that, beyond beginning reading levels, there is no evidence that kids have to be taught with a particular level of text. 
    Imagine trying to climb a mountain, and the teacher says, “That’s all well and good. I’ve got a hill over here for you to climb.” That doesn’t satisfy. In fact, it just makes sure that the kids don’t get to take on texts that are at their intellectual or developmental levels. 
    What if we changed it up? If a mountain is high, we simply help them to climb. With appropriate supports and scaffolds, it can be done. The next time you think about moving kids to an easier 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. I never taught a day of elementary school in which I didn’t read to them, and I read to my daughters until they were in 7th and 8th grades. 
      However, there are books that are perfect for reading to kids, and there are books that they are supposed to read. If there is a social studies textbook, the kids are supposed to read that. If there is a core reading series, that’s on the kids too. Reading it to them, or doing the round robin thing—having other kids read it to them—will not get them up the mountain either. 
      Oh, they’ll know more about the mountain if you read about it to them, but they won’t actually know because they won’t be able to get there. 
        If you want to transfer information to the kids, then read it to them. If you want to teach them to get information independently, then teach them to read it.
3.    If a text is challenging, tell them what it says.
      This is very popular in the upper grade content classes. Teachers often tell me that they can explain the concepts more clearly than the textbook can. And, man are some of them good at ‘splainin’ and powerpointin’. But ultimately this suffers the same problem as reading the challenging texts to the kids. It just tells them what’s on the mountain without allowing them or enabling them to summit for themselves.
      Telling someone what a text says is just a good way to make the text not matter. Why read the text if you already know what it says? (Teachers who do this often tell me that the kids are “allowed” to read the texts. My response: “Good luck.”) 
4.    If a text is challenging, ignore the problem.
      I see this one, too, though not as much as I used to: Teachers who assign a text and ask questions, calling on the hand-raisers, and moving on. They don’t usually manage to get anyone to the top of the mountain who wouldn’t have gotten there anyway and they leave a lot of kids at base camp—with neither any idea of how to rise or even sense that anyone cares that they get there. 
        If you want kids to learn to read complex texts, you are going to have to let them try to read complex texts. Without reading those texts to them. Without telling them what they say. But, you do have to provide them with guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and any other help that will allow them purchase on the techniques that will allow them to make progress up the mountain. 
Let’s swear off our avoidance techniques. Let’s break the co-dependency. And let’s teach kids to read demanding text. It’s time.

Comments

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JSpiller
Apr 07, 2017 10:49 PM

Totally agree! What is interesting about it is that most teachers agree, but do not know how to get the students up the mountain. They need support in understanding HOW to scaffold and support. They need specific strategies for what to do when. If you write a book on this it will definitely be a best seller! Thanks for your insights, they have been guiding our literacy work for several years!

4/4/16

Harriet
Apr 07, 2017 10:49 PM


Very important post. The climbing equipment I provide my second graders includes white boards, highlighters, and "magic squares" (with different colored plastic edges to use over the text depending on whether we're looking at vocabulary, main idea, supporting details or text-to-self connections, available from Really Good Stuff). Our Time for Kids articles that seemed so unscalable by so many students in September have gotten easier every week.Thanks for the nudge not to give up!

4/4/16

Mrs. Morehead
Apr 07, 2017 10:50 PM

Great point. I often find some of my students shutting down when they come across text they believe to be challenging. I am finding that the more time we spend using close reading strategies, the higher they are able to climb.

4/4/16

clydiew
Apr 07, 2017 10:50 PM

Wanting more information on "how to get the students up the mountain." If you want students to understand complex text (perhaps 1-2 grades above their ability), how do you scaffold in a way that enables understanding AND builds independence? I'll research Harriett's points (above); but this topic would be worthy of a blog if not a book. Help, Dr. Shanahan!

4/5/16

Mary
Apr 07, 2017 10:51 PM

I remember when whole language was in full swing and to my horror I watched all the books that didn't have pictures on every page pulled from the libraries of three different schools my student teachers were in. A few weeks after that, the grade level indicators were torn off all the books. Finally neither the teachers nor student teachers (including special ed teachers) were allowed to choose any books for students. Harvey Daniels' advice which was something like -- when you assign a book to a child, it's like not allowing the hired help to sit down at the Thanksgiving table -- was taken seriously. Meanwhile my daughter was reading" Little House on the Prairie" in her Montessori school. None of the the big house reading curricula like Houghton Mifflin has yet started dropping pictures on every page until fourth grade textand then it's minimal. Times when I have assigned students chapter books, I actually had some tell me that they were afraid of them. "How can I read without pictures?" They had never learned to visualize and the materials worked against development of that skill. Hello world of graphic novels. It was no accident if books with just text disappear.

4/8/16

April Brown
Apr 07, 2017 10:51 PM

As a special education teacher the words "complex texts" tend to make me cringe. This is due in part to the fact that every time I place a book, short story, or even a paragraph in front of my students I watch the look of defeat spread across their faces. With that in mind, I read this post and thought about what I as a teacher was doing to help those students climb that mountain. What I realized (to my dismay) is that I have done the very things that this post warns against doing. I have found myself looking for easier texts for my students, just reading it to them, telling them what the text was about, or just ignoring the fact that my students were even struggling. However, like so many educators, I feel like I've say through millions of trainings and workshops on various teaching strategies meant to improve students' abilities to read complex text only to leave more confused than when I entered. Also like so many others, I constantly struggle with finding that balance between scaffolding instruction for students while also teaching towards independence. Like Harriett, I have taught students to use highlighters or even colored pencils to mark key points in a text to increase understanding, but I don't feel that this is enough. Where I feel I struggle the most is boosting student motivation and esteem. I think an important piece of the puzzle to help students climb the mountain is finding ways to boost students motivation towards reading and boost students' self-esteem.

4/9/16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 07, 2017 10:52 PM

April--

First, I wasn't blaming you--or any teachers. Frankly, for 70 years reading authorities have told teachers to avoid "frustrating" students. The result has not been pretty, but I don't blame you for following such advice (or, perhaps, just doing what seems logical).

Second, if you want to build kids' motivation, show them how to do something that they couldn't do. Make them competent. When they can't read a text (or do anything else, they feel stupid and embarrassed). Tell them you know how high the mountain is and that you think you can get them there. Harriet had some good ideas, there are many more on my website. Look at my powerpoint on teaching with complex text (use the index on the right hand side). Kids, with your help, can do a lot better than they think. That'll help change their motivation.

tim 4/9/16

Harriet
Apr 07, 2017 10:52 PM

As I prepare this week's Time for Kids article (Protecting Pandas) for my second graders, I see that many of my students will struggle with the words "national, regular, treasures, protection, habitat and reserve". But my students know not to just guess at words but to sound them out by syllable and then try and figure out the meaning based on the context. So before any dissection and discussion of the ideas in the text, they spend time alone with the article and their white boards as they "Sound it Out" and then "Figure it Out". Their growing competence has definitely made them more confident. It doesn't happen overnight, but it does happen. The word "habitat" provides the best example since the students learned every one of the sounds in that word in kindergarten, but they need to maintain the stamina it takes to decode the sounds across all three syllables.

4/10/16

Keri Ball
Apr 07, 2017 10:53 PM

Thank you Professor Shanahan for infusing some common sense back into reading instruction! With the ever growing push to teach towards tests and common core making educators implement lessons that require students to apply skills that they are not even developmentally ready for, it is refreshing to read your blog about text complexity. While I agree we should challenge our students with reading material that helps to promote growth which in turn means that you might allow them to read a text that may be a bit above their level, I love that you point out the need to use passages that they can understand and can actually learn from rather than throwing a text at them that is too advanced in the hopes that they might catch on. At my school we try to use reading passages that are the level of the student. I even sometimes use easier level passages if I am trying to teach a more difficult skill. For example, is I were introducing how to find the main idea I might use a text below their level so that they have success with an easier passage first and then increase the difficulty until they are able to identify the main idea of a text on their level or even above their level, but I do not start there. If I am teaching how to determine what point of view the author is writing in I may start with an easier story and increase the reading level from there. Many of your suggestions I actually use with my students, especially my students who require services. I will use an easier level text if needed, I will read the text to them if needed, and I use opportunities for small group discussion to clear up anything about the text that they may not understand and need more clarification on. I have never thought about using the text but just omitting the problem all together. This seems like a great strategy that I will start using when I feel like my students are struggling with the text in the future.

4/10/16

April
Apr 07, 2017 10:53 PM

I am motivated by your outlooks on helping our students climb the mountain rather than having them move to the hill. When you go to Mount Everest to climb, your guide accommodates themselves to the amount of help you personally need to climb. If it isn’t your ‘first rodeo’, he may just pack his own bag and climb beside you. If you have never tackled a similar mountain, your guide will be sure to include a supply of ropes, hooks, and any other equipment that will be needed to assure your success in climbing that mountain. Never, I would suppose, do they say “Well, maybe you should just go 12 miles southeast to Makalu, the 5th highest mountain in the world, and forget about Everest.” Also, as your second and third bullet discusses, simply telling them about the mountain, or reading the book to them via peers or yourself, is not acceptable either. You telling me about the mountain and any roadblocks you came to is great, but it does not allow for me to fully understand. Yes, you telling me about a section of the mountain that was difficult to maneuver us an excellent story but there is no sense of accomplishment until I have defeated that roadblock myself.

4/10/16

Keri Ball
Apr 07, 2017 10:54 PM

Thank you Professor Shanahan for infusing some common sense back into reading instruction! With the ever growing push to teach towards tests and common core making educators implement lessons that require students to apply skills that they are not even developmentally ready for, it is refreshing to read your blog about text complexity. While I agree we should challenge our students with reading material that helps to promote growth which in turn means that you might allow them to read a text that may be a bit above their level, I love that you point out the need to use passages that they can understand and can actually learn from rather than throwing a text at them that is too advanced in the hopes that they might catch on. At my school we try to use reading passages that are the level of the student. I even sometimes use easier level passages if I am trying to teach a more difficult skill. For example, is I were introducing how to find the main idea I might use a text below their level so that they have success with an easier passage first and then increase the difficulty until they are able to identify the main idea of a text on their level or even above their level, but I do not start there. If I am teaching how to determine what point of view the author is writing in I may start with an easier story and increase the reading level from there. Many of your suggestions I actually use with my students, especially my students who require services. I will use an easier level text if needed, I will read the text to them if needed, and I use opportunities for small group discussion to clear up anything about the text that they may not understand and need more clarification on. I have never thought about using the text but just omitting the problem all together. This seems like a great strategy that I will start using when I feel like my students are struggling with the text in the future.

4/10/16

Horn
Apr 07, 2017 10:54 PM

This post is very helpful in the age of Common Core. Common Core has changed so many aspects of teaching and learning. What teachers are required to teach and what students are required to learn is much more rigorous and complex now. The standard writers did not think about the needs of the teachers or the students. Teachers need help teaching the new methods and content that the students are required to learn and retain at this higher level. Often teachers find themselves spoon feeding the information from the lesson to students and forgo the text. This is a form of teaching but definitely not an idea way for students to learn. Students need experience with text and gradual increases in complexity. Students need to be shown how to read and gather meaning from the text and also how to gather what is important and what the author wants them to take away from the text. Reading is a skill that we have gotten away from teaching. We teach phonics word study and basic comprehension in grades K-2 but we don’t teach reading strategies in the upper grades. We give students books and send them away to read and expect them to miraculously come back with information but we haven’t taught them the skills they need to do this. If we want our students to be successful readers in elementary, middle, high school and beyond; we must continue reading instruction in every grade. I’m in agreement with you that we have to provide them with guidance, support, scaffolding, explanations, and any other help that will allow them purchase on the techniques that will allow them to make progress up the mountain.

4/10/16

Anonymous
Apr 07, 2017 10:54 PM

I just attended a workshop that recommended (based on Betts Reading Levels) that student should spend the following percentages of time of the 3 categories:

Easy – independent 85%
Instructional 15%
Challenging 0%

What are your thoughts?

6-17-16

Timothy Shanahan
Apr 07, 2017 10:55 PM

My response is that it is silly. Someone just made that up and now is telling you to do it. Not much different than telling you that effective teachers spend 15% of the time standing on their heads. It's not true, but it has the air of being so since it is so specific. But, in fact, it is more troubling than that because there is no research on teacher's standing on their heads, but there is on the teaching of complex text (and it certainly doesn't suggest anything like what you've been told). There is absolutely no research on the proper mix of text that students must work with to learn to read at the levels we are striving for.

People can make up anything that they want to, but hang on to your wallets.

6/17/16

Corinne Staney
Jun 19, 2019 10:53 PM

I love the title of your article. As a second grade teacher, I struggle with the best way to help a student "climb that mountain" develop the skills that make reading enjoyable as well as instructional. Students need to be supported and given scaffolding that will assist them in answering questions. I think I am getting better at it as we have dealt with complex texts that we are directed to instruct based on the Common Core Standards, I am amazed with student responsess and their ability to answer complex questions no matter their reading level.

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On Climbing the Mountain: Four Ways Not to Deal with Complex Text

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