Engaging All Readers With Complex Text: Potential Challenges

As we’re preparing to engage classrooms full of kids in the shared reading of sufficiently complex text, the teachers that I am working with have made some predictions about the challenges they might face. They want to handle them as pro-actively as possible, so their instructional planning is attending to these hunches. For instance:

  • We predict that all readers may experience increased levels of frustration as they begin confronting curricula and immersing themselves in resources that are more rigorous than they are accustomed to. Some teachers have anchored the units they are designing in the honest exploration of that reality, and these units are framed with essential questions such as, “What does learning feel like?” Experienced and reflective learners know that it often feels like uncertainty, frustration, and even at times, fear. How do we persevere as learners who experience these feelings? What strategies work best? What can happen within the classroom to help learners to persevere? These are important considerations for our work with the Common Core.

 

  • We predict that struggling readers might experience increased levels of frustration and shame if instruction uncovers their difficulties in very public ways. Differentiating the process by which varied levels of learners engage with complex text could be helpful in situations like these. For instance, parallel teaching might allow different levels of readers to access the text and make meaning from it at a time, at a pace, and using processes that are varied. Tackling the text in this way first can empower these readers to offer meaningful contributions to full group discussions that can follow. Jigsaw can accomplish similar objectives if it used strategically. It’s important to understand flexible grouping and to commit to using it consistently throughout the year in order to maximize the potential of differentiated instruction. Throwing struggling readers into homogeneous groups for parallel teaching or text-based discussions could only serve to reinforce stereotypes and intensify potential problems if we aren’t taking the time to learn the strengths of these same students and to teach in ways that genuinely leverage those strengths and the status of those students. What are the true gifts of those readers who struggle most? What are they good at? Where are we attending to those strengths and capitalizing on them in service to all of the learners in the room? These are critical questions.

 

  • We predict that teacher-centered instruction could disengage many kids and make it difficult for us to achieve total participation or formatively assess all learners. It’s possible to engage in a shared reading of complex text without positioning ourselves at the front of the room, firing challenging questions at a crowd of unprepared or even inattentive kids, or pulling teeth in order to get answers. We’ve been discussing the importance of providing readers time to process the text and our questions, formulate evidence-based responses and their own questions, and share their thinking and work with partners or small groups prior to a full group discussion. Doing so will provide teachers time to check each learner’s understanding, formatively assess, and when necessary, shift instruction. It also attends to another hunch we have…..

 

  • We know that when teachers direct learning from the front of the room, they tend to be the ones posing all of the questions, they are tempted to call exclusively on those who raise their hands, and they can quickly succumb to the pressure to deliver the answers themselves when no one else does. These tendencies train students to hide during teacher-directed discussions and to wait us out when answers are hard to form. They also pay little respect to the interests, experiences, and expertise that all learners have. Discussing these potential pitfalls has us thinking deeply about the differences between lecturing/telling/leading a class and truly facilitating learning. We’re rediscovering the best of what we’ve learned about engagement, student-directed learning, and formative assessment practices as a result.

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