How to Help Readers Grapple With Challenging Texts How to Help Readers Grapple With Challenging Texts | Edutopia

    Professor and literacy expert Tim Shanahan taught reading like this, too, when he was a young primary school teacher. Mostly, he did so because that’s how reading had traditionally been taught: “It is hard to change ancient traditions on the basis of research or anything else,” he reflected more recently. “It’s even hard to envision how instruction could be different.” 

    “Grade level texts or higher are the best choice for most students,” Shanahan wrote in 2020. “Those are often the texts that students can’t already read well. The purpose of a reading lesson then is to guide students to make sense of a text that they cannot succeed with on their own and to develop the abilities to deal with such texts.” 

    Shanahan notes that many teachers shy away from this approach, fearing that challenging students might undermine their motivation to read altogether. But he argues that students will become motivated as they see themselves making progress on more and more challenging texts, growing and strengthening their muscles as readers in the process. “When kids are challenged and their learning is obvious, you won’t need to worry about discouragement or a lack of motivation,” he says

    Ask Students to Read Above Their ‘Level’ 
    Beginning readers (Pre-K to Grade 2) benefit from reading easy to understand books full of common words with repetition—Green Eggs and Ham, or Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, for example. But by the second grade, Shanahan said, research shows students who have mastered basic decoding skills make faster progress by grappling with texts slightly out of their reach. 

    In his blog, Shanahan cautions that aiming for incremental, linear progress—inching kids forward day by day as readers—leads to bad teaching decisions. The mindset, instead, should be to expose kids to challenging textual features like figurative language, advanced vocabulary, and text structure so that they can learn the tools to read challenging work on their own. That means that “grade-level texts or higher” should be front and center as students learn how to decode unfamiliar text, how to use context clues to make enough sense of new vocabulary to keep reading (or re-read to clarify and comprehend), how to follow complex syntax and punctuation, and how to identify and interpret more sophisticated literary devices. 

    Advanced texts “provide students with an opportunity to learn—to learn the unknown words, to learn how to untangle the complex syntax, to learn to track the subtle connections across a text, and so on. If students can already read texts reasonably well, there isn’t much for them to learn from those texts,” Shanahan writes

    Background Knowledge, Plus Upfront Preparation
    Scaffolding by teachers throughout the process is imperative. In his webinar, Shanahan highlights the importance of background knowledge for readers. According to research, a poor reader who has an understanding about the subject they’re reading—say, for example, baseball, or the evolution of dinosaurs—can often make up for low comprehension by relying on this background knowledge.

    He also suggests giving students agency in selecting complex texts. For example, you might present them with two or three options of books or passages to choose from. To make complex texts easier to parse, Shananan recommends teachers divide a text into smaller bits for students to work through and “take on parts of it rather than trying to digest it all in one bite.” 

    Get Strategic About Vocabulary Gaps 
    According to Shanahan, you can easily spend too much time on vocabulary. While he believes that it’s important to increase students’ knowledge of words, he recommends focusing on about 150 words over the course of the school year that are different from ones they’ve previously learned in other grade levels, but appear frequent enough in texts for them to be of use. He also recommends teaching students a list of key morphological elements that are most frequent for their grade level, such as “pre-”, “able-”, “-re”, and “-ment.”

    Although not possessing the requisite academic vocabulary is a common problem for struggling readers, Shanahan’s webinar promotes an approach that is equal parts tactics and strategy: Teachers and students tackle a limited set of new vocabulary terms, but spend more time learning useful strategies to help them recognize gaps in comprehension and utilize strategies to decode new words that aid in comprehension. 

    Rather than pre-teaching an extensive vocabulary list for a complex text, then, Shanahan recommends teaching students how to recognize and be honest with themselves about when they don’t know the meaning of a word and lean on strategies to infer its meaning enough to continue reading, or look them up in the dictionary if the texts don’t provide enough context clues. 

    “Sometimes readers just need to power through, making sense of as much of a text as possible, accepting that they aren’t getting it all since they don’t know all the words,” Shanahan writes. That means discussing or modeling that reading behavior with students and explaining that while perfect understanding is ideal, very challenging texts often push even advanced readers beyond their limits. “Sometimes 50% understanding just has to be better than 0%. Too many readers encounter a couple of unknown words and call it a day.” 

    This content was originally published here.

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