We know students need exposure to grade-level texts on a regular basis, but how does this work for students who are reading below grade level? How can we structure lessons in a way that leads to a constructive, joyful challenge, rather than a frustrating learning experience?
Before we get started, let’s make sure that grade-level texts are the right choice for your students. If your students are struggling with decoding (e.g., they are around a first-grade reading level), try to select decodable texts and easier reading material for them, and spend your instructional time on phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency. Once they’ve reached about a second-grade reading level and are comfortable decoding, you can probably move on to using grade-level texts (while still providing advanced decoding instruction and regular fluency practice as an intervention).
Now let’s look at seven ways to scaffold grade-level texts for those students who are able to decode comfortably.
1. Provide a Model of Fluent Reading
From a very young age, students’ inflection and reading patterns are influenced through observational learning. When introducing a challenging text, we recommend reading it aloud or having students listen to an audio recording as they follow along. This will provide them with a model of fluent reading and help them get an initial understanding of the text.
2. Stop to Summarize
Having students stop regularly to summarize or paraphrase what they have just read encourages self-monitoring and helps catch gaps in comprehension before they get larger. It also pushes students to recognize key concepts and recognize irrelevant information. You can use different methods, such as having students turn to a partner to tell them about the paragraphs they just read, write a one-sentence or ten-word summary, or compose their summary as a text message.
4. Study Complex Sentences
Much of a sentence’s complexity comes from informational density, or having a large amount of information in a small amount of text. To make a complex sentence accessible to students, break it down using the “juicy sentence” strategy from Dr. Lily Wong Fillmore. Show students a complex sentence from the text you are studying that can be broken down into smaller chunks and contains complex noun phrases, adverbial clauses, linking phrases, and/or figurative language. Then, ask students to analyze and explain what each chunk means. Discuss the grammatical structures and punctuation in each chunk that contribute to the meaning, and put it all together to discuss the entire sentence. Pay close attention to pronouns, as it isn’t always clear which noun these are replacing! This strategy shows students a systematic way to tackle complex sentences when they encounter them in their own reading.
4. Use a Graphic Organizer
The right graphic organizer can provide students with a visual aid that can be used to make sense of a complex text. For example, a Venn Diagram can be used to compare the traits of two characters. A T-chart can be used to keep track of cause and effect relationships in a text. And a simple 5W’s chart can help students keep track of basic information during the first reading of a text. To increase the likelihood of students using this strategy on their own, keep your graphic organizers simple and show students how to recreate them on a scrap piece of paper!
5. Structure Your Questions to Build to a Particular Understanding
Decide on the big idea or understanding you want students to walk away with after reading a text, and then develop a series of questions to get them there. If your text has more than one big idea, you can consider using the text for more than one lesson and developing a different set of text-dependent questions for each one. For example, on the second reading of a text, focus on how the author uses diction to create a specific mood.
6. Build a Text Set
Students who don’t have any background knowledge on a topic will find it difficult to understand a text. To help, structure your units so you are reading more than one text on a particular topic. For example, if you are studying Fahrenheit 451, you could also include “Burning a Book” by William Stafford and “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass in your unit. Reading more than one text on a topic can build background knowledge and introduce and reinforce Tier 3 vocabulary in varied contexts, making it easier for students to learn new words. To add more scaffolding for students, have your text set include texts at varying levels of qualitative and quantitative difficulty.
7. Use Grade-level Texts in Small Groups
Small groups are typically used for interventions or guided reading, but they can also be a great place to use grade-level texts. Struggling readers can use small group time to preview a whole-group grade-level text with the teacher by listening to the text being read aloud, learning key vocabulary words, or reading an easier text on the same topic to build background knowledge. (To do this as an independent activity, teachers can create a video of themselves reading the text and previewing vocabulary words and leave it at the literacy work station for students to watch.) Or, use small group time to spend more time on the grade-level text after it has already been introduced to the whole group. For example, use the time to study complex sentences, reread key parts, or find evidence for a particular argument.
Although not an exhaustive list, these seven strategies will get you started as you plan to support your students with grade-level texts.
References and Further Reading
Fillmore, L. W.; Fillmore, C. J. What Does Text Complexity Mean for English Learners and Language Minority Students? Stanford University. https://ell.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/pdf/academic-papers/06-LWF%20CJF%20Text%20Complexity%20FINAL_0.pdf
TNTP. (2018). The Opportunity Myth: What Students Can Show Us About How School Is Letting Them Down—and How to Fix It. https://tntp.org/assets/documents/TNTP_The-Opportunity-Myth_Web.pdf
Lewis, A; Thompson, A. (2010). Quick Summarizing Strategies to Use in the Classroom. https://www.readingrockets.org/content/pdfs/summarizing_Strategies.pdf
Student Achievement Partners.(August 5, 2015). The Baseball Study. [Video]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP6qpSrr3cg
Student Acheivement Partners. Juicy Sentence Guidance. https://achievethecore.org/content/upload/Juicy%20Sentence%20Guidance.pdf
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2013, December). Guide to Creating Text Sets for Grades 2-12. http://schools.archmil.org/CentersofExcellence/convention/Handouts/Galvin/15_Guide_to_Creating_Text_Sets.pdf