Think of just about any narrative text you’ve read. There is a backstory—the parts the author didn’t tell you directly, but that you can assume based on what you’ve been reading. As readers, we create the backstory based on our experiences, our read of the text, what we know about the author, and the context in which we’re reading the text. As an example, take the famous six-word story typically attributed to Ernest Hemingway (rumor has it this story was the result of a bar bet suggesting he couldn’t write a novel in six words):
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
As readers, we add so much to this text. We fill in the blanks. We’re saddened by these words, thinking of the loss experienced by the person who put the shoes up for sale because of premature death. Of course, we can also think about plausible alternatives. Perhaps the baby was born with gigantic feet. Or the family was so rich that they had many extra pairs of shoes.
As teachers, our imaginations can run wild; this happens because we understand how complex texts work. However, our students still need to learn about the ways these texts work.
Inviting Students Into Complex Texts and Ideas
Unfortunately, too many students struggle with complex texts. We work at a school that educates a lot of students who live in poverty and who speak other languages in addition to English at home. We also teach students who read near or at grade level, and some who read well above their peers. We were frustrated with the idea of always leveling texts for readers and excusing them from reading and discussing complex ideas and information. We wanted to invite students into the world of complex texts.
Can All Students Access the Same Complex Text?
We decided to develop lessons that allowed all students to access the same complex text. In doing so, we realized that we had to stop telling students what to think about the text. Instead, we needed to figure out ways for students to read and reread the text to mine its meaning. We found that encouraging students to annotate the text helped them determine the meaning as well as the logical inferences that could be drawn from the text. And when students discussed the text with their peers, they started to figure out what was happening within the words on the page as well as how they reacted to the messages and ideas found in the texts.
A Major Breakthrough
Our breakthrough came when we figured out that questions—specifically text-dependent questions—opened doors and windows for students. Of course, teachers can ask questions, but so can students (especially once they’ve learned the type of questions that guide understanding). In our own classrooms, and in the classrooms of teachers we support, we noted that starting with literal questions was a good idea. Students need to understand texts at their literal level if they are ever going to make logical inferences and get to deeper meaning. We don’t stop at the literal level, but we do start there.
Starting with Literal Questions
Often, students can discuss a complex text at the literal level with little or no help from the teacher. We provide literal questions so that students will apprentice to thinking like this and then begin to ask their own general understanding and key detail questions.
Moving to Structural Questions
Once we moved on from literal questions, we focused on structural questions. These seem to be the most difficult questions for teachers to develop. We learned that focusing discussion at the structural level—including the genre, narration, literary devices, text structure, author’s purpose, and the like—results in improved student writing. That was a great discovery.
Pairing Texts to Mine Deeper Meaning
But we didn’t stop there. Students should understand texts at their literal and structural level, and they need to go even deeper to understand texts at their inferential level. In many cases, students understand texts at the inferential level when they encounter other related texts. We started pairing texts so that students would explore the intersections of diverse texts and rely less and less on the teacher for an explanation.
ACT Now!—The Six-Word Story
Here’s our six-word story:
Another compelling question; readers dig deeper.
ACT Now! features questions that guide students’ collaborative conversations about complex texts. Over time, and with much practice, students will engage in this type of thinking on their own and truly read texts closely, determining what a text says as well as the logical inferences they can draw from it.
About the authors of this post:
Dr. Douglas Fisher and Dr. Nancy Frey are Professors of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. They have coauthored many published books and articles on literacy, including the must-have Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading.
Learn more at www.fisherandfrey.com.