Helping kids read and understand complex texts

Mar 12, 2013
Today we are excited to have Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm, a well-known professor of English from Boise State University and one of our amazing authors of XBOOKS, here to talk about complex texts. There are a lot of things I like about the Common Core State Anchor Standards for English Language Arts. OK, I have criticisms too, but that’s for another blog post. One thing I really like: Helping students to communicate effectively—read and write, speak and listen—is now the responsibility of every teacher of every content area at every grade level. But this shift does mean that many teachers are going to need help selecting materials and learning how to teach reading and composing strategies. Here’s another thing I like: The CCSS has a big emphasis on teaching informational texts and the thought patterns underlying these texts. Both the research and my own experience show that informational texts fill our professional and personal lives, that authentic informational texts are not read often enough in school, and that even more rarely are students explicitly assisted to read and write such structures of texts. This emphasis on informational text presents an added challenge, especially for teachers in the content areas. We need to move away from textbooks and cull information from actual books, literary works, primary sources, newspaper and magazine articles, websites, videos, photographs, and the types of texts that professionals and informed citizens routinely draw upon. Cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner notes that informational text structures are “paradigmatic,” that is, they are highly conventional (unnatural) ways of organizing and patterning categories to reveal particular meanings and allow powerful applications. Because such structures are conventional, students have a hard time figuring them out on their own. Careful instruction is necessary. I’ve spent a lot of my professional energy over the past few years trying to meet the challenges of introducing informational texts to students in a systematic way. I’ve been working with Scholastic on a series called XBOOKS, developing compelling informational materials for students that can easily piggyback on conceptual units taught in English and across the content areas. The CCSS cites the following text structures as informational: naming, listing, summarizing, describing, process analyzing (how-to, explaining), defining, comparing, classifying (grouping), problem-solution, and cause-effect. In my research, I delve into the “crux moves” required to read and compose each informational text structure. The process is complicated, which helps explain why these text types are rarely taught, despite their increasing importance. Even listing requires structuring moves—putting items in a particular order—to create what is called a “significant list” that works efficiently. Listing, in turn, is involved in every other informational text structure. For example, a summary is a list of key details that have been whittled down to the bare essentials for a particular purpose in a particular context. The Common Core also emphasizes that students should read texts of increasing complexity. This is great, but just assigning more complex texts won’t float this boat. Students will need texts that are appropriately challenging for them and that will strengthen their ability to read ever more complex texts. They will need explicit instruction—learning strategies as they move from simpler to more complex texts, until they can read and analyze such texts independently.