Standards Opinion

Help Students Toward Reading Complex Texts Independently: No More Training Wheels!

By Ariel Sacks — October 18, 2016 6 min read
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Lately there is a ton of buzz around increasing students’ capacities to read texts that are considered complex and challenging for their age groups. I’m observing this unfold in various spaces with a critical eye. How exactly do we help students be able to read more complex texts independently? Do we give them texts that are well above their reading levels and apply as much scaffolding as we need to get students through it? Or do we meet readers where they are with more accessible text selections first and build their independent reading skills?

As part of a wonderful workshop on writing by The Institute For Writing and Thinking at Bard College, I uncovered a memory of learning to ride a bike. After reflecting on how my mother taught me this life-long skill, not only do I think she did she did a great job (thanks, Mom!), but I found that her technique holds a timely lesson about reading instruction: instead of training wheels, try a smaller bike.

Allow me to indulge in the analogy--I promise it gets to the heart of the matter.

Memory of Learning--and My Mother’s Teaching

I remember the teal bicycle that was waiting for me in the garage, complete with a trendy banana seat. It was a hand-me-down from a neighbor, but I could not ride it yet. At the time, I knew how to ride a tricycle and a “Big Wheel,” which was a low to the ground, bottom-heavy three-wheeler that didn’t require much balance. But, my feet didn’t even touch the ground when I sat on the teal banana seat.

One day, after riding on a friend’s bicycle that had training wheels, I asked my mother, “Can I get training wheels so I can ride my bike?” My mother surprised me by casually dismissing my request. No, she wasn’t interested in that, she said.

Of course, I kept on asking. Why, why, why not?

Finally, she looked at me and said, “Are you ready to ride a bike?”

“Yes,” I declared. I was ready.

“Then I’ll teach you,” she said.

She went to the garage and took out, not my teal bike, but a much smaller, plain-looking Huffy that was waiting for my little brother.

We walked with the small bike to the large black top at my nearby elementary school. When we got there, I sat on the bike, and my mom asked me to move myself forward by pushing my feet on the ground. This was easy, and I started locomoting the bike as fast as I could.

Next, she told me, “Try lifting your feet a bit once you’re moving.” I could do this, too, but if I lifted for longer than a moment, I’d wobble and lose my balance. So we practiced that for a while.

The black top at the school was set at a very slight incline. After a time, my mother took me to the top of the incline. This time, she gave me a push, and told me to lift my feet and let gravity keep me going as long as I could. I still remember the excitement of feeling my own momentum, slow but distinct, as the wheels took me down the inclined blacktop. Eventually, I’d wobble, and put my feet down to stop myself.

With practice, I could balance for longer, and my mother’s initial push took me farther and farther. And then, as I was careening along, my mother said, “Ok, now pedal!” Of course, just thinking about this made me lose my balance; but the next time, I was determined get my feet on those pedals. And soon, I was pedaling myself down the incline.

You can easily imagine the rest. I tried my new skill on flat ground. Then, I learned to use breaks instead of my feet to stop. And a few weeks later, I had the skills I needed to ride that banana seat bike all by myself.

Why Not Use Training Wheels?

My mother was right that training wheels were not especially worthwhile. They did provide some exposure to the idea of riding a big-kid bike, which peaked my interest; however, training wheels would not teach me to ride a bicycle, because they did the work of balancing for me.

In reading, I liken the teal bike to the text that is well above a student’s independent reading level, the kind of text many teachers feel pressured to bring to students. These days, with the lexile level system and common core movement reconfiguring expectations for “grade-appropriate” texts, teachers often move into the position of providing--or becoming--the training wheels that get students through complex texts.

The concept of scaffolding can be great, but it can also become a cover for teachers simply doing the critical thinking for students, whether directly offering their interpretations or indirectly leading them to predetermined points through their questions. Once in a while, maybe these practices help expose students to the kind of thinking that is possible in the world of literature. But just as training wheels don’t allow kids to learn to balance on a bicycle, I don’t believe students develop their own abilities to read and analyze by constantly looking to the teacher for answers. Ironically, this pattern in the implementation of common core standards seems to run counter to the intended outcomes of these very standards.

So What Works in Reading Complex Texts?

Now for the good news: my mother’s no-training wheels approach (which I’ve just found out is now a popular trend with “balancing bikes” that didn’t exist when I was little!) lends insight into what does work in reading complex texts. The smaller bicycle is akin to a text that is on a student’s instructional level. The student may not be able to quite read it on her own, but she’s very close, and needs encouragement and a push. She can touch the ground (decode most of the words on the page) and move herself forward (process as she reads with comments and questions; she may need someone there to remind her to do so and listen with interest at first, but soon she can do this on her own).

And now for the heart of the matter: When students develop balance--stamina and confidence--on texts they can handle, as I did on the Huffy, they are soon ready to apply their increased skills to more challenging texts.

Being intentional about the conditions we create for students’ reading practices is also key. My mother’s choice of the smooth, open, gradual incline of the elementary school blacktop may be like choosing a text that connects meaningfully to students’ lives and prior knowledge; or maybe it’s about creating a comfortable, appealing physical reading space for students in the classroom. With thoughtful choices that consider the student’s experience of reading, rather than external pressures, real growth can often happen faster than we even expect.

One more important condition in the bicycle analogy is that I wanted to ride a big-kid bike. I even had one in particular I was looking forward to being able to ride (like wanting to read a book a friend says is really good), and I also knew I could not do it yet. This is a great reminder that student motivation to read is crucial to their practice being fruitful. A classroom culture that draws students toward books and a community of readers, values their responses and ideas, and helps them feel hopeful about their own abilities to learn are factors just as important as more explicit teaching strategies.

Instead of rushing up lexile levels and depending on training wheels, let’s stimulate our students’ desire to read by exposing them to stories that interest them and showing that we believe they can do it. Let’s meet students at their zone of proximal development with appropriate text choices, including student selecting texts for themselves, and thoughtful conditions for developing reading confidence and stamina. And let’s let them move forward just as quickly as they truly can.

[Images in this post are courtesy of my nephew and his balancing bike.]

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.