Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching Complex Texts Requires ‘Getting To Know Your Students’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 20, 2014 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on this topic)

Bill Younglove asked:

The Common Core State Standards’ final draft settled upon this phrase: “Scaffolding, as needed.” How best can a teacher gauge students’ “need” when dealing with complex text?

Today’s post features responses from three educators: Wendi Pillars, Amy Benjamin, and Christopher Lehman. I’ll be posting Part Two in a few days, and will have plenty of space for comments from readers.

You might also want to listen to a ten minute conversation I had with Wendi and Amy about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show, as well as look at previous posts on related topics:

Q & A Collections: Implementing The Common Core

Q & A Collections: Teaching Reading and Writing

Response From Wendi Pillars

Wendi Pillars has been teaching K-12 ESL for 17 years, both stateside and overseas. She is National Board Certified and a member of the CTQ Collaboratory. As a lifelong learner, she welcomes your thoughts and ideas, and can be reached @wendi322:

It sounds cliché, but the first step is getting to know your students. We know a lot of teaching success ultimately boils down to relationships--but relationships are also the start point. Know students’ proficiency levels in English--where they are and where they’re going. Know at least a couple of their interests/ relevant topics for their age group, and have a couple of tricks up your sleeve for revealing their background knowledge. Then design clear objectives for the complex text they’re trying to tackle.

Once you’ve determined clear objectives, and the purpose for reading each carefully-selected text, only then can you gauge students’ need for scaffolding. Is the purpose to learn new information or to learn how language is used to create a story or text? Is it to set the foundation for connections between texts, for comparison or contrast? Or will they need to apply the information in some other way?

Your objectives link inextricably to student scaffolding needs!

For example, if you plan on students comparing or contrasting two complex texts, you expect them to apply knowledge about the content. But--consider whether they can express what they’ve read independently using the desired academic register. If not, help them scaffold responses with vocabulary, sentence starters, and modeled questions.

This requires clear expectations for how students will demonstrate and apply their comprehension knowledge. Do students’ responses, inferences, and puzzle pieces need to be precisely aligned with your own thinking? Or are you open to their interpretations? Are you a grammar and punctuation zealot expecting refined expression of ideas, or will your greater focus be on the content of their response? Maybe the goal is interactional competence--how they engage in knowledge-building activities like small group discussions with opportunities to engage in extended discourse.

As you can see, each of the above expectations demands distinctive scaffolds. Well-defined objectives are critical.

Continue to get to know your learners as they grapple with their texts. Prepare questions in advance to guide their comprehension, help them go deeper, and encourage multiple re-reads. And nothing is stopping you from walking around and asking questions one-on-one to gauge individual need. There may be a consensus area you can build off of in a mini-lesson the following day, or certain vocab words that are confusing to everyone--these can also be anticipated and frontloaded.

If a struggling reader needs to support his answer with evidence from the text, instead of making him search through multiple pages of complex text, chunk it. And give them time to access the text in new ways, while appreciating that it’s possible for our ELLs to meet the standards even without demonstrating native-like control of grammatical conventions and vocabulary.

Remember the ultimate goal is for them to learn new knowledge and enhance their thinking--without beating them down, or their interest in reading. Intentional scaffolding helps promote feelings of success, and can be done without spoon-feeding, but what students need can be deeply individual. Take it back to relationships and take the time to learn about your kids. Call me a rebel, but I love to read, and I’m not going to be the one to kill that love in someone else.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher, educational consultant, and author whose most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Routledge). Her website is www.amybenjamin.com:

First, let’s define our terms: A “scaffold” is a temporary structure whose purpose is to facilitate work on a project that is too high to reach right now. A ramp that is permanently built onto a structure to allow access is not a scaffold. How does that analogy translate to the Common Core? Well, scaffolding is meant to be temporary, a means of making complex text accessible while at the same time building students’ reading skills. Scaffolding is not a permanent structure, as a ramp it, designed to remove the challenge altogether.

On August 7, 2013, the assessment results of New York State Common Core Assessments in English Language Arts and Mathematics were made public. The results were far lower than expected, with the statewide proficiency rates averaging not more than 31%. I was at a literacy conference in Central New York State, where Deputy Commissioner of Education Ken Slentz was Skyped in to deliver a keynote address. In his comments about the disappointing scores (“a new baseline”), Dr. Slentz stressed that educators are going to have to become “a lot more comfortable with the discomfort of students as they grapple with complex text.” Grapple. Yes, grapple. We need to allow students to grapple--to struggle, to puzzle over, to sweat, if necessary, to interpret text that is hard. Deputy Commissioner Slentz also said--twice, in fact--that educators need to become “master scaffolders.”

Scaffolding should not work against grappling. Scaffolding is the kind of assistance that makes grappling with complex text possible. Let’s talk about what scaffolding is not and what it is. First, scaffolding is not reading the entire text aloud. Scaffolding may be reading a small part of the text aloud so that students can hear the dialect, feel the pace of the sentences (which may be long and meant to be read slowly), perhaps perceive a tongue-in-cheek tone. Scaffolding is not giving students a graphic novel that tells the story of Macbeth to replace Shakespearean text. Scaffolding may be intermixing “translated” Shakespearean text with the actual text, or going from one to the other after students have spent time extracting as much meaning as they can from a soliloquy. Scaffolding is giving students the context of a soliloquy, not a thumbnail version of it.

Scaffolding is creating a curriculum that brings in both required reading of challenging classics and books of the student’s choice. Scaffolding is not giving fill-in-the-blank test items instead of constructed response items, but scaffolding is giving students sentence frames to help them set up their constructed responses within a strong syntactical structure. Scaffolding is not asking only literal, easy-to-find questions where the answers are already bold-faced in the textbook. Scaffolding is having students pose their own questions and teaching them about different kinds of questions: literal vs. inferential, questions asking for analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Scaffolding is not having students “work cooperatively” by dividing up the questions on a worksheet and simply pooling their individual answers to “hand in.”

Scaffolding is genuine cooperative learning, where students discuss the questions and help each other find all of the answers, working on each one together. Scaffolding is not accepting a poster board collage or a soundtrack to a movie about a historical event instead of a well-written essay because we are appealing to “multiple intelligences” or “learning styles.” Scaffolding is giving students word banks and model sentences that would work well in an essay. Scaffolding is giving students a partial outline and having them complete it, based on reading complex text. Scaffolding is allowing students to bring an index card full of handwritten notes as a “cheat sheet” for a fact-based test, so that you can check the card to see what they thought was important if they don’t do well on the test. And scaffolding is getting students to understand that it was the process of creating the study card that helped them learn.

It is better to have students grapple with smaller servings of complex text than water the text down so they can easily “read” the whole thing. In the gym, we don’t get stronger by doing the same reps with the same weights. We don’t get stronger by doing more reps with lighter weights. Obviously, we get stronger by doing more reps with heavier weights, but, until we are ready for that, we scaffold by doing fewer reps with heavier weights.

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is an educator, international speaker, consultant and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including his newest Falling in Love with Close Reading . He can be reached on Twitter at @iChrisLehman or his blog ChristopherLehman.com:

Excellent question that I think requires two responses, one theoretical and the other practical.

First, the theoretical response: What I find confusing about this language from reading standard 10, “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature/informational texts... in the text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range,"(Gr 2, 4, 6, 7, 9-10, 11-12) is that it is contradictory to read something proficiently and with support.

You either are proficient or you are not.

When a teacher helps a student in any way--with coaching or graphic organizers--the student is not thinking alone. I suppose it is sort of like teaching a child to ride a bike. As long as your hand is on the seat, she is not independent in bike riding, she is still learning. You couldn’t possibly go with her every time she is out for a ride, running all over town with your hand on her seat. She is decidedly not proficient. What you may do, to lessen your level of support, is to give her training wheels. A notch more independent from you running alongside. Even then, she is becoming proficient in riding with training wheels, not in traditional bike riding. She still has not mastered the ability to balance on two wheels. You scaffold while she is learning.

To be frank, I think that phrase in the standards actually points to a misunderstanding of reading research and children’s development in reading. The theoretical answer to your question is that a student cannot be both proficient in reading a “complex text” and simultaneously be receiving scaffolding. Yes, we can scaffold students to understanding all sorts of great things in books they may not be able to read on their own, but that is not the same as being proficient in reading that book.

Now, the practical response: Let’s think about scaffolding reading instruction in general.

  • An ineffective way to approach planning might look like:

Choose a complex text + think “what could I scaffold” = Scaffold the book, as needed

  • An effective way to approach planning instead looks like:

Choose a child + think “what new work is this child ready for?” = Scaffold the child, as needed

The first way to gauge how to scaffold is to look at students reading needs first, then choose texts later. Which means, we must aim to make students learning as visible as possible.

I find it helpful to have categories in mind as I look at students’ writing about reading or listen to their conversations. These categories help me look for specific things. The categories could be the standards (“Hmmm, am I seeing any independent jottings about word choice? No? I need to teach into that.”) or could be reading skills (“Do I hear students talking about big ideas in this article? No, only disparate details? Okay, I need to teach into that.”).

Once you know what they can do well and what they need, then choose your methods and materials. Here is one example of how you could scaffold a small group of students over three short meetings, but there are many others, too. Imagine they need support with categorizing ideas in informational texts:

First meeting:

Method: Shared reading Material: An easier text

You demonstrate a great deal and have them practice as well. This allows everyone to focus on the skill and not the complexity of the text.

Between meetings: Ask students to bring this skill to their own, carefully matched, independent reading. They have no support from you, so you can see what they can do well and need help with, but they are doing so in texts they can read with appropriate challenge.

Second meeting:

Method: Independent reading with your coaching Material: An instructional level text

Give students texts to read that are at their instructional level (not so challenging they cannot read them, but higher then independent level). They work for a few minutes with the text while you are present to coach them.

Again, have them return to independent practice in their own books.

Third meeting:

Method: Shared reading Material: A more complex text

Lead them in shared reading of a more complex text, demonstrate less and have them initiate more work themselves. This allows you to see what skills they have internalized and automatically attempt to apply in tough reading and also helps you see what they still need to be taught or practice.

Again, have them return to independent practice in their own books.

Scaffolding for achievement means seeing what our students need from our teaching, then purposefully choosing methods and materials to support those goals.

Thanks to Wendi, Amy and Chris for their contributions!

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