College- and career-ready standards require that our students, all our students, not only read appropriately complex texts, but learn from them. Often that means learning about the topic the text is about, but also equally as often, it means learning from the choices the author makes as a writer. This is how students learn to become masterful readers and writers themselves. Creating the conditions in your class where, firstly, all students get to engage in this kind of discussion, and secondly, where students themselves are doing the discovery, rather than you as the teacher, is critically important to making sure all students have equal access to the opportunity to learn from great writing.
When we create text-dependent questions in our planning — or think of them in the moment of a lesson — we want to be sure at least one of those questions exclusively contains the word “author”. More specifically, why would the author make choices around the language used in the text? How do these choices serve the author’s purpose or meaning for the text?
Teachers love authors and are apt to know a lot about them. We love telling our students all about them, too. During close reading lessons, however, it is important to not tell too much, but rather to ask. Allow students to have their own experience uncovering the author’s craft and structure in the text. One way to do this is to consider whether we say the word “author” ourselves while facilitating the discussion.
As a literacy specialist, I have co-taught close reading lessons with colleagues in grades two through six using complex texts. Here are some examples of text-dependent ‘author’ questions that my colleagues and I have used recently:
“On page…, the author (use author’s name if you want), says_____. Why do you think they used this word/phrase?” [Wait for student responses.] “So, how does this help us understand…? How does it connect to (a phrase or idea) later in the text? Why do we think the author did this?”
“Look on page….paragraph #. Why do you think the author might have repeated this phrase again? Tell your partner why you think they did this.” [Walk around listening to student responses.] “(Student name), would you mind sharing what you and your partner discussed?” [Allow the student to tell the class what they discussed.] “Ok, before we have (student name) share their thinking around this, did anyone else notice the same thing? Can anyone else explain where in the text they think (student name) got this idea from? [Wait for student responses. Then, have the student explain their thinking to the class.]
Consider how these questions are designed to invite students at all reading proficiency levels into the conversation. Asking students about a particular paragraph, or even phrase, can help students quickly zero in on what you want them to reflect on—this can be a more productive way to approach the conversation than asking broader questions like, “What is this text about? What is the theme?” which may overwhelm students. Including opportunities for students to engage in paired conversations prior to sharing whole class is another excellent scaffold. It gives students the opportunity to “rehearse” their response in a less intimidating setting, giving them the confidence to share with the whole class. This is particularly helpful for English Language Learners who may prefer to rehearse in their home language prior to sharing out in English.
Suffice it to say, there may be no correct answers to some of these questions. We most likely won’t have the exact answer from the author, but remember that Reading Anchor Standard 1 (the “Evidence Standard”) has that really interesting phrase calling for students to “make logical inferences from [text].” The “logic” lies in the places within the text where students align their understanding with the author; they are both operating from a place of mutual understanding. As teachers, we need to know if our students are doing this when they read. To be sure, the only way to get this information is by simply asking them text-dependent questions and tending to their responses, but certain conditions must be in place for this to be possible:
- All students must be in the room and participating in the conversation.
- The text should be read aloud to students with unfinished learning in decoding and automaticity. If this lesson is about comprehending the text, then let it be so. Address students’ specific needs with foundational skills at another point in the day.
- Students who have scored below grade level on comprehension assessments must absolutely be in the room during the discussion (as opposed to using this time as an opportunity for them to receive support services or putting students into leveled groups). These students tend to need more background knowledge, more work with sentence structure, genre, vocabulary, etc. that can only be found in grade-level texts. It makes sense, then, to keep them in the room to listen and speak about the text with everyone else. It also helps them hear what their on-level classmates are noticing in the text. Give kids more of what they need, not less.
- Consider that not every grade-level reader will comprehend every grade-level text. Anyone who lacks background knowledge on a topic will have some unpacking to do with a text on that topic. Consider how you might build background knowledge through supplemental texts, videos, and graphics to help them engage deeply with the complex text.
- It is helpful if students have read the text at least one time all the way through before answering questions about the author’s craft and structure.
Teachers who dig deep by asking about the author are constantly surprised by what their students come up with, and quite often find that some of the more profound ideas come from their “struggling students.” High expectations for all students will yield amazing results and create a strong sense of community each day in the classroom. The authors of the texts we read together can be part of that community, too.