Classroom Strategies, Tools and Resources

Small Pivots to Access Complex Text Across the Curriculum

Reading strategies that help secondary students in all content areas

“But I am not an English teacher.”  I can’t tell you how many times these words came out of my mouth when I started teaching social studies 16 years ago. I had always dreamed of becoming a history teacher, and did so because I loved history. My favorite school memories were building Mayan temples, recreating Renaissance fairs, and putting historical figures on trial. I thought being an amazing social studies teacher meant replicating those same experiences for my students, and much of my teacher preparation program reinforced this.

In my program, I learned how to make history “come alive.” What I didn’t learn, however, was how to teach my students to do the hard work of historical thinking. I didn’t know how to teach them to read and write within my discipline, or how to harness the skills necessary to truly engage in rich, rigorous historical thinking.

Eventually, I grew frustrated. Why couldn’t they understand the text and resources I was putting in front of them? I found myself blaming my students for their inability to access the texts and pointing the finger everywhere but at myself. I hadn’t yet realized that the real problem was that I didn’t have any idea what my students could or should be able to read, nor did I know how to model and teach them to be strong, confident readers. I believed my mantra: I was not an English teacher. I felt inadequate and unsuccessful at the one thing I had always wanted to do— teach history. 

Then everything changed. I had the incredible fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I was invited to join a cohort of teachers who would engage in embedded, sustained, research-based professional learning as part of a Teaching American History grant. The facilitator of this learning engaged us in the development and implementation of text-based methodologies to enable all students to access rich and complex text with regularity. Put simply, ten years of participation in this cohort transformed my teaching. Long gone are the days when I would say, “but I am not an English teacher.”

I left the classroom several years ago to become a literacy coach for secondary teachers of all content areas. Through that work, I learned that while teachers need to be able to implement close reading methodologies to help students grapple with and persevere through complex text, they also need easy-to-implement strategies that they can pull out of their toolbox on a regular, if not daily, basis.

To meet this need, my colleagues and I in the Washoe County School District created and adapted strategies for our Quarter Turns Document. The document consists of smaller instructional moves that can be implemented in middle and high school classrooms, across content areas, and often with minimal preparation.

These are three of my favorites:

  1. Interview with the Author is a strategy that supports students through reading a dense, complex text by using pause points during reading so students can clarify their understanding of the text. Students use a question matrix or question stems to practice crafting compelling questions to the author and then work collaboratively to determine the most valuable questions.
  2. Split Screen Notes help students visualize challenging concepts in order to build understanding of a complex text. As the teacher reads the text pausing at selected points, students draw what they hear. After discussing drawings with a partner, students re-read the passage identifying words and phrases that support their drawing.
  3. Reading Response Cards help students examine complex or rich concepts from a text through discussion. In small groups, students use response card prompts to discuss parts of the text that they are curious or confused about, providing an immediate formative assessment for the teacher.

History should “come alive” for our students, but not at the expense of helping them develop the disciplinary literacy tools vital to analyze and evaluate our rich histories.

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About the Author: Sarah Brown lives and works in Reno, Nevada. A National Board Certified Teacher, Sarah taught high school social studies for 12 years and is currently the Social Studies Program Facilitator for Washoe County School District.