Part 7 of Adapting Materials Project

Using Complex Texts with All Readers

A reading interventionist explains the strategies she uses to help struggling readers benefit from complex texts.

Last February, as part of the Adapting Materials Project, Rachel Etienne from Student Achievement Partners met with our team of reading interventionists and 4th grade teachers to introduce us to a novel idea: complex text for all readers, regardless of any predetermined reading level. Little did I know that this project would completely change the way I viewed the practice of reading intervention and my role as an educator.

Prior to being involved in the Adapting Materials Project, we used below-level guided reading texts as the main resources for reading intervention. We worked in groups of about 4-6 students, all at the same reading level, and focused primarily on the vocabulary and skills within that leveled text as outlined by the basal program. The below-level texts often only skimmed the surface of a subject. Although it was helpful for our struggling readers who lacked background knowledge, the lack of engaging content made these texts particularly unappealing to an already reluctant group of readers.

In addition to a lack of background knowledge, many of our struggling readers also have vocabulary and comprehension skills deficits. The below-grade-level texts require minimal decoding and our students were able to read them with more fluency; however, we were finding it difficult to have meaningful vocabulary and comprehension discussions because of the lack of higher level vocabulary and content in the texts. The combination of low interest content, knowledge gaps, and superficial comprehension discussions all served to further demotivate this group of readers.

When the Adapting Materials Project was brought to us, we were hesitant as we were not sure how it would affect our struggling readers. We were concerned that it would be too challenging and frustrate our readers. However, we came to find the project had quite the opposite effect. Right away we noticed that the complex texts were highly motivating for our struggling readers – they were eager to take on the challenge of reading the same text as their peers and were intrigued by the more engaging, age-appropriate content. With the right supports in place, they were willing and eager participants in the project.

Breaking down complex text, creating focused, differentiated activities to support struggling readers, and using flexible groupings were key factors in our success with this project. When reading complex text with our struggling readers, we found that breaking it down into manageable excerpts, or “chunks,” first was less overwhelming. For example, instead of reading an entire text, we would choose to examine the most important elements of the text. Within that chunk, we’d ask ourselves: “What vocabulary and ideas are vital to the key understandings?” Those became our focus.

Creating engaging activities around the vocabulary and essential ideas was, for me, the highlight of the Adapting Materials Project. It really gave our team the chance to be creative after years of teaching a regimented basal program. In one instance, one of the texts we worked with involved smokejumpers, a specialized group of firefighters who jump from planes into the middle of forest fires. Many of our readers, struggling or not, lacked the background knowledge and higher level vocabulary used in this text. After reading one of the sections of text that was highly technical, we watched a video, pausing to discuss what was occurring and how it related to what we had just read. We also used infographics and interactive maps that provided detailed information about where, when, and how actual forest fires occurred in the United States. Through this mixed media approach, the vocabulary and concepts within the story were reinforced in multiple ways. We found it to be especially helpful for our struggling readers, many of whom are more visual learners.

The last key factor in the project’s success with our struggling readers was the opportunity to work with stronger readers. We were so accustomed to grouping our readers based on ability because we were using the leveled readers during our instructional time. When we changed our mindset about the leveled readers and employed the more comprehensive view of using grade-appropriate complex text for readers of all ability levels, we were able to get away from these groupings. I found that when my struggling readers were working with the complex texts with their classmates, they were challenging themselves to take more risks than they would have if they had remained in our small group.

The confidence our struggling readers developed continues to be seen in their work. One memorable example of this risk-taking came toward the end of our work with a text about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. After completing the reading, our students were given the task of preparing a presentation for the class. It was left completely open-ended: students could choose any presentation method they wished, and work independently or in a group of their choice. The creativity in the room was electric. We had students creating their own websites, making Prezis, and pre-recording themselves on iPads so that when they were presenting a newscast to the class they could interrupt themselves for “breaking news.” Watching my struggling readers willing to take risks and engage on this level and take so much ownership in their work filled me with immense pride. The Adapting Materials Project has been a huge undertaking, but I can easily say that it has been the most worthwhile experience in my career as an educator.

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About the Author: Katherine has been teaching in the Harrison Township School District in Mullica Hill, New Jersey for the last 8 years. Prior to her current position as a reading interventionist, she taught first grade while obtaining a master’s degree in Reading Education from Rowan University. She serves on the district’s ELA curriculum committee and the Response to Intervention team. She lives in a small South Jersey suburb of Philadelphia with her husband, Bob, cat, Sacha, and is expecting their first child in March.