Materials Adaptation, Research and Reflections
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.

19 thoughts on “Using Complex Texts with All Readers

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that students should be heterogeneously grouped when tasked to make their way through complex text. My district is extremely diverse, with some students entering the classroom with no knowledge of the English language, and others who were reading and writing in pre-k. Heterogeneous grouping will not only encourage discussion, comprehension and vocabulary learning for our ENL and struggling readers, it will also help break down cultural and language barriers within the classroom

  2. Although I agree with the concept of heterogeneous grouping when students attempt to make their way through complex text, I can envision that many of the teachers in my building would balk at creating such groups. The majority of the small groupings in my building are homogeneously created based on skill level. It may very well take a great deal of cajoling to help teachers become comfortable to release the students to do this type of work.

    1. Hi Rita,
      I understand how frustrating it is to want to bring a new practice or idea to a group of teachers that are stuck in their ways. Maybe you can introduce it by having them keep their reading groups the way they are used to it and then having a whole group- heterogeneous grouping- novel as well. I have been doing this in my self contained 6th grade class and it is very successful. If you do it and they see the success they might be more willing. You could even present it at an in-service day for your staff or department if your principal agrees.

  3. I am thrilled that I selected this article. As I was reading it, I could feel the excitement and energy of the students as they engaged in their differentiated projects. It felt as if I was in the classroom in the middle of the Adapting Materials Project myself. This is something I will definitely try with my students in the fall. What an awesome idea!!

  4. This is an exciting way of approaching the reading of the text in our classroom. I know this could bring excitement in the lessons from students and provide a more connected culture along with knowledge base.

  5. I love the idea of mixing groups up. It allows for all of us to learn from each other and see the value of all. It may not work the first time as some may feel intimidated by those they view as the “smart kids”, but with continued practice and encouragement I can see great success with this.

  6. Assigning students into heteregeneus groups is needed for certain reading activities to maximize all students’ learning and to make learning meaningful and engaging.

  7. Asking students to engage in after reading tasks in which they are able to express their learning in different ways help them instill facts.

  8. Discussing new vocabulary words and building background through engaging activities build solid base for enhancing comprehension.

  9. This article is very well written. When I was reading it I felt the thrill that the author felt as she worked through the process and saw it’s benefits for her students. In my middle school classroom I have a self contained 6th grade class with 10-15 students each period who are reading from a Pre-K level to 4th grade. I have both skill level reading groups, where we focus on reading skills and strategies appropriate to their ability, and whole class reading on a novel that is age appropriate and highly engaging. The whole group reading is presented in a variety of ways: teacher reads, student volunteers read, and audio recording to name a few. I can say for sure, that students prefer the whole group reading more than their own small group reading text and instruction. I am not sure if I am ready to give up the small group portion, but I will definitely keep the whole group reading and know that it is helping my students even more than I had hoped.

  10. Heterogenous grouping and providing the students the autonomy over how to present their analysis is one that I can see fertilizes the seed of self-efficacy. While I often incorporate videos and paired texts, I never thought to include a map to help my students develop a deeper understanding of the text. Whether directly or indirectly, students are told who are the struggling readers. As a result, those who struggle are less likely to engage with complex text. However, if they see that the expectations for those students who they view as “good readers” have been presented with the same challenge of analyzing complex text, they will rise to the challenge. I enjoyed reading this article!

  11. I have to say I agree with groupings. I once grouped my kids by ability only and found my scores and kids attitudes toward reading never changed. They became bored and hated reading groups. Once I started flexible grouping, my kids became excited, enjoyed working together and helping each other out. My reading groups became fun, enjoyable and kids didn’t want them to end. Projects that were created were amazing and enjoyable. The reading scores grew and the love for reading increased drastically.

  12. When teachers strategically select complex text that is compelling and worthwhile to read, students irrespective of their reading level welcome the challenge of reading the text. Complex text should be used in conjunction with alternate text such as infographics, pictures and charts, all of which will help to deepen the learner’s understanding of the topic.

  13. I was challenged by the “Adapting Materials Project” in some ways. We have always exposed all students to grade level text during whole group discussion; however, students are then typically grouped, homogeneously, by their reading level. As an ELD teacher we typically engage students in “language dives” in which they are exposed to a chunk of the text. My question is: How much time should students spend on grade level text if they are behind? A point of agreement for myself was the fact that students reading below grade level were actually more motivated by reading complex texts. It has also been my experience that teachers and students have a hard time fostering good discussion around low level texts.

    1. I also struggle with the question of how much time students who are behind in reading should spend on grade level text. I agree that differentiating and providing scaffolds is key to the success of the reading. I think the amount of time dedicated to grade level text varies greatly based on grade level.

  14. It is very true that there is a time and place in the classroom for both homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping. Diving into grade level text provides the opportunity for heterogeneous supportive partners to work together to gain meaning from the text.

  15. As a reading dyslexia interventionist, our primary focus is helping struggling readers develop the tools needed as they become fluent readers. Adding this component of text complexity as students continue to progress would be extremely beneficial.

  16. I teach middle school social studies and use complex primary source texts frequently. Heterogeneous groups can be very productive in supporting readers who struggle and are below grade level as long as specific norms/protocols are taught and everyone in the group has clear roles and responsibilities.If they do this regularly, it can have a significant impact on all students’ understanding, confidence and interdependence.

  17. I’ve taught Special Education in the middle school for about 15 years. There initially wasn’t a curriculum for the students so reading was left up to the teacher if students were unable to read the grade level book. My district adopted a direct instruction program (SRA) which helped but moved slow, which was okay with some students but many would get bored and uninterested in the content of the stories. I was able to bring in the 8th grade book once a week and had the students read those stories. The students interest heightened because they were reading the same book as their peers and in some cases reading out of a book that was one to two grades higher than the grade they were in. This boosted their confidence when they went back into the regular education classroom. I agree with many of the points in the article. No one rises to low expectations. Students also know when the tasks have been watered down and their not challenged as much as other students.

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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.