Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey suggest strategies to help students engage with complex texts
Fourth grader Mario sits at his desk, staring at the page he is supposed to be reading. His eyes are not moving, and he has nothing in his hands to write with should he want to annotate or take notes. Noticing this, his teacher offers him a different text, an easier one. Mario starts to read the text. At least his eyes start moving across the page and he appears more engaged.
There are two potential responses to this situation. Some would say that the teacher removed the challenge from Mario and should have instead scaffolded the reading. Others would say that the teacher did the right thing by ensuring that Mario had a text he could read. To our thinking, both are right—depending on the task Mario was supposed to be doing.
If the task was independent reading, then we would argue the teacher made the right move. There is no evidence that students can learn independently from texts they cannot read. We do believe that accessing complex texts requires that students practice reading by applying what they are learning in texts they can read. This type of wide reading can build students’ background knowledge and their vocabulary, which will serve them well when they read increasingly complex texts.
However, if the task Mario was supposed to be doing was designed to give him experience with complex texts, then we would argue that the teacher made the wrong move. Accessing complex texts requires more than practice, which is accomplished during independent reading. Accessing complex texts requires that students have instructional experiences with complex text, situations in which their teachers scaffold support rather than allowing the text to serve as the scaffold. There are a number of ways to do this, and we will highlight three important classroom routines that offer teachers an opportunity to teach students how to access complex texts.
When students are encountering complex texts, they need to know what they are supposed to be learning. When students know what they are learning, they are more likely to learn it—and they are more likely to engage in the work required to learn. They set goals and monitor their own progress when they accept the challenge of learning. Reading complex texts is hard, and without clarity about why we are doing this, far too many students give up. They do not allocate cognitive resources to the task at hand because they do not know what they are supposed to learn or why they are learning it. Teachers have to invite students into the experience by providing clarity about the learning expectations. To our thinking, students should be able to answer three questions every day, for every lesson:
- What am I learning today?
- Why am I learning it?
- How will I know when I have learned it (Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, 2016, p. 27)?
This requires that teachers are clear in their explanations of learning expectations, relevance, and success criteria. Imagine if Mario’s teacher had said:
“Today, we’re reading a really complex text. I’m pretty excited about it, even though I know it’s a bit of a struggle. We’re reading this now because Ms. Andrews [the principal] invited us to create a reader’s theater script of this and then perform it at the next assembly. She knows that our class is really, really good at writing scripts, so she challenged us, and I said, ‘Of course Room 21 can do it!’ We can, right? So, remember, we need to capture key ideas as we read, because those ideas help us develop our script. We can also take note of some interesting examples, because audiences like that too, especially if they are funny or unique. We know we have been successful when we have an amazing script that blows the socks off of the people at the assembly.”
This brief introduction to the learning expectations will be reviewed at each transition point so that students remain focused on the three questions noted above.
In her discussion, Mario’s teacher made the learning expectations clear, she was motivating and made the learning relevant, and she was clear about what success would look like. Her clarity of purpose invites students into the learning and gives them a lens through which to dedicate their efforts. We understand establishing purpose, by itself, is not enough to ensure that students access complex texts. But we do believe that it is an important ingredient in rigorous reading.
Modeling and Thinking Along
In addition to ensuring that students know what they are supposed to be learning from complex texts, teachers should model their thinking and provide students with examples of the type of thinking required to understand complex texts. Teachers can model their own comprehension, how they solve unknown words, how they use text features such as graphs and charts, or how they predict what is coming next using the text structure. These are all useful comprehension strategies for unlocking texts with students. Importantly, one day of modeling is not likely to ensure that students develop the habits that their teachers have. Instead, modeling should be a daily experience in the classroom in which teachers open up their brains and invite students into their thinking processes. Thinking is invisible; the only avenue we have is to talk about our thinking. Imagine if Mario’s teacher had modeled her thinking for the class, this time using a different piece of text. Perhaps she might have said:
“I’d like to show you how I write some summary sentences. Yesterday, we talked about important ideas and details, and today we’re going to use that information to summarize. I think it’s helpful to summarize so that you don’t take too many of the author’s words when you go to write your script. Of course, you can use the original names and locations, but we want the script to be our own. And I think that summary sentences can help with that. So, I’ll project our text from yesterday. Remember the one that we read about space junk? I’m going to look at the parts I underlined and reread them. Then, I’ll cover the text and tell a partner what I remember. My partner will let me know if I took a lot of words from the original text. We’re not trying to quote the text and we don’t need every detail that happened. It’s about getting the ideas organized so that we can retell the text, in this case in a script. Let me show you the first one.”
In this case, Mario’s teacher modeled a process that she wanted her students to use. This gave them a cognitive tool they could apply to a complex piece of text, rather than thinking it was too hard and giving up. There are a wide range of other things that teachers can model for students, and the choice of modeling depends on the barriers to the texts that students are reading and the tasks they will need to accomplish. The research world calls this a “think aloud,” but we like to use “think along.” Our experience suggests that when teachers “think aloud,” they focus on themselves, and changing the name to “think along” makes them more likely to monitor the thinking that students do as the teachers share their thinking. Over time, the practice of having students think along with their teacher in complex texts builds habits and routines that students will deploy, on their own, when confronted with complex texts. We believe that this is an important scaffold, and we believe that students need to apply their learning in texts they read closely.
Inviting students to read a complex text and apply what they have been taught can be part of a close reading lesson. Essentially, close readings are repeated readings of a short passage in which the teacher does not tell the students what to think but rather scaffolds their understanding using text-dependent questions. Students annotate the text, discuss their responses to the questions, and generate their own questions, all with a small group of peers. This is the scaffolded instruction in complex texts that students need if rigorous reading is to become the norm. Imagine if Mario’s teacher used complex texts and had students read them closely, discussing them with peers as they deepened their understanding. For example, imagine Mario’s class reading a series of Aesop’s Fables and then each group selecting one for a reader’s theater. During a discussion about “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” Mario’s teacher might ask students to talk about the following questions:
- What did the wolf do to finally catch a sheep?
- What words and phrases does Aesop use to show that the wolf is clever?
- Why does Aesop ask a question and then immediately answer it?
- Aesop says, “the wolf was able to get a sheep whenever he pleased.” What does that sentence reveal about the wolf?
- Reread the moral. What are the key details in the story that support the moral?
Notice that these questions start off fairly literal in nature and become much more inferential. The middle questions focus on the structures that the author uses. Each time students talk about their thinking relative to the question, they dive a bit deeper into the text. As we have noted elsewhere (Fisher and Frey, 2014), there are times when students are stuck and teachers need to reassume responsibility and provide instruction. But responsibility should be returned to students as soon as possible so that they work through complex texts, relying on the scaffolds that the teacher has provided.
Hope is not a plan, and hoping students’ reading prowess increases without taking specific action is hopeless. For students to access complex texts and develop habits they can use, teachers must be clear about the learning expectations, model their thinking for students, and engage students in close reading lessons. Of course, students also need opportunities to practice what they are learning in texts they can read.
After all, practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. The combination of instruction and practice ensures rigorous reading for all students.
Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2014). “Contingency Teaching During Close Reading.” Reading Teacher, 68, 277–286.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., and Hattie, J. (2016). Visible Learning for Literacy: Implementing the Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Douglas Fisher (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nancy Frey (email@example.com) are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High in San Diego, CA. They are the co-authors of This Is Balanced Literacy (with Nancy Akhaven, Corwin, 2019) and Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom (with John Hattie, Corwin, 2017).