The Benefits of Difficult Texts for Young Readers
Take advantage of more difficult texts in English and across the curriculum. We know that frequent, short bursts of explicit instruction produce powerful outcomes. We also know that students’ literacy skills and knowledge underpin the synthesis of new content across other key learning areas. Add to this, that the bulk of the texts students will be required to read, respond to and craft in secondary school are non-literary, and we are prompted to ask what this should mean in terms of planning and teaching in primary.
Core text books in secondary tend to be topic specific and highly specialised in comparison to texts read in primary schools. Core text books may contain unfamiliar features such as figures, guide questions or abstracts which may not be easily interpreted by some students, particularly those reading below the average in their cohorts.
So what can we do to prepare students for more challenging texts? A few quick thoughts…
Preparing students for more challenging texts
- Use more difficult texts across the curriculum to explicitly teach for literacy skills, knowledge and processes. For example, highlight ways to infer word meanings while reading the history text. On a science text, teach students how to recognise a top level structure, such as compare/contrast, and highlight the way this helps a reader to organise information to better construct meaning.
- Teaching from more difficult texts provides opportunities to frequently expose students to reading materials beyond their actual reading levels, build understandings around more complex ideas, demonstrate how to interpret ideas when aspects of the text are difficult or unfamiliar and deconstruct a wider range of texts and text types.
- Taking similar examples into small group lessons enables teachers to target support for small groups and individuals as needed and gives students an opportunity to apply what they have learned in a timely manner.
What other texts may be deemed hard? Some standardised reading tests such as the NAPLAN reading magazine are difficult for many students operating at lower reading levels.
What can we do to assist? A few more thoughts …
Assisting students comprehend the NAPLAN magazines
- Again, teach across all subject areas. There are no text types in the NAPLAN magazines that students have not seen across the curriculum or in real life reading episodes.
- Highlight the purpose of different texts, including diagrams, flowcharts, tables, etcetera, which commonly appear within other texts. If students understand why texts are constructed, they are easier to deconstruct. On a less familiar text, students should be prompted to ponder why someone would craft or create a text like this. This type of reflection supports students to understand the purpose of a text. Knowing what an author is trying to achieve, helps the reader to understand their role during and after reading.
- Teach students to activate their prior knowledge. As a result of browsing the magazine, many students become worried. Rather than recognising what they do know, they think about what they don’t know. Students must recognise text types, topics and ideas and recall what they already know about them. Some students must be prompted to consciously recall what they know. If teaching students to activate knowledge, do so frequently. Most lessons could begin with a quick ‘think, pair, share’ of what was learned or applied in the last lesson. Importantly, this must become automatic for students. They must independently activate their knowledge; no prompting.
- Use examples of real life texts, similar to those used in NAPLAN magazines, as whole class reading texts, or guided reading texts. During a science lesson, a diagram could be examined, analysed, deconstructed and discussed as a modelled reading lesson, or something similar used as a guided reading text. Readers struggling to decode words are provided with strong visual supports on these types of texts and these assist the reader to construct meaning.
- Integrate oldies, but goodies, like the Three Level Guide (Morris, A. & Stewart-Dore, N. 1984) into your repertoire. Don’t feel compelled to construct a formal written guide; use strategies like this, as a strategic tool to prompt for thought provoking, rich discussions. Modify questions or statements to achieve specific teaching/learning goals. If you observe students find it difficult to justify responses if synonyms or figurative language are used, thread these through your explicit teaching episodes.
Read up on The Three Level Guide:
Morris, A. & Stewart-Dore, N. (1990). Learning to Learn from Text. Effective Reading in the Content Areas. North Ryde, NSW: Addison-Wesley