Teaching Complex Texts During a Complex Year

July 22, 2020
Anne Lyneis

Ensuring that students are reading complex texts should be one of the main priorities of ELA instruction. All students, even if they may not be reading “at grade-level,” should read complex texts, not simplified leveled texts that may seem closer to their “reading level”. 

This can be scary, especially if students have been out of school for months. You may worry that your students can’t access the text, that they need remediation and shouldn’t be reading grade-level texts right away. But our strong recommendation, aligned with Student Achievement Partners in their guidance on 2020–21 Priority Instructional Content, is to continue to prioritize actively reading rich, complex texts, even in this unprecedented year.

You need to be strategic, however, about how you ask students to interact with complex texts, either in-class, remotely, or in some hybrid combination. This requires that you do a deep analysis of the texts, looking for features of complexity, and then making strategic decisions about what support students might need.

What Makes a Text Complex?

In order to decide how to teach a complex text, you first need to analyze it through the lens of what features make the text complex and interesting. We recommend using this rubric from Achieve the Core. It breaks text complexity down into four main buckets: knowledge demands, language demands, structure, and meaning.

Our Unit Launches (part of the Fishtank Plus package for 3rd–8th grade) offer a video that gives a high-level text complexity analysis of core unit texts, but we suggest that you look at text complexity at the lesson level as well. Different sections of text may have slightly different features of complexity, meaning one chapter of a text could be sent home for independent reading, while another chapter might be better suited for a synchronous class read.

When reading for features of complexity, we recommend noting everything that makes the text complex. Let’s look at the first four paragraphs from “America and I” by Anzia Yezierska, from our 7th Grade Short Stories unit.

As one of the dumb, voiceless ones I speak. One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding. 

Ach! America! From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire. 

Choked for ages in airless oppression of Russia, the Promised Land rose up — wings for my stifled spirit — sunlight burning through my darkness — freedom singing to me in my prison — deathless songs tuning prison-bars into strings of a beautiful violin. 

I arrived in America. My young, strong body, my heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression.

There is a lot going on in this excerpt that could make the passage challenging for students, particularly in regards to language and knowledge demands. 

In order to fully comprehend the text, students need to understand the following pieces of content knowledge

  • The text was written in 1923 by a Jewish American novelist writing about her family's experience immigrating from the Russian-Polish Border to the United States. 
  • The “airless oppression of Russia” the author references. What were conditions like in Russia? Why were people leaving Russia? 
  • Why did people say America was the promised land? What were immigration patterns to America like in the 1920’s?
  • How did others view immigrants who arrived in the United States? 

Even if students understand all of these pieces of content knowledge, they may still struggle to build meaning from the text. To build meaning, students also need to be able to make sense of the author's use of figurative language and varying sentence structures.  

For example, students need to be able to unpack the figurative language in the following sentences. You might notice that unpacking these pieces of figurative language also requires drawing upon the content knowledge we identified above. 

  • “One of the millions of immigrants beating, beating out their hearts at your gates for a breath of understanding.”
  • “From the other end of the earth from where I came, America was a land of living hope woven of dreams, aflame with longing and desire.” 
  • “My young, strong body, my heart and soul pregnant with the unlived lives of generations clamoring for expression.”

And this sentence provides students with an additional challenge because it includes figurative language and a sentence structure that may be unfamiliar. 

  • “Choked for ages in airless oppression of Russia, the Promised Land rose up — wings for my stifled spirit — sunlight burning through my darkness — freedom singing to me in my prison — deathless songs tuning prison-bars into strings of a beautiful violin.”

Students may not understand the author's use of em-dashes instead of commas to describe the connection between the different ideas. And even if they do understand the connection, they may not understand the figurative language.

As you can see, there are plenty of complex features in just four short paragraphs.

It can take practice to confidently identify the different features of text complexity. This resource outlines a list of the components of figurative language to help you consider what to look for in a text. The full version of our Qualitative Text Complexity Guide is coming very soon to a new iteration of our Teacher Tools.

Planning Student Supports

As you are prepare to teach a unit, the time you spend with the texts will be most fruitful if you note along the way which elements of complexity appear where, and begin to strategize for how you will build the necessary scaffolds to support your students. And in a year when some or all of your instruction might be asynchronous or remote, that will add another major consideration to your planning.

To decide on what supports will be necessary, you first want to think about how you will ask students to consume the text. For the “America and I” example, we’d recommend a multi-layer close read, in which students read the text three times with a different focus every time. The first time they focus on literal meaning, the second time they examine the way the author uses language and text structure to build meaning, and the third time they read to think about the deeper meaning and theme.

You should then think about the supports to include either before, during, or after the multi-layer close read, and whether the supports will be needed by all or just some students.

Within the Fishtank ELA curriculum, we provide guidance on how to address the key features of text complexity in our Enhanced Lesson Plans, available with a Fishtank Plus subscription. We’ve broken down our recommended supports into a few key buckets: foundational skills scaffolds, language scaffolds, background knowledge scaffolds, additional scaffolds (i.e. graphic organizers), and opportunities for enrichment.

For this particular text, we suggest language scaffolds and background knowledge scaffolds as part of the multi-layer close read. 

  • To build background knowledge we would add the following scaffolds for the entire class: 
    • Assign additional readings about Russian immigration during the 1920’s. Students could read the articles during class or before class. Having students read and learn more before class would be a good remote assignment in preparation for a synchronous close read of the text. 
    • Lead the class in a discussion of how Americans viewed immigrants from Russia, particularly immigrants who didn’t speak the language. 
  • To address language features we would: 
    • Do a sentence-level close read of the different pieces of figurative language. 
    • Use the juicy sentence protocol from Achieve the Core to unpack the complexity of particular sentences, helping students notice the connection between ideas in the sentence.
    • For particular students, we may also add sentence frames to help them articulate their ideas about the poem orally.

With these supports in place, students will be better able to access the text and build deeper meaning through the key questions of the lesson.

As you’ll notice, many of these supports need to happen in the moment, during the close read. If you are in a hybrid-remote model, we’d recommend analyzing this text as part of a synchronous learning experience given its features of complexity. The knowledge demands might be possible to address independently, but the language demands are too challenging. And if students are unable to analyze the language, they won’t get the deeper meaning of the text.

If the text has features of complexity that can be scaffolded remotely, students can work on the text at home. Certain kinds of supports can be added directly to a text and provide the kind of in-the-moment supports that you would normally offer during in-person lessons. See our blog on How to Engineer a Text for an example. 


With the right preparation, all students can and should have access to complex texts as they return to learning this fall. Explore our ELA curriculum to find more helpful guidance.

 

Enhanced Lesson Plans and Unit Launches are available with a Fishtank Plus subscription. 

Fishtank Plus is currently available for all 3rd–5th grade ELA units, as well as our Kindergarten–2nd grade and 6th–8th grade, recently launched in pilot phase with new content rolling out every month.

 

Anne Lyneis is the Managing Director of ELA Curriculum and the author of the Literature and Science and Social Studies curriculum for grades K-5. She began her career in education through Teach for America South Louisiana where she fell in love with teaching. She taught elementary school for 8 years in both public and charter schools in Louisiana, Texas, and Massachusetts before joining the Fishtank team. She has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a Master’s degree in school leadership from Louisiana State University.