Helping English Learners Access Complex Texts Remotely

April 06, 2020
Anne Lyneis and Maggie Roth


Over the past few weeks, teachers everywhere have been working tirelessly to get remote classrooms up and running. We’ve been checking in regularly with the teachers at Match Charter Public Schools (our partners in piloting and refining the Fishtank curriculum) to provide support wherever we can and learn from the strategies they are developing. 

A major consideration at Match Community Day (MCD) School has been making sure that the needs of English Learners and students who may be reading below grade level are being met. Teachers who are usually able to give in-the-moment support to help students access texts in the classroom are having to find alternative solutions for asynchronous and virtual learning environments. 

One technique that Jocelyn Lee, Director of Language Acquisition at MCD, has found helpful for these students is engineering the texts they will use. During a normal reading lesson, Mrs. Lee anticipates possible student misconceptions, gives vocabulary cues, provides additional background knowledge, scaffolds questions, and creates opportunities for discussion. In this new remote learning paradigm, she uses engineered texts to reproduce as many of these supports as possible for her students, while providing them a measure of stability by continuing with the same curriculum they’ve been using all year.


Here are the basics of how to engineer a text for your students:

1. What does it mean to engineer the text? 

When you engineer a text, you add text supports to ensure all students have access. This does not mean changing the text or lowering the rigor of the task.

Before assigning students a text to read, think about what support your students will need by asking yourself the following questions: 

  • What makes this text complex? 
  • What vocabulary words will be important for students to know? 
  • What background knowledge will students need to understand the text and task? 
  • What scaffolding questions would help students access the text? 
  • How can I access students' prior knowledge? 
  • How can I divide the text into sections to make it easier to follow?

Once you have considered these answers, you can begin to add supports, definitions, background knowledge, and questions directly into the text.


2. What does an engineered text look like?

Let’s look at a before and after from a 5th grade assignment from Exploring Mars, Lesson 19. In this lesson, students are reading a NASA press release for the first time.

Here’s the original text, without text engineering. 

As you can see, the text is complex for many reasons. 

  • Students may not be familiar with what a press release is, and the formal language used in a press release. 
  • Students may not have a strong grasp on knowledge from the unit so far, making it hard for them to understand key ideas from the press release. 
  • Students may not have a strong understanding of domain-specific vocabulary. 

Below is our engineering of the beginning of the text. We have completed a meta-analysis of the purpose of each addition in the engineered version of the full press release

3. How can I engineer my own texts? 

In this example, because the text is short, we were able to create a PDF of the engineered version of the text to share on Google Classroom (or another LMS). We know that won’t always be the case, especially if students are reading a novel. In that case, you can engineer a text by annotating a text by hand and sharing images of your annotations, or retyping sections of a text that you think will be particularly challenging. If students don’t have access to the internet, we recommend engineering texts and then sending them home as packets. 

Once you’ve decided how you will engineer the text, think about the demands of the text and the task, then add in supports. As noted above, potential supports include: 

  • Adding pre-reading questions 
  • Providing genre tips
  • Defining vocabulary
  • Explaining key background knowledge
  • Adding illustrations and videos
  • Adding headings 
  • Including stop and jot questions

Including these supports will help ensure that all students, especially English Learners, can access texts on their own while learning remotely.


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.

Maggie Roth is the ELA Curriculum Director for grades K-5. Ms. Roth comes from Match Community Day School, where she taught second grade for five years. She also served as a grade-level lead and an instructional coach for the Sposato Graduate School of Education. Before that, Ms. Roth taught first grade in Brooklyn with Uncommon Schools for three years. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Amherst College and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University. 

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