The “text sets” approach to balanced literacy instruction

A range of readings, selected with purpose, can help to provide students with the literacy experience they need.

If…

  1. Fake reading is a problem, and
  2. Students need independent and shared texts, but
  3. Novels are not the easy answer, then…

How do we organize our literacy instruction?

Working backwards from the goals of volume, range, and complexity for students’ reading, this post describes the mental model that has shaped my planning over the past few months.

I’ll call it the text sets approach.

Text sets include 1-3 shared, short texts.  These are for scaffolded reading lessons. The class can read these in their entirety, together during class time. They offer value in their content, craft, and conventions.  Many students in the class would struggle to carefully analyze these texts independently. With the right instruction, though, students succeed in reading these texts in the classroom setting.

Text sets include other short pieces that can be read in one sitting.  These may be articles, essays, short stories, poems, infographics, picture books, excerpts from longer works.  While also challenging for students to read independently, this range of texts offers students and teachers options. These are likely thematically connected to the shared texts, yet varied in their genre, topic, and complexity. So, they offer teachers a means for differentiating collaborative learning, or simply mixing up the perspectives that students draw from during class discussions.

Text sets include thematically related novels.  This portion could also include full-length nonfiction books or plays that students can read independently.  Every student may have their own, unique selection here or students may select the same book as other students and read in groups.  I restrict the amount of “work” that students do with this reading. These selections are reading for it’s own sake and maybe a chance for students to explore our unit themes and skills at their own pace.  This year, students are writing literacy letters as they read these books.

Text sets are based on big questions. An essential piece of these units is a list of authentic questions that students want to answer. These are problems that students want to solve and things they want to discover about life and the world.

An example of the text-set approach:

The shared texts were engaging.  Students read* “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson and “The Unwilling Witness” by Abdulrazzaq Al-Saiedi.  “The Lottery” is a classic story about a town with a shocking, grimm tradition, while “The Unwilling Witness” is about an Iraqi-American reporter who joins in on the desecration of American security guards in order to protect his life while reporting in Fallujah.

The questions were simple and approachable.  Throughout the unit, students discussed these questions, which build on each other, are easy to understand, yet open up into many deep, nuanced sub-questions:

  • What shapes us?
  • Should we follow?
  • Why stand up?

The independent reading choices were diverse, personalized, and plentiful.  Students spent a day in the library browsing five “streets” of independent reading books displayed on tops of the book shelves. The books were organized by genre and had thematic connections to our unit texts and questions.  Students selected a book from this display (or another that they wanted to read) and exchanged literacy letters with me and their classmates.

Students browse the book selections compiled by awesome HHS colleagues Amy, Courtney, Julie, and Kristin.

 

The assessment was challenging but authentic.  After reading both unit texts, writing about the essential questions, and discussing them in small groups, students held fishbowl discussions about the essential questions and how they related to the texts.  We practiced PVLEGS.  Some students drifted from the topics and texts.  Many students who were visibly nervous pushed themselves to participate anyway.

Students reflected on their performance in short videos using Recap, which is probably the only tech tool I use besides the Google stuff now.

Why make the shared text a short one?

Well, it seems that in the quest to get kids both better at reading and committed to lifelong reading, teachers must pick their battles. Many teachers would love to plop a classic novel down on the desk of students 4-6 times a year, ask them to read it in a month, and slog through each chapter, quizzing and discussing and then writing a paper at the end of all that. But, generally, that makes students worse readers and disengaged readers.

By making the shared text a short one, it opens up the opportunity for students to do more reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking.  The class is less centered around getting through the novel, and more about a range of literacy experiences that let students grapple with the unit questions.

Educators often swing the pendulum too far

Balance.

Baaaalance.

BALANCE!

This is the word that stands at the center of a reading and writing curriculum designed in the best interest of students.

Yes, students benefit from reading, discussing, and writing about shared texts. But, those benefits diminish if the students don’t actually read the shared texts or if the experience kills their love of reading.

Yes, students need to read independently, both for pleasure and to build their knowledge of interesting themes and topics.

Yes, I would argue that we are missing out on a big opportunity if we put independent reading in a vacuum and never integrate it with the rest of our courses.

And yes, I may eventually decide that it’s time to scrap this system and start over with something new.

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