Supporting ALL Students with Complex Texts: Part One

Question 1: As much as I believe in it, I'm struggling with the reality that we are supposed to have all students working with complex text in the classroom. How do I do this? Why not differentiate by text?a. How can I use complex texts with students with disabilities?b. How does read-aloud fit here?

Thoughts: Certainly, appropriately complex grade-level text should not be the only reading in which students are engaged throughout the school day. Think about the kinds of texts students read as making up a well- balanced reading diet. Complex texts are one essential nutrient of that balanced diet.  Complex text exposes students to rich vocabulary as well as sophisticated syntax and text structures. Students will read other types of texts for other purposes to build a well-balanced diet. Be thoughtful about the selection of complex texts to include in students' reading diets.  Short excerpts could be more appropriate than lengthy novels or articles.

Scaffolding: For some students to access complex texts, teachers will need to consider scaffolding.   One appropriate scaffold is the use of teacher read-alouds.  When teachers provide a read-aloud experience, the students will possess a copy of the text and follow along with the teacher as he/she reads aloud.  This will provide an opportunity for students to engage in analysis of complex text beyond what they may be able to access on their own. Additionally, the use of choral reading, echo reading, and partner reading can also be useful scaffolds.  Once familiar with the text, the use of text-dependent questions, collaborative conversations and repeated readings can also scaffold students so they can deepen their understanding. Multiple readings, with a clearly defined purpose for each reading, through teacher and/or peer support, can also build students' fluency. 

Purposeful Selection: For secondary teachers, the question often relates to novel selection.  Understanding what parts of a novel may present a challenge and which may not, is a good place to begin. For example, as a 790L, much of the narrative of To Kill a Mockingbird is really quite accessible to secondary students, but there may be certain passages, such as those with a great deal of dialogue or when the omniscient narrator interjects, that may present greater challenge. Planning instruction to support the more challenging sections by reading aloud, or concentrating close reading practices, may help to make the text more accessible overall.Using a paired text, such as an article on Jim Crow Laws tied with To Kill a Mockingbird, could provide students with important background information that would make understanding more comprehensible. 

Text Sets: A useful strategy to consider is the development of gradated text sets around particular topics and/or themes. Text sets contain a variety of materials (books, articles, online resources, videos, photographs, illustrations, etc.) that all build knowledge of the topic or understanding of the theme. Texts include a range of readability levels but are usually connected to one or two appropriately complex pieces of text (anchor texts) which all students will experience. The rest of the texts in the set may be used by students as independent, shared or small group reads to build vocabulary and knowledge. Student Achievement Partners has worked with educators to create a bank of text sets for grade K-8.


  • Text Project: This site, developed by Dr. Elfrieda Heibert, contains a variety of resources related to text complexity and ways of supporting students in accessing text, including a section that focuses on use of read alouds. 
  • Read Aloud Project: Student Achievement Partners has worked with educators across the United States to develop a bank of appropriately complex texts for reading aloud at the K-2 level that include lessons. 
  • Colorin' Colorado: This site provides resources that support English Learners in achieving the Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy.  Materials related to  reading aloud and accessing language are included. 
  • Bridges Units: The International Literacy Association has developed units of study that include text sets to build student knowledge and vocabulary.  These can be accessed by ILA members. 
  • Louisiana Department of Education's Text Sets: The Louisiana Department of Education has developed units of study for K-12 that contain text sets.   
  • Engage NY: The Engage NY site features a guide for scaffolding instruction with English Learners.  
  • Teaching Tolerance: This site contains resources that support building knowledge across a variety of tolerance related topics.  Many of the resources can be coupled with other texts to build students' understanding and vocabulary.  

Question 2: I feel like I'm getting a hang of supporting my students with close reading of complex texts. But how does this all connect to writing?


  • Close reading complex text provides students with opportunity to build deep understanding of the content.  Possessing solid understanding of content is critical to being able to communicate effectively through writing.  As Joey Hawkins, a founding member of the Vermont Writing Collaborative, explains, "Students need to know what they are talking about when they write.  Writing can be thought of as construction and communication of meaning about content that matters. Whether the content is personal or academic, writing is a powerful, synthesizing experience that allows, even forces, the thinker/writer to make connections among ideas, to sort and develop and to finally create a coherent chunk of meaning out of a body of ideas and/or experiences" (Hawkins, 2006).
  • Investing time working with complex text enables students to build knowledge of topics and to connect that understanding across texts.  Having had this support, students are better able to communicate clear understanding of content when they write.  Additionally, students are able to support arguments with text-based evidence, a key ability underscored by the Common Core State Standards.
  • Additionally, encouraging students to analyze complex text provides them with opportunities to study sophisticated writing models.   As Graham and Perin (2007) note in Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools, "Students are encouraged to analyze examples and to emulate the critical elements, patterns and forms embodied in the models in their own writing" (Graham and Perin, 2007). Use of complex text models, often referred to as mentor texts, can support achievement of the CCSS for writing. The writing standards emphasize attention to task, purpose and audience as well as application of revision and editing to improve writing. The close reading inherent in the use of mentor texts enables readers to critically analyze the author's intended meaning which provides opportunity to study the "writing moves" the author has made to communicate his/her message (i.e. word choice, sentence structures, use of literary devices, description that shows rather than tells, etc.). The use of mentor texts should also be coupled with other high quality instructional practices, such as teachers modeling application of the techniques discovered in the mentor texts to other pieces of writing and providing students with guided practice in applying the strategies to their own writing.    


  • Writing for Understanding Sequences: The Vermont Writing Collaborative has vetted a collection of content-based reading and writing tasks aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  The lesson sequences were created by educators, are available in grades K-12 and integrate with a variety of subject areas including science, social studies and math. 
  • In Common: In Common provides a range of examples of Common Core-aligned student work, drawn directly from K-12 classrooms across the country.
  • Common Ground Protocols: The Common Ground Protocols offer a set of activities to guide teams of educators in looking closely at student work. The Protocols can be used with the student samples from In Common, or with other sets or samples of student work.
  • Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High School: The Carnegie Corporation produced this report that outlines writing instruction strategies with strong evidence of effectiveness. 
  • Great Schools Visualizers: Writing Milestones: This series of short 1-3 minute videos, produced for parents (but also helpful for teachers) provides a snapshot of what Common Core Writing might look like in the elementary classroom.
  • BAP Writing Tasks: This link connects to short instructional sequences aligned with selections and Close Reading Guides from the Basal Alignment project.
  • EngageNY Curriculum-Grade 5: This link connects to an example of an elementary unit (grade 5) that integrates writing instruction with reading and content.
  • EngageNY Curriculum-Grade 7: This link connects to an example of a middle school unit (grade 7) that integrates writing instruction withreading and content.

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