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Grappling with Complex Informational Text

Students in Andrew Hossack's fifth-grade class at Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, NY, use close reading strategies to determine the main idea and important details from a newspaper article about the Seneca people.

In this video, students and teachers are engaged with EL Education's grades 3-8 ELA curriculum. This video accompanies the book Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters.


- [Teacher] Cambridge, would you mind reading our first learning target today?

- [Cambridge] I can get the gist and determine the main idea in a newspaper article about

- [Narrator] The text I chose for today’s class was an article from the Buffalo News about a Seneca school called Faithkeepers that teachers a lot about Seneca language and culture.

- [Teacher] Look like some of the important words in there. What’s an important word in this learning target? Go ahead, Julian.

- [Julian] The Seneca.

- [Teacher] The Seneca.

- [Narrator] Right now the fifth graders are studying the idea of culture through various case studies. Mainly, they’re focusing on indigenous Native American peoples of Western New York.

- [Teacher] What’s another important word that we’re looking at, Mr. Suppra?

- [Suppa] Main idea.

- [Teacher] Main idea? What is that big idea that’s really important to the author?

- [Narrator] In an assessment that I give my students recently, I would notice that they weren’t picking out really important details, especially as they relate to the main idea. So this lesson was really designed to help kids to see the connection between important details and main idea.

- [Teacher] What’s another important word that we’re looking at? Christian?

- [Christian] Gist.

- [Teacher] Gist. What is the gist? I’m asking you to jot the gist in the margin. What are you writing about?

- [Christian] The important parts of the story or article.

- [Teacher] Yeah. Well, what it’s about, right? Today we’re going to be starting a close read of a brand new text. I want you to think about all the close reading we’ve done before.

- [Narrator] We do a close reading process in my classroom and it’s often a multi-process and the first time kids read, they’re reading just to get the flow of the text from the beginning to the end. And this is sort of a low stake’s moment in reading.

- [Teacher] And I want you to just to read for the flow, all right? Show some perservance.

- [Narrator] The second time they go back to the text, they’re annotating it in several different ways in order to help them understand it.

- [Teacher] Circling important words and jotting the gist in the margins. If you’re having a hard time and this text feels really difficult to you, what is something you can do as a reader to help you to get through it and to make it a little more manageable?

- [Student] Get the gist in baby steps.

- [Teacher] Get the gist in baby steps, take bite size sections, little paragraphs, right? Do I understand this paragraph, do I understand this paragraph, and go through section by section.

- [Student] I started reading article by reading the whole thing just for the flow.

- [Narrator] I used to do a lot more scaffolding and pre-reading activities before I let kids have a turn with the text. Something I noticed about my students is that now that they’re used to reading a text on their own for the first time and trying it out, they’ve shown a lot more perservance.

- [Student] And then I read it again, underlined all the important parts, like traditional, school, and some of the names.

- [Narrator] Choosing a text is always a really important process for me in teaching something like this. I was really looking for something that was an authentic text, something from a primary source, like a newspaper article, something within what they were studying, so that that had a real purpose for them in reading it. And it’s something that was complex, something that pushed them, something that taught them new vocabulary, new academic vocabulary.

- [Student] After every section I read, I wrote the gist down, and I went back in the paragraph to see if I was right, and then I went to the next one.

- [Narrator] I gave my whole class the same complex text, and one reason for this is that we’ve found differentiation is less about text complexity and more about the amount of text the student has to work with. For some students, they’re able to differentiate for themselves by chunking the text into smaller pieces.

- [Student] I’m going the gist for two paragraphs at a time. Lehman Dowdy and his wife, Sandy, started the Seneca Faithkeepers.

- [Narrator] For other students, we actually break the text up for them, so they only see a smaller amount of text at a time and don’t become overwhelmed by the idea of what they’re about to read.

- [Teacher] So look back at the title. Look at some of those important details you underlined. Look at the gist you wrote. I want you to jot your idea for this. What do you think the main idea of this article is? And then in about two minutes, we’re going to transition ourselves over to the carpet area to continue the second half of our lesson. We’ve read about it, we thought about it, we wrote about it, now we have a chance to

- [Students] Talk about it.

- [Teacher] Talk about it. Jada, do you mind reading our second learning target for today?

- [Jada] I can explain the connection between details and the main idea in an article about the Seneca people.

- [Teacher] You’re going to choose one person near you and you’re talking about what do you think the main idea of this article is. And then what is one thing in the article, one little sentence, to help you come up with that main idea.

- [Narrator] So in the activity today, I really wanted the students to build the connection between important details and the main idea.

- [Narrator] So I chose the details I wanted them to work with and hung them on charts around the classroom. And the students moved around in groups with Post-it notes, read the detail, and had to make a case for whether or not that detail was important and connect it to the main idea. Working with complex text can be really challenging and these kids are 10 years old, so they get really antsy. So I try to design my lessons in ways that give them time to get up and move around the room.

- [Student] Right.

- [Narrator] I try to get kids talking to each other about text as much as possible and allows them to understand parts of text that maybe they didn’t understand on their own, but can get from up here.

- [Teacher] I want to debrief with this question. What detail did you think was important? How did it connect to the main idea?

- [Student] The one about the children learning about traditional songs

- [Ghostly Voice] One of the details I thought was important on the wall was that some of the traditions are like for the Seneca people are like singing and dancing.

- [Student] I thought that was an important detail because it like tells you the tradition.

- [Narrator] I use a close reading process because it gives the kids predictability and how they approach a text and they’ve shown themselves to be much more willing to deal with the challenge.

- [Teacher] All right, let’s do one more. Let’s do one more. What the detail, Mr. Suppa?

- [Suppa] I mean, attending the school is a major commitment.

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