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The Who, What, and Why of Complex Text

Excerpt from Transformational Literacy

Teachers often face challenges when helping students navigate complex text. Below is a list of common challenges with some advice about how to deal with them.

Choosing the Right Text

It’s okay to be picky. A quality complex text serves multiple purposes: it contributes to students’ knowledge about a compelling topic, it is engaging and rich, and it is at the right complexity level for students. There’s a lot to take into account, and it’s well worth the time to give careful consideration to choosing the right text. If you are going to go deeply into a text—reading it multiple times—it should be a truly worthy text.

Resisting the Urge to Help Students before They Have a Chance to Read Independently

Don’t let students off the hook. They must face challenging reading head‐on. Many of the common techniques teachers have employed for years—modeling thinking for students, defining all of the vocabulary together, and summarizing what students are about to read—run counter to the Common Core instructional shifts in literacy, because they can
have the effect of letting some students off the hook for reading independently. There is plenty of time to support student comprehension after they have had the chance to grapple independently with text. Nevertheless, text doesn’t need to be introduced cold with no framing at all. It is acceptable—even advisable—to provide the context for reading so that students read with a sense of purpose and excitement, as long as it does not mean doing the work of interpreting the text for them. And it is especially important to frame the challenge of making sense of the text so that students feel successful: they should feel proud to be able to make sense of any part of the text, rather than feel like a failure to not be able to understand all of it on a first read.

Download this resource to read the full text and view the table on The Who What and Why of Supporting All Students to Succeed with Complex Texts.


Teachers often face challenges when helping students navigate complex text. Below is a list of common challenges with some advice about how to deal with them.

Choosing the Right Text

It’s okay to be picky. A quality complex text serves multiple purposes: it contributes to students’ knowledge about a compelling topic, it is engaging and rich, and it is at the right complexity level for students. There’s a lot to take into account, and it’s well worth the time to give careful consideration to choosing the right text. If you are going to go deeply into a text—reading it multiple times—it should be a truly worthy text.

Resisting the Urge to Help Students before They Have a Chance to Read Independently

Don’t let students off the hook. They must face challenging reading head‐on. Many of the common techniques teachers have employed for years—modeling thinking for students, defining all of the vocabulary together, and summarizing what students are about to read—run counter to the Common Core instructional shifts in literacy, because they can
have the effect of letting some students off the hook for reading independently. There is plenty of time to support student comprehension after they have had the chance to grapple independently with text. Nevertheless, text doesn’t need to be introduced cold with no framing at all. It is acceptable—even advisable—to provide the context for reading so that students read with a sense of purpose and excitement, as long as it does not mean doing the work of interpreting the text for them. And it is especially important to frame the challenge of making sense of the text so that students feel successful: they should feel proud to be able to make sense of any part of the text, rather than feel like a failure to not be able to understand all of it on a first read.

Download this resource to read the full text and view the table on The Who What and Why of Supporting All Students to Succeed with Complex Texts.


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