Text Selection and Providing Challenges
Although reading is a critical part of learning in all content areas, there are challenges. Often, we use books or other materials that are not challenging for students. It seems there are two extremes: Some students only read books that are too easy for them; others struggle with text that is too difficult. It’s important for students to read a book or an article they can quickly and easily read; those opportunities build self-confidence, provide enjoyable experiences, and may increase student motivation. But if that’s all students read they never learn how to deal with more challenging materials.
Particularly at the upper grades, where we focus on reading to learn, we must help our students become independent learners who can capably handle our complex and changing world. A critical part of that process is teaching students to read and understand increasingly complex materials. This premise is in line with the Common Core’s interdisciplinary focus on extensive reading of rich texts that build a foundation of knowledge across subject areas. Other standards have similar guidelines.
First, to increase learning related to text selection, it is valuable to simply look at whether or not your students are reading texts that challenge them. You’re looking for a balance: Material should be difficult enough that students are learning something new, but not so hard that they give up. If you like to play basketball, you’ll improve if you play against someone who is better than you. But, if you play against the most talented NBA star, you’ll learn less because you are overwhelmed by his advanced skill level. A good benchmark guideline is that for text to be appropriately challenging for growth, students should be able to understand about 75% of what they are reading. That percentage means students understand the majority of the material, while learning something new. One option for increasing text difficulty is to identify where your students are reading and provide text materials that match their level for growth.
Text Selection: Bringing the Challenge to Your Students
As we look at how to incorporate this in your class, let me caution you. Looking at text difficulty should never be a limiting factor for your students. I visited one school where students were never allowed to choose something to read unless it was “within their point range.” That is not what I am recommending. Students always need the opportunity to read texts of their choice. And there are some books that may have a lower score on a readability scale, but the content is more difficult, perhaps due to the concepts described or due to the use of figurative language. However, I am saying that students also need selected opportunities to read material that is appropriately rigorous. Please note the word materials. Particularly with students who are reading substantially above or below their age or grade level, consider informational, nonfiction articles rather than novels. This helps address issues other than just the text difficulty. Remember, we are talking about depth, not length, and we don’t want students to feel like they are being punished.
When I was teaching, I used books that were labeled on grade level, but in reality, they were much easier than what students were expected to read on the state test or in real-life materials. That is often true today, and that is why it is important to use a measure that is consistent across all texts, including standardized tests. No matter which tool you use to determine the difficulty of your text materials, it’s important to remember that text difficulty is only one factor to consider when selecting text for or with your students. Other considerations include the appropriateness of the text for students’ age or developmental levels, the content of the material, and the purpose for reading, such as interest or for research. There are a variety of sources that use leveled texts such as Newsela or Tween Tribune.
Second, it is critical to remember to use your own judgment along with varying measures of text difficulty. Just because a text is recommended at a certain level does not mean that text is the most appropriate one for your students. There are five questions to consider as you select texts.
Considerations for Text Selection
- Is the content of the text pertinent to my standards or objectives?
- Is the content of the text appropriate to the purpose of the assignment (independent reading, research, partner reading, etc.)?
- Is the content of the text appropriate to the age or developmental level of my students?
- Is the content of the text appropriately challenging for growth (not too hard, yet not too easy)?
- Is this the only opportunity my students will be given to read, or are they allowed choices at other times?
A Final Note on Text Selection
As you consider the variety of text materials you use in your classroom, there are two questions to ask. First, is the text at the appropriate level of challenge? Next, is the text suitable for your students when considering other aspects? By reflecting on these questions, you’ll be able to use the best text materials to increase your students’ learning.
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