Helping More Students Access Challenging Texts

Helping More Students Access Challenging Texts

Sheila Valencia—a language, literacy, and culture professor at the University of Washington, Seattle—is right. 

In a post for the teacher resource site Edutopia, Valencia made this point: “Many reports and research studies have documented the adolescent reading challenge—too many students are unable to learn and build new knowledge from the texts used in their subject matter classrooms.” Not only is Valencia correct in her assertion that this challenge is well documented, a variety of sources support her statement that students are often unable to adequately glean meaning from the texts they encounter in middle and high school. 

Valencia further discussed the struggles that confront students faced with what she described as “dense, unfamiliar texts” during a short 2016 interview produced by the University of Washington, in which she noted that some teachers have become accustomed to offering workarounds for difficult texts. Ultimately, students have mirrored this approach by avoiding working directly with complex reading material—a tactic that Valencia argued will lead to a problem of equity because “textbooks remain the principal source of assigned reading in most content classrooms and in college.” After all, if students don’t learn how to successfully navigate textbooks in high school, when will they?

Preparing for the knowledge economy

This phenomenon is part of a broader issue in reading instruction—namely, the question of how best to prepare students for the knowledge economy. A blog post about academic rigor published on the All About Adolescent Literacy website described the situation thusly: “America’s economic and social well-being is increasingly dependent upon the capacity of our public education system to prepare all students for college and high-performance careers.” To that end, students should be given access to rigorous coursework built around challenging reading assignments in the K-12 system—and therein lies the rub. Although today's students increasingly require substantial literacy skills if they are to do well during and after high school, they may not receive the support and direct instruction to ensure their skills are sufficient. 

As Valencia noted, this is an equity issue, with students from more marginalized communities—including learners with disabilities—often particularly unprepared to tackle complex coursework. Moreover, the fact that those who need remedial reading instruction or have been diagnosed with learning disabilities are less likely to graduate from high school and college means it is even more important for these individuals to boost their skills while still in school. 

It seems that skill deficits are often connected to the kinds of text analysis and critical thinking exercises required in more rigorous courses, with a 2017 blog post published by California-based education nonprofit WestEd contending that many high school students go on to college lacking the ability to “critically analyze texts and to write using evidence-based arguments.” These students then tend to be sorted into “non-credit-bearing remediation courses,” a track that leads many to drop out of college altogether. Again, with the demands of the knowledge economy beckoning, this potential loss of brain power seems significant.

Navigating Complex Text: What Students Need to Know and What to Teach

Closing the gap

Fortunately, Valencia and others have developed specific ways to address the literacy skills gap. In the aforementioned 2016 interview, Valencia described going into high-poverty, high-need schools as a researcher working to establish AP classes that would challenge and engage students. Once these courses were launched, Valencia and her colleagues worked with teachers to make text-based assignments more accessible. One method, termed "framing" by Valencia, involved having teachers provide students with very clear parameters for decoding, processing, and then utilizing complex texts. Describing this approach in greater detail in her 2014 Edutopia blog post, Valencia pointed out that many students “need to learn how to learn from complex subject-matter texts” before they can fully understand the work at hand.

This is especially true for students who lack strong reading skills to begin with, and—according to a white paper prepared by Mississippi State University researcher Devon Brenner—tend to feel disconnected from school because they lack the strategies necessary to either comprehend or draw conclusions from texts. Despite these challenges, Brenner pointed out that these students still need access to content that hasn’t been “watered down,” as mastering higher-level work remains a key aspect of college and career readiness. Indeed, before providing strategies for educators eager to help struggling readers succeed, Brenner cautioned that “there is no cookie-cutter answer to the dilemma of content area students with low literacy achievement,” although a good first step would involve understanding students’ various strengths and weaknesses in order to differentiate instruction. Brenner went on to advocate for the use of adaptive and strategic scaffolding through online programs, explaining that this can provide direct, explicit, and user-specific supports by guiding students through the acquisition of complex reading tasks such as synthesis and summarization.

While these scaffolding programs can be undertaken in a traditional classroom setting, Brenner opined that the online option can offer additional flexibility and individualized instruction, thereby boosting the skills of students who require the higher-level content being explored by their more proficient peers but also need to learn how to learn. Indeed, Brenner’s work offers a detailed look at specific literacy strategies that can help students, such as “using text features and visual cues” and making inferences as opposed to solely drawing upon literal interpretations. The goal is to make rigorous, content-based courses as accessible as possible to a wide variety of students. According to Valencia, teachers are “incredibly supportive” of this effort, working in tandem to help students “experience success” while navigating their way through challenging classes and texts.

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