"Access to high-quality literacy instruction is an equity issue because research shows that children who are growing up in poverty often do not have the same access to high-quality literacy instruction as their more economically-advantaged peers. Reading and being able to read well, sets the foundation for all that we do in life. It's important that everyone be able to get that good start."
Assistant Professor of Education
Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University
All students should engage with complex text regularly by reading or listening. All students, regardless of grade or current reading ability, deserve access to rich, engaging, inclusive, and authentic literature every day in school. In the younger grades, this happens primarily through read-alouds. As children progress through the grades, they increasingly read grade-level complex text on their own, although read-aloud remains beneficial. Engagement with this type of text is critical to reading development and identity development as it provides access to complex language, ideas, and a range of perspectives. Importantly, engaging with complex text is not leveled instruction. During a complex text lesson, instruction may be scaffolded while the text at the center of instruction is at or above grade level.
Text complexity is defined by a range of qualitative and quantitative features, and depends on the reader and task for which it is selected (see DESE Quick Reference Guide: Text Complexity and the Growth of Reading Comprehension ). Complex text offers opportunities to develop academic language and acquire knowledge about the world, both of which contribute to development of reading comprehension (Shanahan et al., 2010 ). The Massachusetts 2017 English Language Arts and Literacy Framework places "equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read. Standard 10 defines a grade-by-grade 'staircase' of increasing text complexity that rises from beginning reading to the college and career readiness level" (page 12).
Not every text selected for instruction needs to be complex, but easier texts should be purposefully selected with the goal of scaffolding students' access to increasingly complex related texts.
When working with a complex text, the ultimate teaching goal is for students to understand the text, not to "practice" a particular strategy or a standard. Thus, the choice of text is not incidental but the center of the lesson.
Selecting texts to read and topics to study in early literacy is a particularly salient opportunity to be culturally responsive, Texts should provide "mirrors and windows" for children; allowing students both to see themselves (characters and communities that are familiar) and to see and learn about others in the texts they read (Bishop, 1990). Characters, settings, and authors should be diverse as well as reflective of students' community (Kelly et al., 2021). In selecting texts, it is important to go beyond superficial representation and to carefully avoid common biases in curricular materials, such as stereotypes (Zittleman & Sadker, 2002).
In contrast to biased curricular materials, Tatum (2009) describes qualities of "enabling texts" that positively support students' development of identity and capacity. For instance, these texts:
With such "enabling texts" in place, teachers can select or adapt text-based questions to open up conversations about socio-political awareness. These conversations can serve to challenge existing narratives and support students to discuss their thoughts on injustices surfaced from text. Critical wonderings about whose voice is included in the text, whose is not, the perspective of the author, and the way and the context in which the text is written can help students examine and interpret the text, and its underlying messages, more deeply and meaningfully.
To provide coherent sets of texts and tasks that meet the demands of the standards, and to meet the unique needs of all students, teachers must have access to high-quality curriculum materials from which to plan. The CURATE project provides information about published curricular materials and resources for high-quality curricular materials.
Engaging with complex text is an important classroom activity to build vocabulary and knowledge, both of which are essential for development of reading comprehension. Development of vocabulary and knowledge begins at birth and must be supported from the earliest days of formal schooling. Vocabulary knowledge is intimately linked to conceptual knowledge. "Big ideas and complex questions cannot be separated from the language used to represent them…A reader's comprehension of a story depends greatly upon the knowledge and language she brings to the experience" (Lesaux & Russ Harris, 2015). All students bring their own "funds of knowledge" (Moll & González, 1994) to the classroom, impacting how and what they take away from a word, text, or discussion.
Using texts in related sets is a widely recognized strategy to build students' topical and conceptual knowledge. Not every text selected for instruction needs to be complex, but easier texts should be purposefully selected with the goal of scaffolding students' access to increasingly complex related texts. As Adams (2010) explained, students should read a sequence of increasingly complex texts "so that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge needed for the next. Gradually, students will be ready for texts of greater complexity" (Adams, 2010). Teachers select key concepts and vocabulary from text sets and provide explicit instruction on those words, along with authentic practice through discussion and writing. Activating background knowledge related to the text topics and building upon that knowledge to increase it through daily instruction are practices that enhance reading comprehension over time (Cabell & Hwang, 2020). Connecting topics from the school curriculum to student's everyday lives also supports deeper engagement and relevance for students (Institute for Education Science, Regional Education Laboratory Program, 2017).
Explicit vocabulary instruction often occurs at the beginning of a lesson, before reading the text. Selecting high-value words to teach that recur throughout a topic or text set is an effective approach for vocabulary development (Lesaux & Russ Harris, 2015).
In addition to explicit vocabulary teaching, implicit vocabulary learning occurs when children hear, use, and interact with words in their reading and discussion of texts and topics. Extensive opportunities for discussion of complex text are critical to language development and are particularly supportive of multilingual learners (Baker et al., 2014).
English learners must have equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in all literacy instruction. The WIDA Can Do Descriptors and 2020 ELD Standards Framework highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development and help educators plan for instruction that fosters high expectations and equity of access for ELs. For additional information, see this set of Five Instructional Practices and Instructional Strategies for Centering MLLs in Early Literacy Instruction (Instruction Partners).
When building vocabulary and knowledge as part of engaging with complex text, English Learners may need instruction in what are often referred to as Tier 1 words (words that native speakers tend to pick up from oral language experience alone). Also, if a student understands a concept and has a word for that concept in their native language, then the student only needs to learn the English word and recognize it as a synonym. However, if the student doesn't yet have the concept in question, then vocabulary instruction needs to be more thorough (Carlo et. al., 2004).
Comprehension strategies are "intentional mental actions during reading that improve reading comprehension" (Shanahan et al., 2010 , page 11). Some of the most commonly taught reading comprehension strategies include self-monitoring, questioning, inferring, and visualizing. Research has shown that readers with good comprehension do use these strategies, especially self-monitoring and inferring (Willingham, 2006 ; Oakhill, Cain, & Elbro, 2015).
Reading strategies are not the same as reading comprehension. "Rather," writes cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, they are "a bag of tricks that can indirectly improve comprehension. These tricks are easy to learn and require little practice, but students must be able to decode fluently before these strategies can be effective" (Willingham, 2006 ).
Comprehension strategies should be understood as a means to an end. They are not the purpose of reading, but rather a tool to understand the meaning of the text. A recent meta-study (Elleman, 2017) found that most studies of comprehension strategy teaching showed positive results in relatively short periods of time (i.e., less than 10 hours of instruction). Students can learn these strategies through relatively brief instruction and then proceed to apply these strategies when working with complex text.
Evidence from classroom studies suggests that students benefit most from strategy instruction when they are able to read meaningful texts independently and fluently. For many children, this stage is achieved around second grade. Evidence does not strongly indicate that explicit comprehension strategy instruction aids comprehension below second grade (Elleman, 2017, Willingham, 2006 ).
Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Bishop, R. (1990). "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors." Ohio State University. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).
Brown, R., Pressley, M., Van Meter, P., & Schuder, T. (1995). A quasi-experimental validation of transactional strategies instruction with previously low-achieving, second-grade readers (Reading Research Report no. 33). Athens, GA: National Reading Research Center.
Cabell, S.Q., & Hwang, H. (2020). Building Content Knowledge to Boost Comprehension in the Primary Grades. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S99–S107.
Carlo, M. S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C. E., Dressler, C., Lippman, D., . . . White, C. E. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabulary needs for English language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(2), 188-215. doi:10.1598/RRQ.39.2.3
Coomer, M. N., Skelton, S. M., Kyser, T. S. (2017). Assessing Bias in Standards and Curricular Materials. Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center.
Kelly, L.B, Wakefield, W, Caires-Hurley, J., Kganetso, L. W., Moses, L., Baca, E. (2021). What is culturally informed literacy instruction? A review of research in P-5 contexts. Journal of Literacy Research.
Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Faller, S. E., & Kelley, J. G. (2010). The effectiveness and ease of implementation of an academic vocabulary intervention for linguistically diverse students in urban middle schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 196-228. doi:10.1598/ RRQ.45.2.3
Lesaux, N. and Russ Harris, J. (2015). Cultivating knowledge, building language. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Moll, L. C., & González, N. (1994). Lessons from research with language-minority children. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26(4), 439–456.
Oakhill, J., Cain, K., and Elbro, C. (2015). Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook. London: Routledge.
Tatum, Alfred. (2009). Reading for their life: (re)building the textual lineages of African American adolescent males. Heinemann.
**Disclosure Statement: Reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public, and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Our office is not responsible for and does not in any way guarantee the accuracy of information in other sites accessible through links herein. DESE may supplement this list with other services and products that meet the specified criteria. For more information contact: RMB252@mass.gov.
Last Updated: September 12, 2022
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
75 Pleasant Street, Malden, MA 02148-4906
Voice: (781) 338-3000
TTY: (800) 439-2370
Disclaimer: A reference in this website to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public and does not constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.