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Mass Literacy

Engaging with Complex Text: Responding to Text

Supporting students to respond to text through speaking and writing has multiple benefits, including promoting deeper understanding of the text. In addition, students develop language when they have the opportunity to use language. All students need structured opportunities for expressive language use (speaking and writing) that is grounded in meaningful, authentic text every day. Talking about the text is an important avenue to developing comprehension and language.

After reading a text or set of related texts, students should engage in written response tasks that draw upon knowledge and language from the text(s). Writing in response to reading supports development of knowledge, academic language, comprehension, and writing. Students need explicit instruction and practice in writing in response to text in Grades preK–3.

Writing to Develop Comprehension

Responding to text in writing has been shown to support comprehension, for both students in general and students who are weaker readers or writers in particular. This applies across expository and narrative texts as well as in content areas such as science and social studies (Graham & Hebert, 2011).

"With young children, scaffolding their ideas toward constructing meaning is important" (Beck & McKeown, 2001). Students' comprehension of texts is improved when they write about what they read, specifically when they write:

  • personal reactions
  • summaries of a text
  • answers to questions about a text
  • their own questions about a text (Graham & Hebert, 2011).

Culturally Responsive Practice and Responding to Text

One element of culturally responsive practice is promoting critical consciousness (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Beyond simply "understanding" a text, critical reading involves noticing, discussing, and critiquing issues such as power and privilege as they are reflected in a text. Gholdy Muhammad discusses the concept of "the urgency of your pen" in response to such issues and to engage students in meaningful and informed writing (2020). Even young children can critically examine texts and topics through the lens of social justice. For instance, teachers can ask young children whether a shared story reflects their experience and what is the same or different. Children in grades 2 or 3 can begin to examine issues such as fairness and justice in texts and to make relevant connections to their own lives and experiences. The following resources provide examples and vignettes focused on developing critical literacy:

Connecting Reading and Writing in the Curriculum

Writing standards 1, 2, 3, and 7 and Reading standard 1 from the 2017 Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts and Literacy connect reading and writing. To meet these standards, students write using evidence from what they have read in a variety of tasks, over short (single-session) and longer (multiple sessions and drafts) time periods. In the classroom, writing about complex text may be accomplished through tasks such as:

  • Writing an opinion piece that offers an opinion about a historical figure being studied in the ELA/Literacy unit and reasons supporting that opinion (grade 1)
  • Conducting a brief research project and writing an informational text related to the topic being studied in ELA/Literacy (grade 3)

Resources for Responding to Text

Leveraging Linguistic Assets for Multilingual Learners

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).

English learners benefit from opportunities to talk about the text in their home language before engaging in English-only activities related to text comprehension (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2012; Goldenberg, 2008). This could be structured as a pair share or small group discussion.

Supports for English Learners
  • Schedule regular peer-assisted learning opportunities (Gersten et al., 2007 ) when working with complex text
  • Give sufficient processing time
  • Use text sets to support vocabulary development and build background knowledge (Lesaux et. al., 2016)
  • Provide sentence frames/starters when students need them (Kim et al., 2011)
  • Scaffold activities from oral language to writing responses (Kim et al., 2011).
For More Information

Some helpful questions to consider when planning instruction around response to complex text

  • Does the lesson use high-quality, culturally relevant, complex texts and text sets that are rich in academic language and promote critical thinking?
  • Does instruction give all students equitable access to grade-level texts, tasks, and experiences as well as the supports they need to meet high expectations?
  • How are students encouraged to notice, discuss, and critique texts and topics through a sociopolitical lens to help advance student thinking and actions about issues of identity, equity, power, or oppression?

Sources of Information for Educators: Responding to Text

Genesee, F., & Lindholm-Leary, K. (2012). The education of English language learners. In K. Harris, S. Graham, & T. Urdan (Eds), APA Handbook of Educational Psychology. Washington DC: APA Books.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners: What the research does — and does not — say. American Educator, 32, 8-23, 42-44.)

Kim, J., Olson, C. B., Scarcella, R., Kramer, J., Pearson, M., van Dyk, D., . . . Land, R. (2011). A randomized experiment of a cognitive strategies approach to text-based analytical writing for mainstreamed Latino English language learners in grades 6 to 12. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 4(3), 231–263. doi:10.1080/19345747.20 10.523513

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

Lesaux, N., Galloway, E., & Marietta, S. (2016). Teaching advanced literacy skills: A guide for leaders in linguistically diverse schools. New York: Guilford Press.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. New York: Scholastic.

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Last Updated: September 7, 2022

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