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Mass Literacy

Engaging with Complex Text: Reading for Understanding

Every Student, Every Day

Every day, all students should read or listen to a shared text and participate in teacher-facilitated, text-based discussion. The teacher may provide explicit instruction on some aspect of the text (e.g., structure) or model a comprehension strategy before and/or while reading. The teacher uses text-dependent or text-specific questions and discussion to monitor and promote student understanding of the text. These text-dependent questions move from literal to deeper, more inferential comprehension.

Some children will have challenges comprehending complex text, whether reading it independently or even when listening to a text read aloud. These children deserve and need to work with complex text regularly, alongside their peers. Teachers can provide targeted scaffolds and accommodations to create access to the text and the discussion.

Tiffany Hogan
"It's critically important that children receive the best possible language and reading instruction right now. Every day that they don't receive appropriate instruction is a day that they aren't able to access text. It's a day that they're falling behind their peers. It's a day that we're robbing them of more knowledge that they could have about their world."
Tiffany P. Hogan
Director of the Speech and Language (SAiL) Literacy Lab
MGH Institute of Health Professions

Active Discussion That Develops Comprehension and Language

Active discussions empower language development while also promoting understanding of the text (Ossa-Parra et al., 2016). "Discussions among students or between the students and the teacher go beyond simply asking and answering surface-level questions to a more thoughtful exploration of the text. Through this type of exploration, students learn how to argue for or against points raised in the discussion, resolve ambiguities in the text, and draw conclusions or inferences about the text" (Shanahan et al., 2010 , page 29).

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 discussions or activities (Genesee & Lindholm-Leary, 2012; Goldenberg, 2008), as a pair-share or small group discussion.

Supports for English Learners
  • Model reading strategies (Duke et al., 2011).
  • Use text sets to help readers build knowledge and make connections (Lesaux et al., 2016)
  • Conduct previewing activities of the text and build background whenever necessary. Literature is often culture bound and English learners benefit from support with background, ideas, vocabulary, idioms, symbolism, and context (Baker et al., 2014 )
  • Identify and explicitly teach new vocabulary words, terms, and/or idioms that may arise while reading (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Carlo et al., 2004)
  • Check for understanding through frequent questioning, moving from literal to deeper, more inferential comprehension (Baker et al., 2014 )
  • For students with limited or interrupted formal education, comprehensive support must include language development, core reading instruction, and targeted interventions (Baker et al., 2014 )
For More Information

Some helpful questions to consider when planning instruction around reading for understanding

  • 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 is student discussion facilitated in whole-group and small groups using text-based questions that move from literal to deeper and more inferential based on grade-level standards?
  • 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: Reading for Understanding

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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

Duke, N. K., Pearson, P. D., Strachan, S. L., & Billman, A., K. (2011). Essential Elements of Fostering and Teaching Reading Comprehension. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels and (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (4th ed., pp. 51–93). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

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.

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

Ossa-Parra, M., Wagner, C., & Proctor, C.P., Leighton, C., Robertson, D., Paratore, J., & Ford-Connors, E. (2016). Dialogic Reasoning: Supporting Emergent Bilingual Students' Language and Literacy Development.

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Last Updated: February 16, 2023

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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.