Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom that provides in-depth reviews of several promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.
The shift to the Common Core State Standards has ushered in a renewed focus on effective instructional techniques for reading instruction. As Common Core’s reading standards state, “To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts.” In this vein, teachers are seeking how best to engage their students in text analysis, ways to develop and utilize text-dependent questions and methods for integrating more complex texts, and for other effective strategies to strengthen students’ reading comprehension.
One promising instructional strategy, developed based on reading-comprehension research showing the importance of background knowledge and vocabulary, is text sets. Text sets are collections of texts tightly focused on a specific topic. They may include varied genres (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and so forth) and media (such as blogs, maps, photographs, art, primary-source documents, and audio recordings).
Text sets can be organized in many different ways. Although all high-quality text sets are designed to build knowledge of an academic topic, some are arranged as series of texts (and other media) that become progressively more advanced, while others have a central or “anchor” text with supplementary texts that support the themes and content of the central text. No matter the organization, effective text sets are usually presented in a specific order with attention to text complexity, vocabulary development, content knowledge, and conceptual understanding. In other words, “the focus of study becomes concepts rather than the content of one particular book. Students gain both a broad perspective and an in-depth sense of the subject matter from reading many texts on the same topic.”
Research has shown the use of conceptually coherent text sets to be effective in building knowledge and vocabulary, as well as preparing students for new texts on the same topic. Both broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are essential for reading comprehension. In turn, background knowledge allows readers to make inferences, which aids in comprehension, thinking, and memory. Studies have also shown that prior knowledge of a topic has a greater impact on reading comprehension than generalized reading ability. As educators, we must recognize the power of prior knowledge!
One drawback is that it takes considerable time and effort to plan an effective text set. Teachers must consider text complexity, vocabulary, and content knowledge in the context of a specific set of students. Though there are many books and articles available that walk through the process of planning text sets, it is often difficult for teachers to find the time to engage in this process. Luckily, there are websites out there that can help.
Newsela, Readworks, and Achieve the Core all have online text-set resources for educators. Over the next few weeks, I will review each of these text-set tools, their usability and organization, and overall strengths and weaknesses.
Shannon Garrison is a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher in California with two decades of teaching experience. She holds a National Board Certification, serves on the National Assessment Governing Board, and was also recently selected as a Los Angeles County Teacher of the Year.