5 Ways to Make Rigorous Content Motivating to Students

Dr. Natalie Saaris
October 2, 2017

In 2006, ACT published an alarming study that stressed how ill-prepared students were for college-level reading. Nearly half of students lacked the necessary skills and knowledge to understand complex texts, and the ACT recommended that schools incorporate complex texts into every course in order to expose students to the rigorous content they will encounter in college and beyond.

A decade later, not much has changed: most two and four-year colleges enroll a significant number of their students in remedial courses, suggesting that even students who are admitted to college are not prepared to meet the demands of a postsecondary curriculum.

The type of text to which students are exposed in high school has a significant impact on their readiness for college-level reading. Specifically, students need to be able to read complex texts if they are to be ready for college. 

- Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals about College Readiness in Reading

Meanwhile, the rigor of content in most of our schools continues to fall behind the standards of the Common Core. In an analysis of over 1,500 middle-school assignments, the Education Trust found that only 5% of assignments met the criteria for a standards-aligned, rigorous, and motivating curriculum. The demand for leveled texts, which by definition reduce complexity and rigor, is rising.

Teaching rigorous content often feels like a hard pill to swallow. For students, complex texts are frustrating and often result in few learning gains because they simply cannot make sense of what they are reading. For teachers, slogging through lessons that students loathe without a clear way to make texts meaningful, engaging, and comprehensible is ultimately defeating.

Luckily, there are a few ways to overcome the challenges of complex text and help make rigorous content motivating for students.

1. Make reading social

Collaboration makes reading more enjoyable and incentivizes higher-quality work. In an analysis of over 55 different literacy program, Best Evidence researchers concluded that the most effective programs emphasized cooperative learning and relationships between students and educators. Social connections are a key motivator for adolescents and drive them to persevere through challenging assignments that they would otherwise abandon.

In addition to relationships, [successful] approaches give students opportunities to be active and social, and combine learning with fun. This may be particularly important for adolescents who have not been very successful in school. 

 - Effective Reading Programs for Secondary Students

Increasing the amount of discussion and collaboration is a worthwhile effort, particularly given that the amount of classroom time spent on whole-class discussion in middle and high school is measurable in seconds per day (Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, 2016). One way to make this happen is by adapting a digital reading platform that allows for in-line collaboration. Students can have discussions right inside the text using shared annotations, thereby increasing their enjoyment of the text while giving their teacher valuable insight into what they find interesting or confusing. Another means to make reading social is to borrow from the flipped classroom model: integrate lectures and individual work into students’ homework, thereby freeing up valuable class time for discussion and collaborative activities. The goal is to give students an opportunity to share ideas and feel like they are part of a scholarly community rather than having to struggle on their own.

2.  Provide support while students read

Rigorous text provides many challenges: unfamiliar vocabulary, references to people, places, and events that students are unaware of, and complex syntax and structure. If it’s been a while since you’ve struggled to read something, google “string theory” or read an excerpt from Thomas Picketty’s Capital. Chances are that without a strong background in physics or economic theory, you will quickly be lost in these texts and desperately want to put them down. Even with all the best comprehension strategies at your disposal, these texts will be a challenge for you, if not altogether inaccessible.

Students tackling rigorous content need support in order to make sense of what they read. They need to build up the necessary background knowledge, preview key vocabulary that might be unfamiliar to them, and have access to help when they need it. Whether you read aloud with students in the classroom or use a digital reading platform to read alongside students, it’s important for the teacher to act as a resource when students get stuck. This doesn’t mean you have to give away the text or over-scaffold; in some instances, asking an insightful question or suggesting a possible strategy might be enough to send students on the right path.

Being there with students as they read is critical because it unveils the actual process of creating meaning from the text. This is very different from the learning model where students read on their own and then create meaning in the classroom through shared activities. If you’re using discussion or lecture as a work-around to reading (meaning that you give away the key ideas without asking students to figure them out for themselves within the text), you aren’t really teaching them to read complex texts.

3. Draw connections between the material and students’ own lives

The farther students move from their academic comfort zones, the easier it is to ask the dreaded question, “Why are we learning this?” It’s a natural question; after all, why bother to learn something if it seems irrelevant?

We know this question is easier to answer for some topics than for others. If students are studying Newton’s laws of motion, for example, then going for a quick tour of the local playground can demonstrate how the theory works in a real-world setting (“How would the laws of motion help us explain why this swing functions as it does?”). With something more removed from students’ lives, such as a historic event or a work of literature, the connection can result from essential questions that transcend the specific topic. For instance, asking “Why do people decide to revolt?” can make the American Revolution seem less like an isolated event and more like a broad theme that merits investigation, particularly if students compare it to a more recent event such as the Arab Spring. To give a literary example, asking “How do we balance different aspects of our identity?” while reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would help students personally relate to the characters in the story.

Making content relevant does not necessarily imply that students should only study topics that are directly related to their daily lives, such as social media or food. With the right questions and prompts, even more esoteric content can begin to feel relevant.

4. Get students to think on their own

There is a tendency to reduce complex material to recall questions. Teachers ask far more basic comprehension questions (“what is this character saying here?”) and far too few higher-order thinking questions (“how does this perspective compare to the narrative we read last week?”). With  more challenging texts, students require more time to establish a basic understanding of the material, and this leaves less time for other (more engaging) cognitive activities like debate, analysis, evaluation, and application.

Unfortunately, when we take this approach, students walk away feeling like the material has little meaning to them. Though students do need to comprehend the material before they can move on to analysis or application of concepts, stopping learning before students have had an opportunity to develop and articulate their own ideas spoils the greater benefit of reading complex texts.

Getting beyond recall requires either improving the supports necessary to establish comprehension or spending more time on a given text. By building students’ content knowledge via text sets prior to tackling a complex reading, students will have fewer gaps to fill as they read. They will be better equipped to tackle the unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary of rigorous content if they’ve already been exposed to it through a sequenced curriculum.

Spending more time on a given text is another option: students will take away more from a deeper investigation in a topic than they will through a cursory overview that doesn’t get them to depth in their thinking. If a text is truly worthwhile (as many complex texts with rich ideas are), then they merit the time it takes to truly understand them and use their insights to further learning.

5. Provide choice

Few of us desire to pursue cognitively challenging tasks. Our brains are wired to prefer easy, automatic ways of thinking rather than complex problem-solving (Willingham 2009), and students’ brains are no different. It is rarely the choice of students to read something that is difficult for them.

That being said, choice is a powerful motivator, and there are ways to integrate it into the study of rigorous texts. While students may not have the choice of what texts they are reading, they can choose which character to assess for a presentation or which idea to critique in their editorial. Perhaps they can choose which side they prefer to take in a debate. There are countless ways to give students the opportunity to pursue what interests them in the text. Teachers can even use students’ annotations and answers to questions to drive instruction in a more student-centered way, implying to students that it is their thinking that is determining the course of the conversation rather than the teacher’s agenda.


Works Cited:

Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie (2016). Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don't students like school?: a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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